Who’s to be mistress?

On April 13, the Associated Press Stylebook’s Twitter account issued a reminder:

Don’t use the term mistress for a woman who is in a long-term sexual relationship with, and is financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else. Instead, use an alternative like companion, friend or lover on first reference and provide additional details later.

I call this a ‘reminder’ because the rule isn’t new: it was added to the stylebook last year. Nevertheless, the tweet got a reaction: people were variously puzzled, irritated and–in the case of the usual suspects–outraged by this latest manifestation of political correctness gone mad. ‘The word “mistress”’, declared the Daily Mail, ‘is CANCELED’.

Many responses queried the suggestion that ‘mistress’ could be replaced by ‘friend’ or ‘companion’: weren’t those euphemisms rather than synonyms, and as such potentially misleading? The AP conceded that these alternatives ‘fell short’, but insisted they were ‘better than having one word for a woman and none for the man, and implying that the woman was solely responsible for the affair’.

By this point I was confused myself. Is that really the problem with ‘mistress’? And if it is, can it be solved by simply substituting a different word? I couldn’t help feeling that the AP was missing the point—or at least, that it was only skimming the surface. So, in this post I want to take a closer look at a word with a complicated history.

Borrowed from French in the middle ages (the earliest example quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the early 14th century), ‘mistress’ was originally just the feminine form of ‘master’, and its core meaning was ‘a woman having authority or control’. ‘The mistress’ could be the female head of a household, or its the highest-ranking female member; she could also be a female boss, in charge of workers, apprentices or servants (it has the same sense in compounds like ‘schoolmistress’ and ‘postmistress’). The female respect titles ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, which are still in use today, are both abbreviated forms of ‘mistress’–and what they originally marked was not marital status, but simply status.  

But of course, word-meanings can change—and when the words refer to women, they have a tendency to change for the worse. Back in 1975, Muriel Schulz named this tendency ‘the semantic derogation of woman’, explaining that

again and again in the history of the [English] language, one finds that a perfectly innocent term designating a girl or women may begin with totally neutral or even positive connotations, but that gradually it acquires negative implications. 

Schulz drew attention to several male/female word-pairs, including ‘Lord/lady’, ‘governor/governess’ and ‘master/mistress’, where the two forms, originally parallel, had diverged in their meaning over time. In each case it was the masculine term which preserved its original association with authority and status, while the feminine term acquired a less exalted meaning. For instance, while ‘Lord’ still denotes a male aristocrat, ‘lady’ can now describe a woman of any social rank. ‘Governess’, originally a direct equivalent of ‘governor’ (in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I could be described as ‘the supreme Majesty and Governess of all persons’, meaning that as monarch she ruled over all her subjects), came to refer to a woman who earned her living teaching other people’s children. US states still have ‘governors’ (as do prisons in the UK), but where women have occupied those positions they have invariably adopted the masculine form rather than styling themselves the ‘governess’.

‘Mistress’ is a similar case, with the added problem that it exemplifies what Muriel Schulz considered the archetypal form of semantic derogation, where in addition to being downgraded in status, a word referring to women acquires a specifically sexual derogatory meaning. Often it ends up as yet another synonym for ‘prostitute’. ‘Mistress’ has stopped short of that final destination, but it’s certainly in the same ballpark: Schulz glosses it as ‘the woman with whom a man habitually fornicates’, while the AP’s rule proscribing the word alludes to the idea of the mistress as a ‘kept woman’, financially supported by the man in the relationship.

To understand this history we need to consider the larger context in which words are used—which in this case means examining the economic, social and cultural conditions that have shaped relationships between men and women. If we have, as the AP suggests, ‘one word for the woman and none for the man’, that’s not a random accident; it has a logic which is rooted in past and present realities.

In fact, though, we do have words for the man. Leaving aside the informal and pejorative ones (like ‘cheat’ and ‘love rat’), the most obvious one is ‘lover’. I was taught at school (I know, weird) that if Mary Jones is John Smith’s mistress, then John Smith is Mary Jones’s lover. ‘Lover’ is also the traditional term for a man in an illicit relationship with a more powerful women, as in the Boney M song about Rasputin (‘rah rah Rasputin/lover of the Russian queen’). The pairing of ‘lover’ with ‘mistress’ has a literary pedigree, going back to the mediaeval courtly love tradition in which a knight dedicated his life to the service of the lady he loved, but who was forever out of reach because she was married, often to a higher-ranking man (e.g. Sir Lancelot loved Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur). This is where we get another sense of the word ‘mistress’, ‘a woman who is loved and courted by a man’. That usage remained common in literature for several centuries, but there’s a note in the OED explaining that by the late 19th century writers had started to avoid it. They feared readers would interpret the word as referring to the morally suspect ‘kept woman’ rather than the idealised love-object of the past.  

We also have at a word for a ‘kept man’: ‘gigolo’, defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘a man who is paid by a woman to be her lover and companion’. But a gigolo is different from a mistress, in ways that reflect some basic facts about patriarchal societies. To begin with, fewer women than men have the resources to pay someone for sex and companionship. Also, men are not encouraged to view economic dependence on women as desirable, or even acceptable, nor to treat their own sexuality as a marketable commodity. That’s why ‘gigolo’ is—I would say—a more pejorative term than ‘mistress’. Of course, nobody tells women in so many words that they should treat their sexuality as a commodity, but historically that has often been their best or their only route to economic security. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when women’s earning opportunities were limited and their rights almost nonexistent, feminists often drew parallels between marriage and prostitution, pointing out that both were exchange-relationships–sex for money, or for upkeep—which women entered into by necessity. The mistress as a ‘kept woman’ also had a place in this structure. The gigolo does not: like his female employer he is an anomaly.

Would calling a man a gigolo imply, as the AP thinks ‘mistress’ implies, that he was ‘solely responsible for the affair’? My feeling is that it wouldn’t, and indeed that we wouldn’t describe this relationship as an ‘affair’. ‘Affair’ tends to imply mutual desire (even if there’s also a financial element), but the gigolo is understood to be in it for the money, not the sex—if his employer were desirable she wouldn’t need to pay. The gigolo isn’t like Whitney Houston’s character in ‘Saving All My Love’, lamenting that she can only share ‘a few stolen moments’ with her lover because his family comes first; nor is he Dolly Parton’s Jolene, the flame-haired temptress and homewrecker. He’s a paid employee, a sort of cross between an escort and a personal assistant.

There’s no way of knowing if the women in the songs are mistresses in the ‘kept woman’ sense, or just single women in relationships with married men. Do ‘kept women’ even exist any more? The economic element doesn’t seem to be central to the current meaning of ‘mistress’ for most English-speakers, who seem happy to use the word for women who have well-paid jobs and/or husbands to support them (Camilla Parker-Bowles, for instance, was referred to as Prince Charles’s mistress during the period when both of them were married to other people). I remember, back in the 1980s, being told about a senior academic who had allegedly asked a woman he met at a conference to become his mistress, presenting her with a draft contract in which he undertook to pay all her expenses if she gave up her job and devoted herself to his needs. We found this both shocking and hilarious: what professional woman in the late 20th century would be remotely interested in such a proposal? (Today I’d have another question: what man would feel obliged to make it?)

But if the ‘kept woman’ is disappearing—if women no longer need or want to be her and men no longer feel an obligation to compensate her—why do we go on using the term ‘mistress’ for women in sexual relationships with married men? Without the element of financial dependence there’s surely nothing distinctive about these relationships: anyone–man, woman, straight or queer–can get involved with someone who is cheating on their spouse. So, why not abandon ‘mistress’—which is sex-specific, presumptively heterosexual and, in its ‘kept woman’ sense, increasingly archaic—and adopt a single label that covers all the possibilities? If we don’t like ‘friend’ or ‘companion’, we could go with the AP’s other suggestion, ‘lover’. We use it for men, so why not for women too?  

But the responses to the AP’s tweet suggested that some people do think a mistress is different from a lover. And this does seem to be connected with the question of responsibility, though I don’t see the connection in exactly the same way as the AP. To my mind, the issue isn’t that we have ‘one word for the woman and none for the man’—that she gets blamed because (only) she is named. Arguably it has more to do with the historical baggage ‘mistress’ carries, a lot of which is about female power. The mistress may no longer be a powerful woman in the original (social and economic) sense, but what she does still have, in our collective imagination, is sexual power: she uses her lover’s desire for her to gain authority and control over him.  

That view of the mistress was visible in some comments both on the AP tweet and the Daily Mail article. They tended to come from women whose husbands had had affairs, and who wanted to push back against the idea that it’s unfair to women to use a word that ‘implies the woman is responsible for the affair’. Their point was that wives are women too, and it isn’t unfair to hold mistresses responsible for behaving in ways that harm other women. Some conceded that the mistress wasn’t solely responsible—‘I know it takes two’—but they clearly blamed her more than they blamed their cheating husbands.

One reason for that may be simply that it’s easier and less painful to blame the one we don’t love. But also in the mix is the idea that when it comes to sex men are weak and gullible creatures: they can’t help themselves, whereas a woman in a relationship with a married man ‘knows exactly what she’s doing’ and could choose, if she had any decency, not to do it. In essence this is the ‘Jolene’ story, where the salient power differential is not between men and women, but between the wife and the woman who threatens to ‘take her man’ (an interesting phrase, since it reverses the usual pattern by making a woman the agent and a man the object).

The connotations ‘mistress’ has acquired over centuries of use make it particularly well-placed to serve this woman-blaming/man-excusing purpose. Yet it is clearly possible to express the same ideas in other words. As an illustration, consider a recent Spectator article in which Douglas Murray aired his concerns about the power wielded by Carrie Symonds, the partner of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Murray doesn’t call Symonds a ‘mistress’: though their relationship began while Johnson was married, it would be a strange term to use now she is living with him and their child in Downing Street. Instead he refers to her as Johnson’s ‘girlfriend’ or his ‘companion’. The AP Stylebook would presumably approve–except that what follows is exactly the kind of woman-blaming the ban on ‘mistress’ was meant to counter.

Murray points out that in Britain by convention we don’t assign a political role to the ‘first lady’ (or gentleman): we think the only people who govern us should be the ones we actually elected. But as he sees it Carrie Symonds is not abiding by that convention: she is using her position to gain undeserved political influence. He also suggests that many of Johnson’s problems since 2019 have arisen because of the ‘sway—even terror—his younger companion seems to exert over him’. She is said to be responsible for a number of misjudgments: for instance, she ‘persuaded the PM to stop a badger cull’, and ‘made him stop a COBRA meeting at the height of the Covid crisis’.

Here, once again, we have the female agent/male object pattern, presenting Symonds as the powerful one and Johnson as her puppet. Yet even if he did cancel an important meeting to placate her, that was still his decision, his action, his responsibility. He’s the Prime Minister, FFS: ‘she made me do it’ is the excuse of a four-year old. Granted, it’s not Johnson himself who’s making that excuse, but Murray isn’t the only person making it on his behalf. Dominic Cummings recently claimed that Johnson tried to prevent an inquiry he feared would cause ‘trouble with Carrie’; and more or less everyone blames her for the current ‘cash for cushions’ scandal. (And no, I’m not suggesting Johnson cares about cushions—just that he’s the one who ultimately decides what will or won’t be purchased for his official residence.)

Times may change and words may change, but what doesn’t change is the story of the ambitious, manipulative woman and the man whose desire for her makes him putty in her hands. You can give her whatever name you want: terminology, in this case, is a symptom of a deeper problem. Though I’d be happy to see the back of ‘mistress’, we shouldn’t imagine that cancelling the word will stop people blaming women, or making excuses for men.

A woman’s (shit)work is never done

In Láadan, the fictional women’s language created by the feminist sci-fi writer Suzette Haden Elgin, there is a word, ‘radiidin’, which means ‘a non-holiday: a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much of a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion’. In the season that most likely inspired this term, the thoughts of feminists will inevitably turn to all the invisible labour performed by women: the endless shopping and cooking and cleaning, the planning and managing that’s been described as ‘the mental load’, and the emotional labour of spreading seasonal good cheer.

Of course, invisible female labour is not just for Christmas. It’s a source of perpetually simmering discontent which comes to the boil at regular intervals. In 2015 a Guardian article predicted that it would be the next Big Feminist Issue; this year a similar suggestion has come from Gemma Hartley, author of a book entitled Fed Up: Women, Emotional Labor and the Way Forward. A condensed version of her argument, published as an article in Harper’s Bazaar (‘Women aren’t nags—we’re just fed up’) was shared an astonishing two billion times.

Clearly this is not a ‘problem with no name’. Different aspects of it have been given different names–‘unpaid care work’, ‘wife-work’, ’emotional labour’, ‘the mental load’, ‘the second shift’. And though these terms are not interchangeable, the kinds of activity they name are all cases, to quote the sociologist Pamela Fishman, where

The work is not seen as what women do, but as part of what they are.

This observation points to a subtle difference in our ideas about ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’. Though it is often assumed that ‘men’s work’ harnesses qualities associated with the male of the species—like aggression, toughness or a willingness to take risks—it is rarely suggested that a man who works on an oil rig or trades on the stock exchange is doing nothing more than being a man, using skills he didn’t have to learn to carry out tasks that any other man could do just as well. With ‘women’s work’, by contrast, whether it’s done in the home or in ‘pink collar’ jobs like nursing, teaching and secretarial work, the assumption has often been that women are just doing what comes naturally, using their maternal instincts or their innate ability to empathize to take care of other people’s needs. And since what’s ‘natural’ is assumed to be effortless, requiring no conscious thought or special skill, it is not seen as ‘real’ work–or in some cases, seen at all.

The sentence I’ve just quoted from Pamela Fishman appears in an article which identified a specifically linguistic form of invisible female labour. Fishman called this ‘interactional shitwork’ (though the most readily available version of her article appeared under the more decorous title ‘Interaction: the work women do’). The article is a fascinating historical document: brief and unapologetically angry, it’s written in a style that owes at least as much to the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement as to the academy (though it has frequently been cited, and sometimes anthologized, in more conventional academic sources). And it wasn’t only of interest to academics: when Fishman presented an early version at a conference in 1977, it was reported in the New York Times under the headline ‘Woman Speaks Up: Men Control Conversation’.

Fishman’s analysis was based on 52 hours of conversation recorded by three heterosexual couples in their homes. She did find that ‘men control conversation’, but she also found that to do it they depended on women’s support. Whereas men’s attempts to initiate talk were taken up enthusiastically by women, women’s own efforts were more likely to receive either very minimal acknowledgment (for instance, an unenthusiastic ‘yeah’ or ‘mm’ followed by the man changing the subject) or none at all. In fact, women received so little encouragement to talk, they often resorted to the attention-getting techniques young children use, like saying ‘d’you know what?’ (a formula which demands an answer like ‘what?’, or ‘no, tell me’, thus allowing the first speaker to respond to the ‘question’ she has essentially forced the second speaker to ask).

By way of illustration, here’s an extract from one of Fishman’s transcripts: the man (M) and the woman (F) are both graduate students (as was Fishman herself when she did this research), and the exchange takes place in their apartment while she is studying and he is making a salad.

fishman

The woman wants to share something she’s reading, and to get her partner’s attention she asks a question prefaced with ‘you know’. He doesn’t seem very interested: he allows two seconds to pass (more than one second is a noticeable silence in casual conversation) before he produces a (hesitant) answer signalling that what she’s just said is new information. Encouraged, she continues with the next chunk of discourse. This time he allows five seconds to pass before making a substantive point. Once again, she responds straight away (that’s what the = sign means), agreeing with his point and adding a related one. But then his attention shifts elsewhere: it turns out he’s looking for oil to make salad dressing. She responds immediately to his observation that they’ve run out with the information that there’s another bottle. His next utterance comments on the salad dressing, and invites her to agree that it looks good. This time she doesn’t answer immediately, and he repeats his last move (‘see, babe?’) until she acknowledges his point with ‘it does yeah’. She doesn’t try to resume the conversation about what she’s reading until more than a minute later.

Fishman claimed that what we see in this extract was a recurring pattern in her data. Men talk about what they want, when they want, and women do the work of supporting them. They pay continuous attention to their partners, respond promptly when a response is called for, and stop talking when it clearly isn’t. They provide on-topic answers to men’s questions and tokens of agreement when men express opinions. Men evidently expect this from women, but they don’t feel obliged to do it for women. When women talk men pay less attention, produce delayed and unenthusiastic responses, and change the subject if something else is more important to them.

This study has been criticized for generalizing from a tiny sample; a number of researchers who have tested its claims using other data have failed to replicate Fishman’s findings. But many of these ‘replications’ have used data which isn’t comparable to Fishman’s–for instance, recordings of non-intimate male/female pairs talking in a lab, or of colleagues talking in a professional setting. The researchers involved seem to have missed the point that the focus on couples wasn’t incidental: what Fishman set out to investigate was, by her own account, ‘the interactional activities which constitute the everyday work done by intimates’. She also explained why this was of interest to a feminist sociologist: because

It is through this work that people produce their relationship to one another, their relationship to the world, and those patterns normally referred to as social structure.

Fishman examined linguistic patterns in heterosexual couple-talk as a way of shedding light on the underlying power dynamics. There’s no reason to expect the same patterns to appear, or the same dynamics to be in play, in every other situation where women and men converse. The significance of gender, and indeed its relevance, may be different in different contexts and kinds of talk.

Many years ago, I co-authored an article about tag questions (interrogatives of the form ‘nice day today, isn’t it?’).  At the time tag questions were a big deal in language and gender research because, like uptalk today, they were widely believed to be used by women who were so unconfident about expressing their opinions they found it necessary to turn statements into questions. My co-authors and I didn’t believe that: we knew tag questions have a range of functions, and one of them is facilitating interaction. Adding a question tag to a statement is a way of inviting someone else to talk. Some researchers had suggested that the real reason women used more tag questions than men was because they did more facilitating. Our study showed, however, that what men and women do, and indeed what tag-questions do, will depend on various features of the context.

There are some kinds of talk where asking questions is the prerogative of the person who has institutional power (e.g. the teacher in a classroom or the lawyer in a courtroom). In these contexts asking questions–including tag-questions–is not a sign of insecurity: it’s an assertion of authority and a way of controlling the interaction. There are also contexts where facilitating interaction is a professional skill, associated with a high-status occupational role. Not only lawyers and teachers, but also (for instance) doctors, psychotherapists and media interviewers, must master the art of getting others to talk. Some of our data came from contexts of this kind, and in those cases it was the professionals who used more tag questions. Most of them were men, but that’s by the by: this pattern isn’t about gender, it’s about the speaker’s institutional role.

In complete contrast to these institutional encounters, the conversations Fishman analysed were personal exchanges in a domestic setting between people who knew each other intimately. In that context, the division of labour she observed (women doing the facilitating and men treating that as a form of service) raises the same questions feminists have asked about housework and the mental load. In a situation where there’s no institutional hierarchy, where the participants have equal status and have chosen to live together, why isn’t facilitating interaction a reciprocal obligation? Why do women do so much and men so little?

Fishman’s answer is that the participants in heterosexual couple-talk (a context where gender is highly salient) don’t really have equal status. They agree that the man’s interests come first.

Both men and women regarded topics introduced by women as tentative; many of these were quickly dropped. In contrast, topics introduced by the men were treated as topics to be pursued; they were seldom rejected.

They also agree that the woman is ultimately responsible for the success of the conversation–and for intuiting what that requires of her in any given situation.

Sometimes women are required to sit and “be a good listener” … At other times, women are required to fill silences and keep conversation moving, to talk a lot. Sometimes they are expected to develop others’ topics and at other times they are required to present and develop topics of their own.

At all times, however, women must avoid giving the impression that they are, or would like to be, in control.

Women who successfully control interactions are derided…terms like “castrating bitch,” “domineering,” “aggressive,” and “witch” may be used to identify them. When they attempt to control situations temporarily, women often “start” arguments.

The picture Fishman paints is bleak–and still depressingly recognizable more than 40 years on. Women are still expected to ‘sit and be a good listener’ (if you doubt it, have a look at this piece, based on the replies the writer got when she tweeted a request to get in touch ‘if you’ve ever been on a date with a man who asked you zero (0) questions about yourself’); and they still get identified as aggressive bitches if they aren’t sufficiently self-effacing (remember #ImmodestWomen?)

What makes the problem of invisible female labour such a tough nut to crack (no matter how many times or ways we name it) is that the obvious form of resistance–refusing to do it–has such negative consequences for women themselves. What hurts our loved ones hurts us too: few women want to get into conflicts with the people they care about, or to forego the tangible benefits their unseen efforts produce (like comfortable homes and meaningful conversations). In many situations it costs less to maintain the status quo than to challenge it. (Not all, though. We could surely put an end to the phenomenon of dates where men ask women no questions. Someone should design a card for women to hand to their date as they leave after 15 minutes.)

I’m aware that this post has been a bit short on festive spirit, but I hope your Christmas, if you celebrate it, will be less a radiidin than a season of peace and goodwill. Go easy on the shitwork, don’t let the bastards grind you down, and when it’s all over, look out for my round-up of the year in language and feminism.

On banter, bonding and Donald Trump

In my last post I argued that gossip–personal, judgmental talk about absent others–is not the peculiarly female vice our culture would have us believe. Both sexes gossip. But one common form of male gossip, namely sexualised talk about women, is made to look like something different, and more benign, by giving it another name: ‘banter’.

A week after I published that post, along came That Video of Donald Trump doing the very thing I was talking about–and trying to excuse it, predictably, by calling it ‘locker room banter’.

There are many things I don’t want to say on this subject, because they’ve already been said, sometimes very eloquently, in countless tweets and blog posts and columns. I don’t need to repeat that Trump is a misogynist (which we already knew before we heard the tape). I don’t need to upbraid the news media for their mealy-mouthed language (the Washington Post described the recording as containing ‘an extremely lewd conversation’, while the Guardian has referred to it as a ‘sex-boast tape’–as if the issue were the unseemliness of bragging or the vulgarity of using words like ‘tits’). But what I do have something to say about is banter itself: what it does and why it matters.

A lot of the commentary I’ve read about the tape does not, to my mind, get to the heart of what’s going on in it. So, that’s where I want to begin. Here’s a (quick and very basic) transcription of the start of the recorded conversation: Trump, the Hollywood Access host Billy Bush and a third, unidentified man are talking on a bus which is taking them to the set of a soap opera where Trump is making a guest appearance.

THIRD MAN: she used to be great. she’s still very beautiful

TRUMP: you know I moved on her actually you know she was down in Palm Beach and I moved on her and I failed I’ll admit it

THIRD MAN: woah

TRUMP: I did try to fuck her she was married

THIRD MAN: [laughing] that’s huge news there

TRUMP: and I moved on her very heavily in fact I took her out furniture shopping she wanted to get some furniture and I said I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture. I took her out furniture– I moved on her like a bitch [laughter from other men] but I couldn’t get there and she was married. then all of a sudden I see her and she’s now got the big phony tits and everything she’s totally changed her look

In this sequence Trump is not boasting about having sex: he’s telling a personal anecdote about an occasion when he didn’t manage to have sex (‘I failed I’ll admit it’). He then returns to what seems to be the original topic, how to assess the woman’s physical attractiveness. The first speaker’s turn suggests that this has diminished over time (‘she used to be great’), but whereas he thinks ‘she’s still very beautiful’, Trump’s reference to her ‘big phony tits’ implies that he no longer finds her as desirable.

What’s going on here is gossip. Like the young men’s gossip I discussed in my earlier post, this is judgmental talk about an absent other which serves to reinforce group norms (in this case, for male heterosexual behaviour and for female attractiveness). It’s also male bonding talk: by sharing intimate information about himself–and especially by admitting to a failed attempt at seduction–Trump positions the other men as trusted confidants.

It’s not clear whether the discussion of the woman’s appearance has reached its natural end, but at this point, as the bus nears its destination, Billy Bush intervenes to point out the soap actress Trump is scheduled to meet, and she becomes the next topic.

BUSH: sheesh your girl’s hot as shit. In the purple

THIRD MAN & BUSH: woah! yes! woah!

BUSH: yes the Donald has scored. Woah my man!

TRUMP: look at you. You are a pussy.

[indecipherable simultaneous talk as they get ready to exit the bus]

TRUMP: I better use some tic-tacs in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful–I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet just kiss I don’t even wait [laughter from other men] and when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything

BUSH: whatever you want

TRUMP: grab them by the pussy [laughter]  do anything.

Trump’s contribution to this extract looks more like the ‘sex boast’ of the news headlines. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that this too is an enactment of male bonding. Trump, the alpha male of the group, takes centre stage, but the other men support him throughout with affiliative responses–saying ‘woah’ and ‘yes’, echoing his sentiments (‘Trump: you can do anything’/ ‘Bush: whatever you want’), and above all, greeting his most overtly offensive remarks with laughter. They laugh when he says he doesn’t wait for permission to kiss a woman; they laugh again when he mentions ‘grab[bing] [women] by the pussy’. (You can listen for yourself, but my assessment of this laughter is that it’s appreciative rather than embarrassed, awkward or forced.)

The transgressiveness of sexual banter–its tendency to report markedly offensive acts or desires in deliberately offensive (or in the media’s terms, ‘lewd’) language, is not just accidental, a case of men allowing the mask to slip when they think they’re alone. It’s deliberate, and it’s part of the bonding process. Like the sharing of secrets, the sharing of transgressive desires, acts and words is a token of intimacy and trust. It says, ‘I am showing that I trust you by saying things, and using words, that I wouldn’t want the whole world to hear’. It’s also an invitation to the hearer to reciprocate by offering some kind of affiliative response, whether a token of approval like appreciative laughter, or a matching transgressive comment. (‘I trust you, now show that you trust me’.)

When a private transgressive conversation becomes public, and the speaker who said something misogynist (or racist or homophobic) is publicly named and shamed, he often protests, as Trump did, that it was ‘just banter’, that he is not ‘really’ a bigot, and that his comments have been ‘taken out of context’. And the rest of us marvel at the barefaced cheek of these claims. How, we wonder, can this person disavow his obvious prejudice by insisting that what he said wasn’t, ‘in context’, what he meant?

What I’ve just said about the role of transgressive speech in male bonding suggests an answer (though as I’ll explain in a minute, that’s not the same as an excuse). Public exposure does literally take this kind of conversation out of its original context (the metaphorical ‘locker room’, a private, all-male space). And when the talk is removed from that context, critics will focus on its referential content rather than its interpersonal function. They won’t appreciate (or care) that what’s primarily motivating the boasting, the misogyny, the offensive language and the laughter isn’t so much the speakers’ hatred of women as their investment in their fraternal relationship with each other. They’re like fishermen telling tall tales about their catches, or old soldiers exaggerating their exploits on the battlefield: their goal is to impress their male peers, and the women they insult are just a means to that end.

As I said before, though, that’s not meant to be an excuse: I’m not suggesting that banter isn’t ‘really’ sexist or damaging to women. On the contrary, I’m trying to suggest that it’s more damaging than most critical discussions acknowledge. Banter is not just what commentators on the Trump tape have mostly treated it as–a window into the mind of an individual sexist or misogynist. It’s a ritualised social practice which contributes to the maintenance of structural sexual inequality. This effect does not depend on what the individuals involved ‘really think’ about women. (I have examples of both sexist and homophobic banter where I’m certain that what some speakers say is not what they really think, because they’re gay and everyone involved knows that.) It’s more a case of ‘all that’s needed for evil to flourish is for good men to go along with it for the lolz’.

You might think that in Trump’s case a lot of men have chosen to do the decent thing. Since the tape became public, male politicians have been lining up to condemn it. A formula quickly emerged: after Jeb Bush tweeted that, as a grandfather to girls, he could not condone such degrading talk about women, there followed a steady stream of similar comments from other men proclaiming their respect for their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers.

But to me this rings hollow. Some of it is obvious political score-settling, and far too much of it is tainted by what some theorists call ‘benevolent sexism’ (no, Paul Ryan, women should not be ‘revered’, they should be respected as equal and autonomous human beings; and no, they aren’t just deserving of respect because they’re ‘your’ women). But in addition, I’d bet good money that all the men uttering these pious sentiments have at some point participated in similar conversations themselves. When Trump protested that Bill Clinton had said worse things to him on the golf course, I found that entirely plausible (though also irrelevant: Trump can’t seem to grasp that Bill’s behaviour reflects on Bill rather than Hillary). Whatever their actual attitudes to women, as members of the US political elite these men have had to be assiduous in forging fraternal bonds with other powerful men. And wherever there are fraternal bonds there will also be banter.

Feminists generally refer to the social system in which men dominate women as ‘patriarchy’, the rule of the fathers, but some theorists have suggested that in its modern (post-feudal) forms it might more aptly be called ‘fratriarchy’, the rule of the brothers, or in Carole Pateman’s term, ‘fraternal patriarchy’. Banter is fraternal patriarchy’s verbal glue. It strengthens the bonds of solidarity among male peers by excluding, Othering and dehumanising women; and in doing those things it also facilitates sexual violence.

Male peer networks based on fraternal solidarity are a common and effective mechanism for informally excluding women, or consigning them to second-class ‘interloper’ status, in professions and institutions which no longer bar them formally. Whether it’s city bankers socialising with clients in strip clubs, or construction workers adorning the site office with pictures of topless models, men use expressions of heterosexual masculinity–verbal as well as non-verbal, the two generally go together–to claim common ground with one another, while differentiating themselves from women. Sometimes they engage in sexual talk to embarrass and humiliate women who are present; sometimes they spread damaging rumours behind women’s backs. These tactics prevent women from participating on equal terms.

I said earlier that when Trump and his companions on the bus talked about women, the women were not the real point: they were like the fish in a fishing story or the faceless enemy in a war story. But that wasn’t meant to be a consoling thought (‘don’t worry, women, it’s nothing personal, they’re just bonding with each other by talking trash about you’). When you talk about people it should be personal–it should involve the recognition of the other as a human being with human feelings like your own. Heterosexual banter is one of the practices that teach men to withhold that recognition from women, treating them as objects rather than persons.

When you objectify and dehumanise a class of people, it becomes easier to mistreat them without guilt. And when you are part of a tight-knit peer group, it becomes more difficult to resist the collective will. According to the anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday, rape culture arises where both these conditions are fulfilled–where men have strong fraternal loyalties to each other, and at the same time dehumanise women. In her classic study of fraternity gang-rape, Sanday argues that what motivates fraternity brothers or college athletes to commit rape in groups is the desire of the men involved both to prove their manhood and to feel close to one another. These are typically men whose conception of masculinity will not permit them to express their feelings for other men in any way that might raise the spectre of homosexuality, which they equate with effeminacy and unmanliness. Instead they bond through violence against someone who represents the despised feminine Other.

Heterosexual banter is a regular feature of life in many fraternities, and Sanday identifies it (along with homophobia, heavy use of pornography and alcohol) as a factor producing ‘rape-prone’ campus cultures. One man who was interviewed for her study recalled the way it worked in his fraternity, and how it made him feel:

By including me in this perpetual, hysterical banter and sharing laughter with me, they [the fraternity brothers] showed their affection for me. I felt happy, confident, and loved. This really helped my feelings of loneliness and my fear of being sexually unappealing. We managed to give ourselves a satisfying substitute for sexual relations. We acted out all of the sexual tensions between us as brothers on a verbal level. Women, women everywhere, feminists, homosexuality, etc., all provided the material for the jokes.

Of course there’s a difference between ‘acting out on a verbal level’ and committing gang rape. It’s not inevitable that one will lead to the other. But Sanday suggests that one can help to make the other more acceptable, or less unthinkable. What the man quoted above says about the social and psychological rewards of fraternal bonding also helps to explain why men may be prevailed on to join in with a group assault, even if they wouldn’t have initiated it alone; and why they don’t intervene to stop it.

Whenever I talk or write about male sexual banter, I always hear from some men who tell me they’re deeply uncomfortable with it. I believe them. But my response is, ‘it’s not me you need to tell’. They risk nothing by expressing their discomfort to me. What would be risky, and potentially costly, would be for them to put their principles above their fraternal loyalties, stop engaging in banter and challenge their peers to do the same.

Similarly, it’s pretty easy–assuming your politics lean left of fascism–to criticise the behaviour of Donald Trump. But as necessary as that may be in current circumstances, on its own it is not sufficient. We need to acknowledge that the kind of banter Trump has been condemned for is more than just an individual vice: it is a social practice supporting a form of fraternity that stands in the way of women’s liberty and equality.

Things not to say

Since time immemorial, experts have taken it upon themselves to instruct women in the art of conversing with men. Here’s an example from Emily Post’s The Blue Book of Social Usage, one of the most popular etiquette manuals of the early 20th century:

Another helpful thing, if you are a woman talking to a man, is to ask advice. ‘We want to motor through the south. Do you know about the roads?’ Or, ‘I’m thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?’ In fact, it is sage to ask his opinion on almost anything.

In the 1920s, apparently, you broke the ice at parties by asking the nearest man to mansplain something. At home with your own husband, though, you could just sit back and listen. According to a mid-century ‘guide for brides’, ‘once or twice in an evening is quite sufficient for a wife to introduce a topic of her own’. (This is the kind of literature being parodied in Harry Enfield’s sketch ‘Women, Know Your Limits!’*)

When British Cosmopolitan celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1992, it poked fun at this ancient wisdom.

It used to be so simple. Men paid, drove and made the first move. Women dressed up, pretended they liked the restaurant, got the bubbles up their nose and said ‘Really…how interesting’ a lot. …Dinner was never spoilt by women saying, as you hit the foyer, ‘well damn me, but that was the worst bit of cinematography I’ve seen in a long time’. Women didn’t say that. Women said, ‘What did you think of the film?’

The theme of the piece was how much things had changed during the two decades of Cosmopolitan’s existence. Women in the 1990s were no longer expected to keep their opinions to themselves. But a new wave of advice was already gathering momentum. 1992 was the year when John Gray published Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus—a book about communication for heterosexual couples that would remain on the bestseller list for most of the next ten years.

Men are from Mars has been described as ‘new age psychobabble’. But underneath the new age veneer, the advice is surprisingly old-school. Here’s a top tip on how to ask your male partner to do things around the house without coming across as a nag:

You want him to make dinner, but you never ask. You sense he resists cooking. What to say: “Would you help me cut the potatoes?” or “Would you make dinner tonight?” If he says no, then graciously and simply say “OK”.

Ask politely, and be ‘gracious’ if he refuses. It’s not a million miles from the 1950s guide for brides.

But in today’s fast-paced, hi-tech world, people no longer have time to wade through pages of anecdotes and cod-psychology in search of nuggets of practical wisdom. And so a new advice-giving format has been invented, which condenses what you need to know into a series of short, numbered bullet points. I refer, of course, to the listicle—and specifically to a subgenre of listicles headed ‘things not to say to Xs’.

‘Things not to say’ lists are like etiquette manuals for the Buzzfeed generation. They’re all over the internet: if you put the sequence ‘things not to say to’ into Google you’ll find office humour versions (’7 things not to say to a graphic designer’), support group versions (‘5 things not to say to a person suffering from chronic pain’), identity politics versions (‘12 things not to say to lesbian and gay couples/trans people)—and, inevitably, dealing-with-the-opposite-sex versions.

The dating site eHarmony.com offers a list of ‘Ten things women should never say to their men’. Item one is the expression ‘man up’: ‘this emasculating phrase is never ever appropriate’. At number six we have ‘are you really that stupid?’ ‘Be careful’, the text warns, ‘not to use language that emasculates and belittles your guy. Treat him with respect, even when you’re angry and disappointed’. Number seven is ‘I’ll do it myself’ (‘don’t dismiss offers of help from your man’), while number eight, on the face of it rather inconsistently, is ‘I can’t live without you’. The text explains: ‘use desperate language with caution, and stay clear of phrases that sound clingy… Let him take the lead when it comes to commitment and promises of a future together’.

We might wonder how many women actually do say these things to their boyfriends, but that’s not really the point. The list of ‘things not to say’ is only a device, a pretext for talking more generally about the way men and women are and the attitudes they should adopt towards one another. According to eHarmony, the correct attitude for a woman to adopt is deferential. She should ‘treat him with respect’ and ‘let him take the lead’. She should not make emotional demands by being too ‘clingy’, nor threaten his self-esteem by subjecting him to ‘emasculating’ criticism.

The word ‘emasculating’ makes clear that what’s being recommended here is not just ordinary good manners. ‘Are you really that stupid?’ is undoubtedly a rude and hurtful thing to say, but that would be no less true if a man said it to a woman, or if either of them said it to another person of their own sex. In those contexts, though, it would not be described as ‘emasculating’. What’s emasculating isn’t being told you’re stupid in and of itself, but being told that you’re stupid by a woman, a member of the sex that is supposed to look up to men rather than down on them. To big them up, not belittle them. Like Emily Post, eHarmony is saying that when women talk to men, their job is to make men feel important.

Ours being an age of equal opportunities, there are also lists of things for men not to say to women. They make an instructive contrast with eHarmony’s list. For instance, one item on a list of ‘the top ten things you should never say to a woman’ is ‘anything that hints at a future’.

She might say she loves Thai food, so you say, “Wow, so do I. We should go get Thai food sometime.” Stop, stop, stop, stop! While this sounds good in theory, you must remember that women not only want but need a man who is somewhat of a “challenge.” If partway through the first date you are talking about hanging out again and again and again, she knows that you are really into her, which means the game is over and she has won.

So much for ‘letting him take the lead when it comes to commitment and a future together’.

The view that men should strive to keep the upper hand is a recurring theme in this top ten. Readers are warned, for instance, that they should never say to a woman, ‘can I take you out on a date sometime?’ This is far too tentative: ‘women want to be with a man who is a leader and in control’. The right thing to do is presuppose her interest and say something ‘confident’ like ‘we should hang out. What’s your number?’

But the absolute top no-no is asking a woman ‘can I kiss you?’

Asking for a kiss goes against everything a woman is looking for in a man. You may as well just tell her right there that you are a boy. Her answer might be “yes” if she’s being polite, but her attraction meter on the inside will read a firm, “no!”

Consent isn’t sexy: requesting permission before engaging in intimate acts makes a man look like a wimp, which is the opposite of what women find attractive. It’s an argument straight from the PUA playbook.

I’m not suggesting that people (or at least, most people) live their lives and conduct their relationships according to lists of rules they find on websites. Historians and social scientists don’t study advice literature to find out about people’s actual behaviour. What it gives us is an insight into the beliefs, assumptions, social norms and social anxieties which preoccupied people (or which people were told they ought to be preoccupied with) in a given time and place. Studying it over time is one way of tracking changes in social norms. For instance, the proliferation of lists of ‘things not to say’ to various minority groups is an indicator of our current preoccupation with issues of ethnic and sexual/gender identity, which did not feature prominently in advice texts even 20 years ago, let alone 100.

But in the case of advice on how to talk to the opposite sex, what we learn from ‘things not to say’ lists is that our norms haven’t changed as much as we might think. Our technology would be unrecognizable to Emily Post; our ideas about men, women and language would not.

*Thanks to Melonie Fullick for reminding me of this comic gem.