Sex isn't everything, Helen, but its unique intimacy can be crucial for a marriage
Is the notion of having both restful companionship and rumpy pumpy an unreasonable expectation, asks Judith Woods
OH dear, Helen, what raging Furies have you unleashed now? Your claim that companionship is more important than sex in a marriage was all very well coming from a 67-year-old hottie who can still rock a red bikini like a water nymph, but has rather thrown the rest of womankind into confusion.
Should we cheer at the liberation or should we boo at the admission of dead-below-the-waist defeat? To be honest, I'm minded to boo.
It's rather reminiscent of that Gerald Ratner moment when EL "saucepot" James tartly remarked that most women don't want a billionaire sex god, they want a man who will put out the bins.
Speak for yourself, honey. You can keep Mr Pooter and his fastidious attitudes towards refuse collection – the rest of us would prefer a billionaire sex god, or we wouldn't have devoured your books quite so hungrily.
In fact, I would suggest if our husbands treated us a little more like precious playthings and whisked us off in their proverbial private helicopters to their mega-yachts, we'd be more than happy to slum it occasionally and do the bins ourselves.
Life, like sex, is measured in shades of grey. Relationships invariably mean compromise, but is the notion of both restful companionship and rumpy pumpy really such an unreasonable expectation?
Having met the gorgeous Dame Helen – whose allure stems in great part from the fact that she is gloriously happy in her own skin – I can easily imagine her delivering that droll "sex isn't everything" line with throwaway ennui.
She is right, of course – up to a point; the precise point where a couple's hopes, dreams and, above all, libidos converge. And like so many other notoriously elusive spots, it can be one fiddly little so-and-so to put your finger on.
The easy friendship of a long relationship is a wonderful, comforting thing, and if both parties want sex as well, then hurrah to that! If neither wants sex, hurrah to that, too!
But, as any relationship counsellor will confirm, it is the painful conflict – resentment, anger, recrimination – caused by mismatched libidos that brings most couples to their door.
How heartbreaking to love a partner, to want them and crave their affection only to be met with at best gentle rebuff, at worse irritable rejection. It is humiliating, hurtful and horribly corrosive to an individual's self-esteem and happiness.
Nor is it much of a picnic for the other partner, who feels bullied, threatened and under an unforgivable pressure to express a love they do feel with a desire they don't possess. The tragedy is that instead of keeping communication channels open and engaging in everyday affection, they pull up the drawbridge and withdraw lest a touch or kiss be misconstrued as an invitation to sex.
So who is to blame? If only the human heart were that simple. Marriage is not an immutable state of being; it is an emotional and physical narrative.
My husband and I have been together for 23 years (I know I don't look nearly old enough, but that's because he stole me from my village on horseback as a baby) and married for 12, and we have been through every possible permutation of attraction, repulsion, indifference and passion, sometimes, confusingly, all at the same time.
In that respect, we are unexceptional. Longevity in a marriage is generally due to a shared vision rather than daily inventive conjugal congress.
But I happen to believe that the unique intimacy of sex is the cement in the edifice of marriage. How often it takes place isn't important, whether it's several times a week or several times a year is immaterial – provided both partners feel empowered enough to instigate it.
Without this deep, unseen bond, a marriage can still endure, but it will be liable to crumble away with life's hard knocks.
No one outside a relationship can ever understand the dynamics inside it. But when Mirren gaily dismisses sex, I sincerely hope her spouse feels the same.