Compulsory heterosexuality is the idea that one’s sexuality is not chosen, but rather forced through society. Heterosexuality is then viewed as the natural inclination or obligation by both sexes. Consequently, anyone who differs from the normalcy of heterosexuality is deemed deviant or abhorrent. Adrienne Rich popularized the term "compulsory heterosexuality" in her 1980 essay on Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Rich argues that heterosexuality is a political institution which needs to be re-examined in order for women to escape disempowerment. Furthermore, she argues that much of feminist literature still functions under a compulsory heterosexual paradigm. The scholarly articles that emerge from feminist authors fail to recognize the institutions, such as marriage, that are regarded as normal are, in fact, socializations which we have internalized and reproduced in society. By regarding heterosexuality as a political institution, Rich examines the forces that have allowed compulsory heterosexuality to grow.
Compulsive heterosexuality is reinforced throughout our daily lives by a multitude of social institutions: media, law, politics, literature, and religion, as regarded by Rich. More importantly, it is through the act of male dominance inherent in these institutions that compulsive heterosexuality emerges. Rich references Catherine MacKinnon's study on the Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination to illustrate compulsory heterosexuality in the workplace. MacKinnon’s main argument is that women not only occupy low-paying jobs, but that their sexual marketability is very much a factor in the workplace. In other words, "her job depends on her pretending to be not merely heterosexual, but a heterosexual woman in terms of dressing and playing the feminine, deferential role required of 'real' women". Rich cites the treatment of women in the workplace as a significant influence in society's compulsory heterosexuality. The heterosexual pressure women feel in the workplace extends to society as a whole. Naturally, there's a constant push to involve one's self in a heterosexual relationship for survival. It is not only women regarding themselves as sexual prey that influences compulsory heterosexuality, but women's acceptance of the male sex drive as well. Rich references Kathleen Barry's research on men’s subjugation of women. Rich states that Barry "delineates what she names 'sexual domination perspective' through whose lens sexual abuse and terrorism of women by men has been rendered almost invisible by treating it as natural and inevitable".
In effect, women come to understand men as characterized by a natural need to have sex and therefore view abuse as an inevitable extension of this drive. This rationale is romanticized, Barry argues, through fairy tales, television, films, advertising, and popular songs. Consequently, compulsory heterosexuality reinforces these standards of abuse, Rich claims.
Relation to lesbianism
The concept of compulsory heterosexuality has caused a disturbance within the feminist movement in that some feminists feel it excludes lesbianism. Compulsory heterosexuality as a means of assuring male right of physical, economic, and emotional access keeps the convention of female disempowerment intact through heterosexual relationships and thus, doesn't allow for the growth of sexualities regarded as deviant, such as lesbianism. Rich suggests "the lie of compulsory female heterosexuality today afflicts not just feminist scholarship, but every profession, every reference work, every curriculum, every organizing attempt, every relationship or conversation over which it hovers."
By ignoring lesbianism, Rich argues that society inhibits the growth of women's empowerment. Ultimately, Rich suggests a "lesbian continuum" that counteracts compulsory heterosexuality in that it encourages female relationships, regardless of sexual desire, and views heterosexuality as an institution "imposed" on women. Rich calls for the acknowledgment of "choice" in regards to sexuality in order for women to gain power, as well as an understanding of women's continuous resistance to men throughout history.
- Rich, Adrienne (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Onlywomen Press Ltd. p. 32. ISBN 0906500079.
- MacKinnon, Catherine A. (1979). Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 0300022999.
- Barry, Kathleen L. (1979). Female Sexual Slavery. NYU Press. p. 9. ISBN 0814710697.