Now that former Sen. John Ensign has taken a sort of early retirement, and French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn is in danger of being forced into retirement from the IMF, it is time that the media retire a few words and concepts of their own.
Let’s start with "mistress," an utter throwback of a word meant to describe a woman who is sleeping with a married man. There is no such dismissive word for the man; he just gets to be the married guy having an affair. "Mistress" connotes an image of some empty-headed lass, sitting on a velvet couch and eating bon-bons while she’s waiting for her man to call. The proper word here is "girlfriend," or perhaps "lover." Defining them as some sort of property of the man in question is offensive. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]
But "womanizer" is worse, since it turns an entire sex into a collective object to be used or victimized by men. Strauss-Kahn has been described in the media as a notorious "womanizer," a term that treats women almost as badly as the IMF chief allegedly has done. It also makes the man sound like the hapless victim of irresistible female charms. If Strauss-Kahn did was he has been accused of doing--sexually assaulting and attempting to rape a maid at a fancy New York hotel--he’s not a "womanizer." He’s a violent criminal, and needs to be punished for it. It’s actually the perpetrators who like to describe themselves in such roguish ways: convicted Washington state sex offender Donald "Theo" Holmes, who admitted having impregnated mothers and daughters in the same house, summed himself up this way: "I’m a womanizer." A state psychologist who examined him had a different view: "psychopathic sexual predator."
And many of us thought we were done with the offensive term "skirt-chaser," although an MSNBC guest described Strauss-Kahn that way. That’s only a few notches below the phrase "wine, women, and song"--an expression that puts half the population (and the sex which last year happened to be awarded more Ph.Ds than men) into the role of indulgence and distraction.
Ensign had an apparently consensual affair; his serious alleged transgression involves violating campaign laws and lying to the Federal Election Commission. Strauss-Kahn has been accused of a violent assault. Both episodes happen to involve women and sex. The media can do better than to define the women in such dismissive terms.