Olivia Colman said kissing women in The Favourite didn’t feel like cheating. I’ve heard that about same-sex relationships too often

She may have simply said it because she’s attracted to men, but whatever her reasoning, she’s stumbled on a harmful myth

Rebecca Reid
Monday 07 January 2019 16:21
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Golden Globes 2019: Olivia Colman wins Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy

After you win a Golden Globe the organisers make you do post-award interviews, which seems a bit unfair because at that point you probably just want to get hammered and gloat at people who were mean to you in primary school.

Last night, after winning a Golden Globe for her stellar performance in The Favourite, it was Olivia Colman’s turn to answer questions, one of which was about the love scenes she did with both Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone (that’s not a spoiler, this happened about 300 years ago).

Colman answered: “Love scenes with women are much easier. In my head I wasn’t being unfaithful to my husband. Kissing a man just feels awful, you feel like you’re being naughty. Kissing a woman is much more (laughs) that sounds naughty too!”

Now, the last thing I want to do is have a go at Colman, because she is funny and brilliant and I would quite like to be her when I grow up. But her statement about kissing women does, whether I like it or not, uncover an uncomfortable truth. We, as a society in general, have a problematic tendency to view women kissing other women as something that “doesn’t count”.

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Kissing someone of your own gender, presuming that you’re in a heterosexual relationship, is seemingly a lesser crime than kissing someone of the opposite gender.

Having been told by previous boyfriends that (if they had to choose) they’d rather I cheated with a woman than a man, I took a straw poll among men to find out if that was a common consensus, and found that it very much was.

“I know it sounds bad,” said Sam (not his real name), “but it just doesn’t feel as much like cheating if she hasn’t been with another guy. Maybe I’d feel less threatened? Or just relieved that it was with someone different from me? Either way, I’d rather it was a girl.”

Sam’s sentiments were echoed by almost everyone I asked. “If my girlfriend cheated on me with a girl I’d feel better about it than if she cheated with a bloke,” said Ross (also not his real name), “because at least I’d know why – it would be because she was getting something that I couldn’t compete with, something different from me.”

But, however natural it might feel, doesn’t viewing same-sex cheating as lesser than heterosexual cheating kind of imply that you think it’s less “real”?

As someone who has had sexual experiences with women, both for fun and also performatively (to try and get boys to like me), I’ve been guilty of exactly that. I once told a friend how many people I’d slept with. “Does that include girls?” she asked. “No,” I replied. I was entirely unable to explain why I’d decided not to count the women I’d been with. Maybe because it’s more difficult to know what counts as sex? Or perhaps, more likely, I’ve ingested the societal notion that if there isn’t a penis, it doesn’t count.

A penis-centric view of what sex really is does everyone a disservice. It places an unequal power on male and female sexuality and perhaps most annoyingly, it perpetuates the idea that sex begins and ends with a penis, a myth which is doubtlessly responsible for the fact that straight women have the lowest levels of sexual pleasure of any demographic.

And if you’d like evidence of the fact that girl-on-girl sex is broadly overlooked as having any meaning, you need only look at our laws. Until 1967 homosexuality was illegal in the UK – punishable by chemical castration or prison sentences. Lesbianism, on the other hand, was never illegal, simply ignored.

There’s a rumour that lesbianism was never made illegal because Queen Victoria didn’t believe that it was real. I’ve no idea whether that’s true or not – but what certainly is true is that for those in monogamous relationships, kissing women is somehow regarded to be a lovely bit of fun, whereas kissing a man is considered infidelity.

This attitude is still present in society today, where bisexual women seem to be assumed to be straight deep down and bisexual men are often accused of being gay and in denial. Apparently it’s easiest to believe that everyone wants to have sex with men.

You might be inclined to write off the lack of belief in lesbianism as a sign of the bad old days. But you’d be wrong. If you need any more evidence that a naughty fumble with someone of the same sex is a lesser form of infidelity, just look at the UK divorce laws, which state that for a couple to split on the basis of adultery, the cheating partner must have slept with someone of the opposite sex.

I could be having rafter-swinging lesbian sex with a woman I half-heartedly pretend is my doubles partner and my husband would have to file for divorce on the basis of unreasonable behaviour, not adultery. Because apparently if the person you’re bumping uglies with has genitals which match yours, the cheating doesn’t really count.

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Once upon a time, ignoring the existence of female sexuality doubled as a survival tactic. It allowed women to escape the horrors that gay men experienced, such as chemical castration and imprisonment. Women were written off as “companions” and could live their entire lives together without anyone implying that the relationship was romantic or sexual. That’s how deeply ingrained the idea is that woman are non-sexual.

Of course the world has moved on. High-profile women who are open about their sexuality have done vast amounts to change the perception of lesbianism. But there is still a strange tension about bisexuality being a rebellious phase, a temporary choice that will eventually be abandoned in favour of “real sex”, which, of course, involves a penis.

I don’t for a second think that Colman is a bad person, or that she said anything malicious. For her, kissing a woman clearly did feel much less like infidelity than kissing a man. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that she’s not attracted to women. But whatever her reasoning, she’s stumbled on an important truth.

Women sleeping with other women is not the sexual equivalent of a frivolity. It doesn’t matter what sex the person you’re kissing is. Male, female, non-binary – it counts.

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