A Sin by Any Other Name
The Associated Press has announced that it will no longer use the word “mistress.” In a recent tweet from their “stylebook” account – widely seen as the gold standard for journalists around the world – they called the term “archaic” and even “sexist.” Acknowledging it refers to a woman in a “long-term sexual relationship with, and financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else.” Alternatives such as “life companion” or “lover” should instead be used.
I suppose the sexist charge is because there is not a similar term for the man in said relationship, but that’s not true. Try “womanizer.” And, of course, there are many gender-neutral words such as “philanderer,” “cheater” and “adulterer.” But using any of those words misses the real point, which is to avoid using a word that would suggest that what the woman is doing (not to mention the man) is in any way morally wrong.
In 1973, psychiatrist Karl Menninger published a book with the provocative title Whatever Became of Sin? His point was that sociology and psychology tend to avoid terms like “evil,” or “immorality,” or “wrongdoing.” Menninger detailed how the theological notion of sin became the legal idea of crime and then slid further from its true meaning when it was relegated to the psychological category of sickness. So lust becomes sensuality, anger becomes merely being honest with your emotions, and being a married man’s mistress becomes “life companion.”
It brings to mind one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. In Romeo and Juliet, the plot revolves around two star-crossed lovers from rival families: Juliet is a Capulet, and Romeo is a Montague. In contending for their relationship, Juliet argues that the names of things do not affect what they really are:
O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet
[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would – were he not Romeo called –
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
[Aloud] I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.
Juliet was right: calling a rose by any other name doesn’t make it smell any less sweet.
And calling a sin by any other name doesn’t make it any less of a sin.
James Emery White
@APStylebook Tweet at 10:40 a.m. on May 8, 2020 found online here.
Brian Flood, “Associated Press Mocked for Declaring Term ‘Mistress’ Is Archaic, Sexist,” Fox News, read online.
Tim Graham, “AP Says Ditch the ‘Mistress’,” MRC News Busters, May 15, 2020, read online.
Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin?
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 33-51, online here.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.