AP Style Guide: Calling Women Mistress Is ‘Sexist,’ Instead Use ‘Lover’ or ‘Companion’

circa 1955: An adulterous couple engaged in a passionate embrace. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)
Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images

The Associated Press Style Guide, considered by many in journalism as the standard for style guidance, recently announced the proper language to refer to a “woman in a long-term sexual relationship with, and financially supported by a man who is married to someone else” is not “mistress.”

“We now say not to use the archaic and sexist term ‘mistress’ for a woman in a long-term sexual relationship with, and financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else,” AP tweeted. “Instead, use an alternative like companion or lover on first reference. Provide details later.”

Although the AP did not explain why it made the decision to change it guide to use a positive description for people involved in adultery, the Poynter Institute school of journalism provided what it said an explanation for the change, which, in fact, condones those who are involved in an adulterous relationship.

Did Jeff Bezos have a lover, a girlfriend, an extramarital affair or a mistress? What about El Chapo? Both stories in recent months generated a renewed use of the term mistress as a shorthand for a married man’s girlfriend.This word is sexist. It lacks a male equivalent, and reduces women to their sexual relationship with men — and it’s increasingly creeping back into our language. I blame Twitter, which creates a premium on punchy words that can convey complicated ideas.In that sense, mistress is a convenient term. It implies sex, lies and secrecy and it rolls off the tongue. It works in this NBC News headline and more recently when AOL reported, “Jeff Bezos and rumored mistress Lauren Sanchez are still ‘deeply in love,’ but they’ve allegedly agreed to stay physically apart until both of their respective divorces are finalized.”Even the Associated Press has struggled with the Bezos story. The AP routinely referred to Sanchez as Bezos’ mistress in the first week of reporting on the story, Standards Editor John Daniszewski [said].

“In discussion with our Washington bureau on Feb. 12, we agreed that Bezos’s relationship with Sanchez did not fit with this definition and we switched to calling them romantically involved,” Daniszewski said. “The feeling among the editors is that the word ‘mistress’ is largely archaic and tends to be sexist in its assumptions.”

Precisely. Mistress carries both sexist and moral assumptions,” Poynter pontificated. “There is no true male equivalent.”

AP admitted it had broken its own rule twice, referring to Sanchez as a mistress.

That just goes to show how entrenched we are in reducing women to their sexual relationships with men,” Poynter wrote.

Poynter advised that the style guide should go even farther to stop using words that are “unnecessarily gendered,” including blonde, actress, heroine, hostess and waitress.

As for using mistress, Poynter sides with people who chose to be in a relationship with a married man — including a call to shame anyone who dares use the word.

It’s time to call out those who use the word in journalistic copy,” Poynter reported. “At the very least it’s inaccurate, most of the time, according to AP style. More importantly, it’s sexist and demeaning.”

And if the word creeps into someone’s reporting “call it out and ask that the word be swapped out for something neutral and less judgmental.”

Follow Penny Starr on Twitter


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.