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The John Whittingdale 'Scandal': Dominatrix Is Not A Dirty Word

13/04/2016 14:27 | Updated 13 April 2016
Carl Court via Getty Images

There is a real story behind the headlines on John Whittingdale's 'scandal' today, but it might not be what you think.

The Culture Secretary, a single man, has been 'outed' for having a six-month relationship with a single woman, who may have liked to dominate him, in the past.

She was also a sex worker (although Whittingdale says he didn't know that), which is something many people, rightly or wrongly, have opinions on.

But newspaper coverage of the story (which has only started now despite it being known for years, as the press says they didn't think it was in the public interest) has chosen to describe her not as a sex worker but as a dominatrix.

Papers have honed in on this term with headlines such as 'Top Tory John Whittingdale admits having relationship with a dominatrix' from the Mirror and 'John Whittingdale had relationship with 'dominatrix' in the Telegraph.

In some cases a 'dominatrix' is someone who is paid for sex, but let's look at what the word actually means:

The Cambridge dictionary defines it as "a woman who has ​power or ​control over her ​partner in a ​sexual ​relationship".

Presuming this is consensual between the two partners, I'm not quite sure what's wrong with that.

So although some people are paid to be dominatrices, you could just as well be a dominatrix in a relationship where no money changes hands - I could be a dominatrix with my fiancé, you could be a dominatrix with your boyfriend, etc. It simply indicates a sexual preference.

By choosing to write that Whittingdale admitted to a relationship with a dominatrix, newspapers are saying, however subtly, the most scandalous part of this story is that the woman involved took part in dominating men.

It also suggests that dating a dominatrix is worse than dating a sex worker, and Whittingdale's real 'crime' is to be a man who may have been submissive to a woman - something society still mocks as embarrassing and emasculating for men in such partnerships.

This is simply judging a sexual preference, it's wrong and it's outdated.

Anyone reading today's papers could well be in a happy, loving, consensual relationship involving BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadomasochism) and wondering if they're about to be outed too.

But perhaps they should be proud: the academic and sexuality expert Andrew Wilson has written that "Some contemporary dominatrices draw upon an eclectic range of strong female archetypes, including the goddess, the female superheroine, the femme fatale, the priestess, the empress, the queen, the governess, the KGB secret agent, to their own ends."

Aside from perhaps the femme fatale and KGB agent - this strikes me as pretty awesome.

The row over the story is growing - pulling in several competing conspiracy theories around how the media decides what to cover. The press regulation campaign Hacked Off has accused newspaper editors of conspiring not to publish the story and use it as leverage over Whittingdale, while newspapers in turn have said the BBC and Hacked Off have teamed up to attack them. It's starting to become about the way journalism works, and the way journalism is changing.

Sadly, one thing that's not changing fast enough is subtle media sexism - and that's something no sane person should submit to.

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