It’s the year 2000, and I’m in New York, visiting my mister, a feminist play on the word “mistress.” Land lines are still a thing, so are answering machines. We’re snuggling in his bed, post-coitus, when his fiancée calls from Los Angeles and leaves a message. We both lie in stunned silence as she rambles on, recounting her day, a funny thing their dog did. She winds down. “OK, Jerome, I love you! Hope you’re having fun, wherever you are!”
Jerome is one of several attached men who have sought something from me: usually sex, but often just a special kind of reassurance they’re still desirable to a woman other than their wives. And I’ve given. Three times. Married men lavish intense attention on women who are off limits—it’s intoxicating. And if you happen to be consumed by loneliness or are experiencing a dry spell, and one of these men zeroes in on you, it’s game over. For me, being a sidepiece offered a sublime delusion: there was something powerful bringing us together, an otherworldly force strengthened by the fact that we weren’t supposed to be. The physical passion of an affair was more thrilling than sex with a regular partner; the tension, palpable. I’d replay our encounters in my mind for weeks afterward.
If this year in gossip has taught us anything, it’s that I’m one of many. The Ashley Madison hack shone a light on millions of married men and thousands of married women who either indulge their extramarital urges or contemplated indulging them seriously enough to sign up for the site. The leak also gave us fascinating insight into the guilty psyche of an adulterer (recovered passwords included cheatersneverprosper, thisiswrong and ithinkilovemywife) and mainstream attitudes toward infidelity (many online commenters believed the cheaters deserved to have their privacy breached). Then there are the celebs. Gwen and Gavin, Blake and Miranda, Kourtney and Scott, and Ben and Jennifer were some of the high-profile partners rumoured to have crumbled as the result of a third party—in all but one case, a woman.
Historically, society has despised the sidepiece. Long before Camilla Parker Bowles married Prince Charles, the entire U.K. ridiculed her. And this past March, Monica Lewinsky gave a TED Talk about what she calls “the devastating consequences” of the affair she had with Bill Clinton in the late ’90s, including decades of public shaming. “Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of my mistake, and I regret that mistake deeply,” she said. (Her talk spawned unprecedented vitriol in the comments section of TED’s website.) Meanwhile, the much-loved former president continues to have a lauded humanitarian career, while Lewinsky is ingrained in the public consciousness as the beret-wearing intern in the stained blue Gap dress.
This past summer’s Affleck nanny scandal followed a similar arc, except for one difference: the Other Woman showed no signs of guilt. Affleck (the cad) was rumoured to have stepped out on Jennifer Garner (the wholesome wife and mother) with their 28-year-old nanny, Christine Ouzounian (the amoral home wrecker). A week after the news broke, however, Ouzounian didn’t go into hiding or issue a tearful apology as Kristen Stewart did three summers ago after she was caught making out with her then married Snow White and the Huntsman director. Rather, Ouzounian Instagrammed fabulous shots, including one of her new Lexus (caption: “Keep calm and meet my new drop-top Lexi”) and another underscored with “She’s just a girl, and she’s on fire.” Bubbly, blonde and in control of her post-affair trajectory, she defied the traditional self-hating sidepiece narrative.
Part of me rooted for her. Of course, I don’t know the circumstances of her tryst with Affleck or if she secretly felt conflicted. To the world, though, she dealt with the scandal—which included the tabloids calling her “thirsty” and a Facebook page devoted to hating her—like a boss. I could never embody such swagger. My relationship with Jerome lasted a year. We ended it because he became consumed with paranoia and I was ridden with guilt for hurting a stranger. Soon after we broke up, his relationship with his fiancée ended, too, and he married a woman from the office and had kids. He tells me about them every time I visit New York and we have lunch; now we’re old friends with a shared past. My other indiscretions haven’t played out so cordially. One brief affair with a manager ended after I was laid off from the job without cause. Another slow-burning “dynamic” ended when I started a serious relationship and finally had something to lose. (I couldn’t live with this kind of secret, knowing it would hurt my loving partner.)
While I wish I could be more Ouzounian about my indiscretions, I still feel regret. But I’m hopeful that the conversation about the Other Woman is evolving so that making a poor or unconventional decision is no longer a guaranteed reputation killer. Stewart quickly traded her apologetic demeanour for a badass paparazzi-flipping one, and three years later, her career is flourishing. Lewinsky, no longer in hiding, is using her name recognition to speak out against online harassment and the public flogging she endured (commenters be damned). And, after years of sex-positive advocates like Dan Savage cautioning against the unrealistic (and, they argue, unnatural) standards of monogamy, more married couples are negotiating monogamish relationships instead of lying, which is the real relationship detonator. This year, we saw undeniable evidence that extramarital sex happens. A lot. Ouzounian and her 15 unapologetic minutes of fame nudged us a little closer to accepting that very complicated fact.
Side Dishes: Click through for our timeline of mistresses who refused to let their status define them. #sorrynotsorry
1740s: Jeanne Antoinette
Jeanne Antoinette, the official mistress of Louis XV, was a valued advisor to France’s king, a power-patron of the arts and the supposed inventor of the pompadour hairstyle.