"Compulsory Heterosexuality And Lesbian Existence"
By Adrienne Rich
Heterosexuality is one of the many "privileges" that become invisible in our society today because they are so often assumed or expected. This is part of what Rich attempts to point out in her article, which asserts the existence of lesbians, whose sexual preferences lie along a continuum, ranging from alliance in a common cause to close emotional bonds to sexual relationships. Rich refutes the common arguments that women are innately sexually oriented towards men and that women who identify as lesbians are merely acting out due to bitterness towards men. She attempts to reveal the reasons why so many women find themselves in heterosexual relationships despite their known (or unknown) desires for the opposite. She groups all of these reasons under one name: Compulsory Heterosexuality.
Rich raises the idea that there have been many factors throughout history that have made it difficult or even dangerous for women to not marry a man:
“Chodorow's account barely glances at the constraints and sanctions which historically have enforced or ensured the coupling of women with men and obstructed or penalized women's coupling or allying in independent groups with other women” (84).
“Women have married because it was necessary, in order to survive economically, in order to have children who would not suffer economic deprivation or social ostracism, in order to remain respectable, in order to do what was expected of women...” (92).
She presents a question that she claims is often left out of feminist literature--whether more women would reject heterosexual relationships and identify as lesbians if they lived in a different environment that made this easier:
“In none of them is the question ever raised as to whether, in a different context or other things being equal, women would choose heterosexual coupling and marriage” (82).
Rich raises this question in order to combat the widely held belief that women have a natural, biological attraction to men, despite their strong, emotionally rewarding relationships with other women:
“...as if, despite profound emotional impulses and complementarities drawing women toward women, there is a mystical/biological heterosexual inclination, a 'preference' or 'choice' which draws women toward men” (84).
She explains that the attraction to men may be there, in all women, but it is not something innate and hardwired. It comes from the institutions in our society that make heterosexuality the "norm" and anything outside of this "deviant" and "abhorrent." In other words, compulsory heterosexuality is man-made and man-maintained but is so powerful that we begin to see it as biological:
“I am suggesting that heterosexuality, like motherhood, needs to be recognized and studied as a political institution...” (84).
Rich introduces male power manifestations as one of the ways in which heterosexuality is enforced on women. She describes many of the ways in which male power has an effect on women, including denying them of their own sexuality, forcing male sexuality on them, controlling or robbing them of their children, confining them physically, and using them as objects in male transactions. All of these manifestations of male power in some way compel women to heterosexuality:
“Some of the forms by which male power manifests itself are more easily recognizable as enforcing heterosexuality on women than are others. Yet each one I have listed adds to the cluster of forces within which women have been convinced that marriage and sexual orientation toward men are inevitable—even if unsatisfying or oppressive—components of their lives” (86).
Rich raises another important aspect of this form of compulsory heterosexuality. She explains that sexual abuse done by males to females is considered acceptable and therefore becomes invisible in our daily lives, unlike sexual activity between two women:
“...enforced submission and the use of cruelty, if played out in heterosexual pairing, is sexually 'normal,' while sensuality between women, including erotic mutualityand respect, is 'queer,' 'sick,' and either pornographic in itself or not very exciting compared with the sexuality of whips and bondage” (86).
This normalcy and even necessity of male to female sexual abuse becomes so ingrained that both men and women accept it with open arms:
“The adolescent male sex drive, which, as both young women and men are taught, once triggered cannot take responsibility for itself or take no for an answer, becomes, according to Barry, the norm and rationale for adult male sexual behavior...Women learn to accept as natural the inevitability of this 'drive' because they receive it as dogma” (88).
The point that Rich eventually wants to illuminate for her readers is that heterosexuality may not be as biological as we think it is--even for those of us who happily and readily engage in heterosexual relationships. She challenges women who consider themselves to be heterosexual to look into the ways in which their attraction to men has been shaped and coerced by the society in which we live. And she recognizes that this may be a very difficult step to take.
Point to Share:
Rich brings up the idea of procreation and romantic relationships going hand in hand, and how we often assume that this is the way things work. But she points out that they don't necessarily have to coincide. This made me think about women who use sperm donors to get pregnant rather than a partner and how this can be just as fulfilling and successful as when partners choose to procreate together. I want to think about other ways in which these two things that we assume would go together do not always do so.