A woman wants a mistress, too

If wives had someone else to look after the family, they would be free to take a lover, argues Glenda Cooper
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The Independent Online
Tomorrow, besides being 5 January, will mark another date: the day men start seeing their mistresses again. The Christmas break over, duty done, the mistress emerges from her solitude over the festive season and becomes a regular fixture.

I always thought the life of a mistress sounded great: a nice flat in St John's Wood, no dull domesticity, looking like a glorious vamp and - apart from spending Christmas Day alone - a life full of gaiety and excitement. Still, when I grew up I thought it might be more fun to have the mistress rather than be it. Except, of course, there's no real equivalent for a woman. Worse luck.

Can you think of a word describing a male mistress? No. Can you ever hear a woman adapting Sir James Goldsmith's famous phrase: "When a man marries his mistress he creates a vacancy"? Or following the example of Chelsea football club's deceased deputy chairman, Matthew Harding - having both wife and mistress at the funeral and amicably sharing the loot between them? No. Neither could I. Worse luck.

It's not that women are averse to extramarital activity themselves. Far from it, boys. In Sexual Arrangements - Marriage, Monogamy and Affairs, Janet Reibstein and Martin Richards assessed surveys into sexual habits from the post-war era and found that while men were still ahead, the number of women admitting affairs was increasing. The figures might vary from half of men compared to a third of women or 75 per cent of men to 50 per cent of women but the message was clear: the old double standard where boys did but nice girls didn't was gone. "Women were no longer saying they had to be in love to have affairs if they were having one-night stands which were 'just for fun'," says Dr Reibstein. "If they were more than that they still felt the sense of commitment."

What is a mistress? The classic situation is of a long-term arrangement rather than the quick fumble. Throughout history mistresses have seen their status ebb and flow - Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of the French king, Henri II, had more influence when he was alive than his wife Catherine de Medici. Charles II founded half the present-day aristocracy, ennobling his bastard offspring by a vast array of royal mistresses. His subject John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, went further, dying exhausted and penitent at the age of 30 and claiming he had "swived more whores more ways than Sodom's walls".

Women in comparison didn't get a look-in, because of their duty to produce legitimate heirs. When Anne Boleyn (allegedly) and Catherine Howard (almost certainly) fancied a bit of extramarital hanky-panky they got their heads cut off.

In Britain even throughout the repressed Victorian age the cult of the mistress developed so that as long as you didn't cause a scandal by getting divorced you were fine. Thus Edward VII could openly escort Mrs Keppel to Chatsworth and Sandringham, while Gladstone said that of the 11 prime ministers he had known, seven were adulterers. In comparison, literary figures (ie women) who took lovers invariably came to a sticky end - Anna Karenina threw herself under a train. Emma Bovary took poison.

In more recent times how we chuckled over loveable rogues such as Alan Clark, who it appears, philandered for England. And look at Steven Norris, the former transport minister, who got away with having five mistresses by being so charming about the women he had bedded.

To be fair, not every man gets away with having a mistress: as was the case a century ago you must have style or face derision. David Mellor emerged from his involvement with Antonia de Sancha bruised over allegations about toe-sucking and lovemaking in the strip of Chelsea football club. Rupert Pennant-Rea, who resigned his post as deputy governor of the Bank of England after an affair with a journalist, became the butt of jokes after his mistress informed us he had a habit of forgetting to take his bicycle clips off.

Yet for some women the status quo is an appealing one. "There's a situation I know where the man stays with the mistress from Monday to Friday and stays with his wife at the weekend," says Averil Leimon, clinical psychologist and director of Plus Consulting. "It's all quite open and it suits all of them."

So why if both sexes are willing to break their vows of fidelity do women end up being the mistresses? You've got it in one, girls: men like the cosy situation as it is. "A single friend of mine in her forties said there was no chance of having a relationship with anyone but a married man," says Leimon. "It's because men stay married however bad the situation is, because they don't know how to manage their emotions. Women, however, if they find a relationship unsatisfactory, if they have a chance they will just leave if it's not working. Men are less likely to do so."

Of course, another reason why women don't have mistresses is the fact that until very recently they haven't had the financial wherewithal to support a mistress. But even now the situation's unlikely.

"The implication if you're talking about mistresses is that there is a married and an unmarried person in the relationship," says Dr Reibstein. "This is a power relationship which most men will not accept as they will not put themselves in a position where they cannot call the shots.

"The thing is, even if you had the financial independence to set a man up in that position, would you trust him? I don't think I would."

The problem for most women is that they don't have the time. The woman still tends to be the main carer in the family, so lovers have to be fitted in around the routine. Add to that a full-time job, and it's impossible to see how women would get any chance at all to have a mistress.

"Even executive women who are flying around the world usually have a family, and so they have less time than men. Such women would be more likely to take a married lover who is not going to have much time to see them either, rather than a single man who is demanding to see them all the time," says Dr Reibstein.

It's simple, girls: in order to have a mistress, you need a wife to organise your day-to-day living, set up your schedule, look after your kids and make sure the clothes are ironed. It's the only way men get away with it. For, let's face it: the only woman to achieve male mistresses with any degree of success was Catherine the Great, whose lust for men was so great that while other monarchs had food tasters, she had sex- tasters; her ladies-in-waiting tried out potential lovers first. But then she was Empress of all the Russias. The average women can't really hope for her advantages. Worse luck.