Compulsory Heterosexuality

Feminists Question Assumptions About Relationships

Young man and woman walking on beach
Young man and woman walking on beach. MICHAEL LOFENFELD Photography / Getty Images

edited and with additions by Jone Johnson Lewis

Origin and Meaning

Compulsory means required or obligatory; heterosexuality refers to sexual activity between members of opposite sexes. 

The phrase "compulsory heterosexuality" originally referred to the assumption by male-dominated society that the only normal sexual relationship is between a man and a woman.  Society enforces heterosexuality, branding as deviant any deviance or noncompliance.

 The normalcy of heterosexuality and the defiance of that are both political acts.

The phrase carries the implication that heterosexuality is neither inborn nor chosen by the individual, but rather is a product of culture and thus is forced.

Behind the theory of compulsory heterosexuality is the idea that biological sex is determined, that gender is how one behaves, and sexuality is a preference.

Adrienne Rich’s Essay

Adrienne Rich popularized the phrase "compulsory heterosexuality" in her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” In the essay, she argued from a specifically lesbian feminist point of view that heterosexuality is not innate in human beings. Nor is it the only normal sexuality, she said. She further asserted that women can benefit more from relationships with other women than from relationships with men.

Compulsory heterosexuality, according to Rich's theory, is in service of and emerges form the subjection of women to men.

 Men's access to women is protected by compulsory heterosexuality. The institution is reinforced by norms of "proper" feminine behavior.

How is compulsory heterosexuality enforced by culture?  Rich sees the arts and popular culture today (television, films, advertising) as powerful media to reinforce heterosexuality as the only normal behavior.

She proposes instead that sexuality is on a "lesbian continuum."   Until women can have nonsexual relationships with other women, and sexual relationships without the imposition of cultural judgment, Rich did not believe women could really have power, and thus feminism could not achieve its goals under a system of compulsory heterosexuality.

Compulsory heterosexuality, Rich found, was pervasive even within the feminist movement, essentially dominating both feminist scholarship and feminist activism. Lesbian lives were invisible in history and other serious study, and lesbians were not welcome, and seen as aberrant and therefore a danger to the acceptance of the feminist movement.

Adrienne Rich is a prominent feminist poet and writer who came out as a lesbian in 1976.

Blame the Patriarchy

Adrienne Rich argued that patriarchal, male-dominated society insists on compulsory heterosexuality because men benefit from male-female relationships. Society romanticizes the heterosexual relationship. Therefore, she argues, men perpetuate the myth that any other relationships are somehow deviant.

Different Feminist Viewpoints

Adrienne Rich wrote in “Compulsory Heterosexuality…” that since humans’ first bond is with the mother, both males and females have a bond or connection with women.

Other feminist theorists disagreed with Adrienne Rich’s argument that all women have a natural attraction to women.

During the 1970s, lesbian feminists were occasionally shunned by other members of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Adrienne Rich argued that it was necessary to be vocal about lesbianism to break the taboo and reject the compulsory heterosexuality that society forced upon women.

New Analysis

Since the 1970s disagreement in the feminist movement, lesbian and other non-heterosexual relationships have become more openly accepted in much of United States society. Some feminist and GLBT scholars continue to examine the term "compulsory heterosexuality" as they explore the biases of a society that prefers heterosexual relationships.

Other Names

Other names for this and similar concepts are heterosexism and heteronormativity.

Resources

  • Kathleen L. Barry.  Female Sexual Slavery. 1979.
  • P.L. Berger and T. Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality. 1976.
  • R. W. Connell. Masculinities. 2005.
  • Catherine A. MacKinnon. Sexual Harassment of Working Women. 1979.
  • Adrienne RichCompulstory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. 1980