“In 1981, She and He (their identities are deliberately obscured) signed a contract which would grant him unlimited sexual services in return for providing her with a house and financial support. . . . None of it is revolutionary—and that may be the ultimate revelation of this book. Perhaps what we are meant to learn is that it doesn’t matter how the relationship is set up, on a personal level, men and women continue to interact with each other in largely the same ways throughout time.”
The Mistress Contract purports to be a study of the dynamics of an unusually business-like arrangement between a mistress and her lover. In 1981, She and He (their identities are deliberately obscured) signed a contract which would grant him unlimited sexual services in return for providing her with a house and financial support.
Because the couple felt their situation might illuminate the changing relationships between men and women of that era, they recorded a series of conversations regarding their affair. While the dialogue offers some intriguing glimpses into the specific relationship between these two people, unfortunately, it offers little insight into the crux of the matter: how the contract changed their interactions.
The contract opens the book. It is brief and offers no context, such as a date or a location. He will supply “tasteful accommodations” and pay her expenses. She will provide companionship and “all sexual acts engaged in when requested.” She agrees to become his “sexual property.” Despite the seemingly titillating terms of the contract, the book treats sex matter-of-factly, as just another area where men and women disagree.
The next page begins the dialogue between He and She, placing us in California in April sometime in the 1980s. Given the book’s format, an introduction with some information on the couple’s background would have made the reading experience less frustrating. As it is, the reader is left to piece together a vague picture of the couple’s history through hints dropped in a memoir told entirely through recorded conversations between the two lovers.
She, a teacher, has been married and divorced at least once and has children. Evidently, all her prior relationships with men have been unpleasant. He is a successful businessman without other apparent personal obligations. It is unclear as to whether he was/is married. She is in her fifties as these dialogues are taking place and has had a mastectomy. He is older.
Perhaps the contract is of little significance to their discussions because it appears as though He and She have been regular lovers for quite a few years before it is signed. In fact, it sounds as though the contract was born out of a moment of petulance on Her part rather than a groundbreaking change of circumstances.
One of the realizations the lovers come to toward the end of the book is that the master-mistress contract is not all that different from the marriage contract, and in fact, He and She often sound more like a long-married couple than the unconventional pair of lovers they are billed as being.
The dialogues center around the relationship between men and women, and, at times, the topics are appealing for their historical interest. She talks about reading The Second Sex rather than The Feminine Mystique because it was considered more literary. She’s bored with Ms. magazine because it harps on the same tropes. He congratulates himself on being an early feminist, admiring the strong women who came out of the Labor Movement.
More often though, they dwell on familiar universal issues: men being more sexually driven than women, women needing more nurturing than men, the internal politics of marriage and child-rearing, the differences in male and female sexual satisfaction. None of it is revolutionary—and that may be the ultimate revelation of this book. Perhaps what we are meant to learn is that it doesn’t matter how the relationship is set up, on a personal level, men and women continue to interact with each other in largely the same ways throughout time.
In fact, The Mistress Contract is most interesting for its honest portrayal of a long-term relationship outside the bounds of marriage. How He and She view their differences and handle their life crises is more revealing than their flights of sociological analysis.
In contrast to the shocking terms of their agreement, these are two real people who treat each other with respect and affection while continuing to find each other fascinating after many years together.
If only they could figure out how to write that into a contract.