Like many women I was intrigued by the revelation that Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the mega-bestseller, Eat Pray Love, has left her husband to live with her best friend.
It made me think of the married men, fathers of children, who finally come out as gay — and wonder how many women secretly feel themselves to be sexually fluid too, neither fully heterosexual nor gay, butboth?
It was many years ago that I first raised the last question — to myself. In 1971 I was working for the women’s magazine Nova. One of its star writers was Irma Kurtz (for many years now the agony aunt of Cosmopolitan magazine), who took me to a famous lesbian club called Gateways, in Chelsea — the subject of her next feature. I was 25, Irma about ten years older, and we looked like a couple. Since glamorous (and heterosexual!) Irma was my heroine it was oddly pleasing.
Once at the club Irma left me alone while she did interviews, and I found myself an object of predatory attention. Butch women in men’s clothes asked me to dance — and the truth is this avowedly heterosexual girl found she didn’t mind at all.
What’s more, I found myself looking with real admiration at the more stunning women in the room, and wishing they would approach me.
And what would I have done had I been propositioned by one I really fancied? To this day I simply cannot say. But I don’t mind admitting I still like the fantasy — and I suspect many women secretly feel the same.
The recent film Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, is the story of a forbidden affair between two women in Fifties New York.
Nowadays, thankfully, we can be more open, more fluid.
How many women might say: ‘Yeah, my husband’s OK . . . but I love being with my best friend so much more!’ Does this mean more women are likely to follow hidden desires and start passionate affairs with their own sex?
It wouldn’t surprise me. As this paper’s advice columnist, I’m unhappily aware that for huge numbers of women marriage is a terrible disappointment. My postbag delivers this disturbing truth each week.
Wives experience intense emotional loneliness with men who never talk, never share, never show any tenderness. For many women sex within marriage is a detested chore, so is it surprising that a woman dreams of cuddles with the one person who really understands her needs: the beloved female friend?
Elizabeth Gilbert has been attacked in some quarters, not just for betraying her husband but for actual dishonesty. As if she has betrayed the whole idea of happy heterosexuality. Certainly the ending of her 2006 bestseller was romantic — with the writer in bed with handsome ‘Felipe’ for a month.
Ten million readers thrilled to her frankness: ‘I have never been loved and adored like this before by anyone, never with such pleasure and single-minded concentration. Never have I been so unpeeled, revealed, unfurled and hurled through the event of lovemaking.’
‘Felipe’ was Brazilian businessman Jose Nunes and Gilbert married him in 2007. They became business as well as bed partners.
Then came the bombshell — as unexpected as if Cinderella had run off with the Fairy Godmother.
This month Elizabeth Gilbert revealed that she ended the marriage to share her life with Rayya Elias, a Syrian writer (and lesbian and former drug addict) who — after a 15-year friendship — is now her partner inlove. Her old self loved men, now she loves a woman. But should we be shocked? Throughout history men and women have found themselves bisexual as well as homosexual, and Freud believed it a natural state.
But are we talking about physical (sexual) love? Or are emotions more important? The answer is: both.
In the ancient world, admiration of beauty could not be divorced from sex. Men enjoyed physical pleasure with beautiful boys then went home to their wives — as they have in every century since.
Intense friendships between women have always used the passionate language of love without necessarily finding physical expression (though plenty do).
Husbands tended not to mind. The wife having a ‘crush’ on her friend was preferable to her having a lover. And men generally thought women could only really be satisfied by intercourse.
They would, wouldn’t they? The point is, there are different ways to be satisfied, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s hot sex with ‘Felipe’ is only one. Dare I whisper in this over-sexualised age that ‘Satisfaction’ can take the form of emotional ecstasy too — which some prefer. And at different stages in life, women (it’s not for me to speak for men) might want both — and from either sex.
Angelina Jolie would agree. Now in the news because of her acrimonious split with her third husband Brad Pitt, the Hollywood star epitomises stunning femininity.
Back in 1996 she began a passionate relationship with a model and actress called Jenny Shimizu. In 2000 Jolie married Billy Bob Thornton but apparently went on seeing Shimizu until 2005. When asked in 2003 if she was bisexual, the actress responded: ‘Of course. If I fell in love with a woman tomorrow, would I feel it’s OK to want to kiss and touch her? Absolutely — yes.’
Sexuality is powerful, but for many, soft sensuality is just as important. Does it really matter what form love-making takes? I believe what happens in the bedroom should stay there, and deplore the modern obsession with sexual performance that cheapens relationships today.
To hell with Fifty Shades Of Grey — think of the fifty shades of human emotions, in all their complexity.
If a woman decides her feelings for her friend outweigh her love for her husband, it may have little to do with rampant sex and all to do with holding, kissing, stroking, sharing.
We should never underestimate the power of tenderness. In my experience, the most intense female friendships are based on laughter, shared confidences, mutual support, loyalty — and mutual admiration. Sex or no sex, many women prefer the company of their girlfriends to that of their partner. Even last year, interviewed about her friendship with Rayya, Elizabeth Gilbert told the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘There’s a kind of intimacy only found in female friendships . . .’ and explained, ‘It’s not your sister, it’s not your lover, it’s not your BFF (best female friend). There isn’t really an identification for it. I know it sounds like a love story and it is, totally.’
Now that ‘love story’ has been given a tragic twist — one that’s surely key to this whole affair.
For Rayya has been diagnosed with cancer. Gilbert has ended her marriage and chosen to share her life with a woman who is dying.
This is tenderness in action. If the essence of true love is not having sex but caring for another more than you care for yourself, and wanting above all to look after them — then Gilbert is now proving its beauty.
She says: ‘I do not merely love Rayya, I am in love with Rayya. And I have no more time for denying that truth. The thought of someday sitting in a hospital room with her, holding her hand and watching her slide away without ever letting her (or myself!) know the extent of my true feelings for her — well, that was unthinkable.’
I’d like to believe Gilbert’s husband Jose Nunes has compassion in this unusual situation. Few of us want to share the rest of their lives with a partner who wishes to be at the side of another — male or female.
In the 19th century two women in an intense relationship were called, ‘sentimental friends’ and ‘kindred spirits.’ Good terms both.
I know four women (three with grown-up children) who left heterosexual relationships to live with gay partners — demonstrating that love can shift and change as you age.
One alternated heterosexual and lesbian relationships for years and is very relaxed about the whole thing.
Psychotherapist Susie Orbach believes Elizabeth’s story ‘resonates because we are finally starting to recognise that sexuality is neither binary nor fixed. That love, attraction and sexuality are more layered and interesting than they’ve been allowed…’
Susie is now married to novelist Jeanette Winterson, a well-known lesbian icon. Orbach is matter-of–fact about the change in her life: ‘One can have loved a man — and more than one, as I have — then, unexpectedly and deliciously, find love with a woman. We make this an oddity but it is not so infrequent.’
In the Bible, King David mourns his best friend Jonathan with these words, ‘Your love was wonderful to me, passing the love of women.’ Is it so surprising that many women have deep, emotional — even passionate — feelings for their friends, far surpassing the love of men?