The French Politician’s Prerogative
If democracy is a level playing field, then the belief that you deserve more than one partner is undemocratic, a throwback to less democratic times and places. I’m not referring here to promiscuousness amongst the single, or indeed consensual promiscuousness between the paired. These alternatives to monogamy come with their own problems of course - as does monogamy - but you can’t call them undemocratic. Unwise perhaps, but not unfair.
Similarly I’m not talking about falling out of love with one partner and into love with another. At a stretch, I’m not even talking about those who strive to be loyal to one partner but just can’t keep their trousers on when alternatives arise. For all the hurt, at least these transgressions allow for regret: “I’m so sorry it didn’t work out” in the former, and the snivelling “please take me back and I promise it will never happen again” in the latter.
No, what I’m talking about is when one partner thinks that they have the right to more than one partner, without extending reciprocal rights to their partner. Such arrogance is not exclusively French, nor the preserve of politicians, but if we refer to it as the French Politician’s Prerogative I think we capture the spirit of this mind-set, and cultural fossil.
Although this is not an exclusively male form of selfishness, tolerance of such behaviour is strictly for the boys. While some women, particularly powerful women, might exercise the same dubious ‘right’, social acceptance is reserved for men. There is no male equivalent to the ‘mistress’ to refer to the kept man, presumably because the role is too rare and too perverse to merit a name. The ‘inevitable appetite’ of men would be ‘sluttishness’ in women. In polite society male infidelity is only to be expected, female infidelity is whorish effrontery.
The belief that you deserve more than one faithful partner necessarily implies a sense of superiority. Even those who try to excuse their behaviour as ‘natural’, a product of evolution, must be doing-so from the perspective of being a winner in this great game of life. Given a 50/50 sex ratio it is not arithmetically possible for all men to have multiple faithful partners. Presumably some lesser men must make do with one, and others with none at all. The grounds for such feelings of superiority and entitlement are varied but obvious. It might be sexual prowess, good looks, charisma, fame, social status, class status, artistic ability, academic ability, political power, or just money. Whichever, the bearer is led to the belief that he has so much to offer it would be unfair not to spread it around a bit. The naked ape morphs himself into ‘the big man’, the emperor, the alpha-male lion slouching across the savannah, calmly selecting targets amongst the females; the sheikh reclining in his Bedouin tent, too grand to be contained or satisfied by just one woman.
Obviously these self-perceptions may have little to do with the actual reason an ‘additional’ woman shows interest. Neither François Hollande or Silvio Berlusconi have much of the top predator about them. Alan Clark’s appearance was more sultana than Sultan. As in any human relationship, the things people are fancied-for can differ widely from the things they might fancy about themselves. He might tell himself it’s his intellect when in fact it’s just his hairy chest - or vice versa. Such mismatches of perception can be innocent, even endearing. After all, body and mind are both intrinsic features of a person - who is to decide which is the more worthy basis of attraction? Things become more dubious however when what attracts is something removed from the mind or body of the person. Rather than his square jaw and political acumen, the real attraction may be access to certain social circles, or job opportunities, or immigration papers, or simply money.
Money is obviously a big player and the one that detractors will be keen to seize upon, but it would be untrue and unfair to suggest that it is always the case. It’s understandable and forgivable when the betrayed wife describes the other woman as a prostitute, but it can be quite the other way round. A truly besotted mistress is surely less of a prostitute than a wife who secretly despises her husband but stays with him for his wealth. At core, prostitution is selling your body, enduring sex for material benefits. The legal status of wife/mistress can be of no consequence. Sex between two people who burn with physical desire for each other is not prostitution at all, whatever the financial backdrop. Equally clearly, sex paid for cash-in-hand and performed with gritted teeth definitely is prostitution. Between these two extremes there are a wide range of alternative reasons people join each other in bed. Some are completely untarnished by economics. Others are tainted to some degree - spectrum whoretism, we might call it.
It seems uncontroversial to assume that many high-society ‘affairs’ reside somewhere on this spectrum. The very concept of the ‘kept woman’ implies an economic imbalance. It requires a certain level of income to ‘install’ a mistress in a little apartment off Rue Cliché in the 6th arrondissement. The telling counterfactual would be whether the sex would still be taking place without the material benefits. It may be pure co-incidence of course, but the incidence of wizened men seducing teenage beauties does appear to rise and fall in tandem with the gentleman’s income.
We should note however that desirability is not the only economic factor at work in perpetuating mistress culture. Just as prostitution commodifies a woman’s body, women can also be viewed as negative assets - liabilities. This view will be familiar to readers of Jane Austen. Women are born into these fictions as millstones. However smart, beautiful or compassionate they might be, at core they remain a problem, an issue that needs to be resolved. Fathers pace hallways, mothers sit and wring their hands - what to do with this creature when it blossoms? Crippling dowries are raised in the hope of bribing potential suitors into relieving them of this burden.
If prostitution transforms a woman’s body into saleable furniture, a dowry is more like a fee for house clearance. Honestly, you can’t give this stuff away. And of course the daughters play along with it all, frittering their youth away wittering about husbands, dresses, grand balls, eligible soldiers and the horrors of spinsterhood. It’s quite a bind. Daughters are infantilised to the extent that they can never become economically independent, and then resented as an economic liability. This remains a fair description of the status and treatment of women in some parts of the world today. But even in supposedly liberal and enlightened societies something similar is still lurking in the background. A rich man can still picture himself as the saviour of a poor woman, shouldering the economic burden of womanhood. These are the ‘saved’ women of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Pretty Woman. As a mark of their philanthropic largesse, some of these big-hearted fellows save several women at the same time.
Some will shrug and dismiss all this as ‘natural’ - the male inclination to pay for sex is as old as human history. But note that male inclination is only half of the deal. How many 'kept' women would be prepared to accept that role if their income already matched that of their lord and master? The supply of street prostitutes, porn workers, and fragrant mistresses to atrophying politicians and business tycoons is only as large as the gap in income between men and women. While some men might well be inclined to pay for sex, a more democratic society would be one where the economic position of women was such that fewer women would feel inclined or compelled to meet market demand.
Asset or liability, the commodification of women necessarily positions men as the owners of women. Daughters are the property of fathers, wives the property of husbands. Consequently, much as he deserves a big house and scores of servants, a ‘big man’ deserves more female properties. He should be free to collect women as he might collect cars - a practical model for daily use and some hot ones to take for a spin at the weekend. This object-owner relationship underlines the other sense of superiority at play in mistress culture. As well as one man’s superiority over another, it also suggests gender superiority. Men own women because men are superior to women. Men have dominion over their wives and mistresses for much the same reason as the dairyman has dominion over his cattle. Men are the movers and shakers in this world. Women at best are support staff, nurses to the doctors - essential but auxiliary.
Unpleasant as it is, this is the base assumption that supports all the rest of the mistress nonsense. The glib claim that it is quite normal for French men to have mistresses has an unavoidable flipside: It is quite normal for French women to accept their role as subordinates. I’m sure this can’t be true across the board, but it is amply alluded-to in literature old and new, celebrated in fact. It's the worldview parodied by Nancy Mitford in her novels (at least I hope it is parody.) The ‘good wife’ accepts her husband’s infidelities, forgives his transgressions, whatever pain and discord they might cause. It would be improper, meddlesome, to question him over such trifles. Access to this high quality being comes at a price - the price is that you have to tolerate sharing him. He is the big man, the weight of the world on his shoulders, and his family must respect his needs. It would be cruel, against nature, to cage the lion, etc etc.
As is often the case with oppressive relationships the oppressed play their part in maintaining the injustice. Mitford again:
"'well then, perhaps you can tell us' said Madame Rocher 'how, in a country where there are no brothels, do the young men ever learn?'"
Whatever lessons young men might learn, we can see that the brothel worker's development is of no consequence. Women are a means rather than an end; a stone to be stepped-on, or over, by life's protagonist, on his ascent to adulthood.
For all the short-term thrills, it’s hard to see any real winners in this game. The covert philanderer lives in constant fear of being caught; his partner lives in ignorance and impending heartbreak. The brazen philanderer has all the home comfort of a partner stricken with perpetual mistrust, anxiety and worthlessness, or she simply hates him. And of course it’s not just adults that suffer. Indeed whenever ‘nature’ is invoked to justify such behaviour it is worth considering the reflex responses of small children on this subject: ‘Would you prefer it that your parents only love each other, and only sleep with each other? Or would you rather they also sleep with other people, and perhaps raise other children in other homes?’ Is their response not as natural, as instinctive, as any adult urge?
I add the qualifier ‘small’ children because their answers may change as they move into adulthood, in no small part dependent on the example set by their parents. And so the seeds are sown. Boys grow into men who see fidelity as wimpish, a sign of unmanliness. Girls grow into women who assume that men are not to be trusted, and so either develop the capacity to stand by them in a state of anxiety, or just loath them and avoid them completely. And so the whole mess rumbles on.