Compulsory heterosexuality

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Compulsory heterosexuality is the idea that heterosexuality is assumed and enforced by a heteronormative society. This refers to the idea that heterosexuality can be adopted by people regardless of their personal sexual preferences. Heterosexuality is viewed as the natural inclination or obligation by both sexes. Consequently, anyone who differs from the normalcy of heterosexuality is deemed deviant or abhorrent.[1] Adrienne Rich popularized the term compulsory heterosexuality in her 1980 essay titled "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence". Rich's first concept of compulsory heterosexuality only included women, however, later revisions of the idea have included how compulsory heterosexuality affects men. Common examples include the assumption that children will grow up to marry a person of the opposite sex, children must steer away from having friends of the opposite sex, sexual education books that exclusively discuss heterosexuality, the concept of "coming out", religious and secular organizations that assume all members are heterosexual, and believing that if one can pretend to be heterosexual that is better than being non-heterosexual. Compulsory heterosexuality is seen as ignorant, a contributor to homophobia by marginalizing non-heterosexuals, treating heterosexuality as the superior default, and decreasing awareness of the large number of people within the population who are not heterosexual.

Concept and terminology[edit]

Adrienne Rich, who popularized the term compulsory heterosexuality, argues that heterosexuality is a political institution which needs to be re-examined for women to escape dis-empowerment. She argues that much of feminist literature still functions under a compulsory heterosexual paradigm, which is a problem facing the homosexual community. 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. Rich goes on to argue that regardless of a woman's sexual orientation, any woman can choose to be a lesbian. People who question their sexuality are accused of being compulsory heterosexual. Also, Rich views lesbian identification as being on a continuum. She believes that all women can be lesbians by becoming "woman-identified women", meaning that women should be focused on the needs and emotions of other women. Rich argues because women have both maternal as well as sexual desires, they, unlike men are more diverse in their abilities to care for others in diverse rather than purely sexual ways.[1] Due in part to this argument, Rich’s work has been largely discredited. However, the work of others has attempted to revive the basic argument that Rich puts forth.

Other authors have argued that compulsory heterosexuality has multiple important uses. Stevi Jackson stated, "Indeed, Rich's concept of 'compulsory heterosexuality' could be seen as a forerunner of 'heteronormativity' and I would like to preserve an often neglected legacy of the former concept: that institutionalized, normative heterosexuality regulates those kept within its boundaries as well as marginalizing and sanctioning those outside them. The term 'heteronormativity' has not always captured this double-sided social regulation."[2]

Individuals are exposed to compulsory heterosexuality from birth and therefore those that are in the sexual minority must explore their understanding of themselves in contrast with society. People are often assumed to be heterosexual until proven otherwise. In Sandra Lipsitz study she sets out to prove that, contrast to what was once believed, sexual minorities psychologically have a greater "global identity development".[3] Along with the polarization of the sexes comes the hierarchy. It is argued the dissolving of the barriers would remove sexism.[4]


Adrienne Rich argues that compulsory heterosexuality is reinforced by social institutions. Rich argues that same-sex marriage reinforces compulsory heterosexuality. William Havilland argues that marriage is a socially recognized union or legal contract between spouses that establishes rights and obligations between them, between them and their children, and between them and their in-laws, and that same-sex marriage has been claimed to be a negative addition to this. It is proposed that a negative connotation is put on same-sex marriage because it works against the idea of what it means to be heteronormative. In "The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism", Lisa Duggan:

"Homonormativity—it is a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions—such as marriage, and its call for monogamy and reproduction—but upholds and sustains them while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption (179)."[5]

According to Louis-Georges Tin, in "The Invention of Heterosexual Culture", heterosexuality and the creation of male to female relationships is considered to be important, and Tin proposes that importance and emphasis has been put on reproduction because of this. He argues that this need for the reproduction "eclipsed" "homosocial male bonds", which he claims commonly existed during the Middle Ages. Tin argues that negative connotations were associated with male and female relationships prior to this, and that this was because sexual relations were considered to interfere with spiritual obligations, and it was believed that same-sex relationships would not become sexual.[6] According to Tolman, Spencer, Rosen-Reynoso, and Porche, "Rich posited that heterosexuality is political in nature, rather than natural, functioning to serve the needs and desires of men within patriarchy, and therefore requiring various forms of male coercion of women for its production."[7]

Manifestations of male power[edit]

Rich claims male dominance and its presence in social institutions are major factors in enforcing female heterosexuality. To describe this phenomenon, she uses a list of "eight characteristics of male power in archaic and contemporary societies" that is found in Kathleen Gough's essay "The Origin of the Family,[1] in which Gough proposes the following characteristics:

  1. to deny women [our own] sexuality
  2. to force it [male sexuality] upon them
  3. to command or exploit their labor to control their produce
  4. to control or rob them of their children
  5. to confine them physically and prevent their movement
  6. to use them as objects in male transactions
  7. to cramp their creativeness
  8. to withhold from them large areas of the society's knowledge and cultural attainments"[8]

Rich concludes that all of these characteristics contribute to a culture that convinces women that heterosexual relationships and marriage are inevitable, whether by physical force or "control of consciousness," and especially in combination with lesbian erasure.

Lesbian erasure[edit]

Rich argues that 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 doesn't allow for the growth of sexualities regarded as deviant, such as lesbian. Ultimately, Rich suggests a "lesbian continuum" that encourages female relationships, regardless of sexual desire, and views heterosexuality as an institution imposed on women. Rich views the acknowledgment of sexual choice as a necessary condition for female empowerment and an understanding of women's continuous resistance to men throughout history.

Additionally, Rich criticizes feminist scholarship for its exclusion of lesbian as a genuine, natural option for women. She writes:

"The assumption ... that women are "innately sexually oriented" toward men, or that the lesbian choice is simply an acting-out of bitterness toward men, ... [is] widely current in literature and in the social sciences. I am concerned here with two other matters as well: first, how and why women's choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, tribe, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise; and second, the virtual or total neglect of lesbian existence in a wide range of writings, including feminist scholarship. Obviously there is a connection here."[1]

She explores the content of For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Toward a New Psychology of Women by Jean Baker Miller, and Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and the Human Malaise by Nancy Chodorow, which, according to Rich, are presented as feminist texts and assume "that the social relations of the sexes are disordered and extremely problematic". Rich argues that these feminist texts do not examine the issue of compulsory heterosexuality or acknowledge that a woman might not choose heterosexuality if she were socialized in a more equal society.[1]

Kathleen Debold, in her book Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality, argues that lesbian erasure can be a health care issue . She proposes heterosexism is active as a tacit assumption when "forms assess health risks by asking 'Are you sexually active?' followed by questions about what birth control methods the patient uses".[9] The American Medical Association states that, "unrecognized homosexuality by the physician or the patient's reluctance to report his or her sexual orientation can lead to failure to screen, diagnose, or treat important medical problems".[10]

Evolutionary theory[edit]

A major drive for compulsory heterosexuality is that of evolution. It ties a sexual orientation's worth with reproduction. Evolutionarily speaking in order to further the species offspring must be created and therefore genes are past on.[11] This basic understanding of biology is then taken steps further implicating heterosexuality as the "natural" form and therefore making homosexuality specifically as well as any minority sexuality "abnormal".[12] As Seidman puts it, science is “a powerful practical-moral force”.

Though, evolutionary arguments have implications in minority sexualities they also directly impact the stereotypes of heterosexual relationships and especially concepts of masculinity. Arguments for men being the hunter are then applied to today's understanding of the male gender being superior.[11] The flip side of this understanding is the influence of this on the female gender. Them being depicted as the weaker sex and their main function being childbearing. These understandings however do not include ideas of morality, which is what is being applied to them.[12]


Much of religion invokes a binary model for sexuality.[13] For example, tracing back to the bible which includes Adam and Eve as the beginning of humanity. As well as specific texts including this one from Leviticus, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."[14] Religious institutions throughout history have had strict moral guidelines when it came to marriage and what is deemed expectable in the eyes of God. This directly translates to compulsory heterosexuality in society through influence of leaders of the church as well as devout followers of this belief.[15]

Homosexuals have a difficult time finding acceptance particularly in the Bible Belt.[15]

"There's little doubt that discrimination against homosexuals is the last "acceptable" form of discrimination. While most folks have outgrown overt racist and sexist attacks, for many people it's still okay to take shots at homosexuals. They are called names, blamed for society's problems, and often humiliated because of their sexual preference."[15]

While a binary model for sexuality might be enforced, "Many of the Puritans in colonial New England believed that all human beings were filled with homosexual as well as heterosexual desire and that the good Christian should direct that desire into procreative sex within marriage."[16] This ideology carries over in modern-day conservative Christianity, and is enforced through the idea that the more welcoming people are to the idea of homosexuality, the more people will give into their homosexual lusts.[16]

Sexism in the labor force[edit]

Rich argues for compulsory heterosexuality in the workplace, to which end she references Catharine MacKinnon's Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination. MacKinnon argues that women occupy low-paying jobs and their sexual marketability is a factor in the workplace.[17] MacKinnon states that "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".[17] Rich argues that the treatment of women in the workplace is a significant influence in society's compulsory heterosexuality. Rich argues that women feel pressure to be heterosexual in the workplace, and that this pressure is also present in society as a whole. As a species will become extinct if no reproduction occurs, and human women must be inseminated to produce offspring, heterosexual relationships are necessary for the survival of the human race, barring artificial insemination. According to Rich, women accept the male sex drive and regard themselves as sexual prey, and this influences compulsory heterosexuality. According to Rich, Barry argues for a 'sexual domination perspective', claims that men subject women to what she terms as "sexual abuse" and "terrorism", and that the 'sexual domination perspective' causes people to consider this "sexual abuse" and "terrorism" to be natural and inevitable and thus ignore it.[18]

According to Rich, women believe men have a natural need to have sex, and this results in them viewing "abuse" as inevitable. Barry argues that this rationale is romanticized through popular media. Rich claims that this is reinforced through compulsory heterosexuality.

In males[edit]

While the concept of compulsory heterosexuality initially only included women, later revisions of the idea have included discussion on how Compulsory Heterosexuality necessarily requires both men and women to reinforce the construct; furthermore, that compulsory heterosexuality impacts males as well. Tolman, Spencer, Rosen-Reynoso, and Porche (2003) found that even heterosexual males reported being negatively impacted by compulsory heterosexuality through being groomed to aggressively pursue women and through the interactions that society allows them to have with other males.[7] In another article, entitled "In a Different Position: Conceptualizing Female Adolescent Sexuality Development Within Compulsory Heterosexuality", Tolman uses the term hegemonic masculinity to describe the set of norms and behaviors that dominate the social development of males.[19] Moreover, hegemonic masculinity mirrors Rich's construct of compulsory heterosexuality by pointing out the social intuitions that demand specific behaviors from males; she says, "these norms demand that men deny most emotions, save for anger; be hard at all times and in all ways; engage in objectification of women and sex itself; and participate in the continuum of violence against women".[19]

Compulsory heterosexuality also negatively affects gay men by teaching them from a young age that straightness is "normal" and therefore anything that deviates from that is abnormal. Debbie Epstein discusses in her book, Silenced Sexualities in Schools and Universities, how heteronormative standards as well as compulsory heterosexuality lead to young males not only feeling forced to appear heterosexual, but can lead to violence against these males if they deviate from expectations against them.[20] Hellen Lenskyj has further suggested in her article "Combating homophobia in sport and physical education" that heterosexuality is enforced in males through imitation and violence against those who deviate.[21] Through these norms, males are taught from a young age that if they do not comply to heterosexual norms and standards they place themselves at risk for social exclusion and physical violence against them.

Intersectionality with other minority identities[edit]

To understand the complexity of compulsory heterosexuality, several scholars have pointed out the importance of the impact of this construct on the differential effects on all populations, including minorities. In "No More Secrets, No More Lies: African American History and Compulsory Heterosexuality", Mattie Udora Richardson discusses the additional complexities faced by Black women in terms of forced compulsory heterosexuality. Udora Richardon points out that, "Any divergences from the social norms of marriage, domesticity, and the nuclear family have brought serious accusations of savagery, pathology, and deviance upon Black people."[22] She argues that as a group that is already stigmatized in multiple ways, Black women face additional pressures from both the Black and White communities towards heteronormativity. Divergences from heterosexuality place Black women in particular risk of physical harm or social exile.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Rich, Adrienne (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Onlywomen Press Ltd. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-906500-07-1.
  2. ^ Jackson, Stevi (2006). "nterchanges: Gender, sexuality and heterosexuality: The complexity (and limits) of heteronormativity". Feminist Theory. 7: 105–121. doi:10.1177/1464700106061462.
  3. ^ Bem, Sandra Lipsitz (January 1995). "Dismantling gender polarization and compulsory heterosexuality: Should we turn the volume down or up?". Journal of Sex Research. 32 (4): 329–334. doi:10.1080/00224499509551806.
  4. ^ Konik, Julie; Stewart, Abigail (August 2004). "Sexual Identity Development in the Context of Compulsory Heterosexuality". Journal of Personality. 72 (4): 815–844. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3506.2004.00281.x.
  5. ^ Duggan, Lisa (2002). The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism. United States of America: Duke University Press. p. 179.
  6. ^ Roy, Michael (2012). "The Invention of Heterosexual Culture by Louis-Georges Tin". ProQuest. MIT Press. Retrieved December 9, 2015.
  7. ^ a b Tolman, Deborah L.; Spencer, Renée; Rosen-Reynoso, Myra; Porche, Michelle V. (2003-04-01). "Sowing the Seeds of Violence in Heterosexual Relationships: Early Adolescents Narrate Compulsory Heterosexuality". Journal of Social Issues. 59 (1): 159–178. doi:10.1111/1540-4560.t01-1-00010. ISSN 1540-4560.
  8. ^ Gough, Kathleen (1973). The Origin of the Family. New Hogtown Press.
  9. ^ Suzanne, Kelly (2012). Women: Images and Realities, A Multicultural Anthology, Fifth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 345. ISBN 978-0-07-351231-0.
  10. ^ "H-160.991 Health Care Needs of the Homosexual Population". American Medical Association. 2015. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
  11. ^ a b Sanderson, Stephen K. The Evolution of Human Sociality: A Darwinian Conflict Perspective
  12. ^ a b McCaughey, Martha (1996). Evolutionary.pdf "Perverting Evolutionary Narratives of Heterosexual Masculinity: Or, Getting Rid of the Heterosexual Bug" Check |url= value (help) (PDF). GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 3 (2–3): 261–287. doi:10.1215/10642684-3-2-3-261.
  13. ^ Comstock, Gary David, and Susan E. Henking. Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology. New York: Continuum, 1997. Print.
  14. ^ King James Bible
  15. ^ a b c Birden, S.; Gaither, L. L.; Laird, S. (2000). "The Struggle Over the Text: Compulsory Heterosexuality and Educational Policy". Educational Policy. 14 (5): 638–663. doi:10.1177/0895904800014005007.
  16. ^ a b Endsjø, Dag Ølstein. Sex and Religion : Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths. London, GB: Reaktion Books, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 7 March 2017.
  17. ^ a b MacKinnon, Catharine A. (1979). Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-0-300-02299-5.
  18. ^ Barry, Kathleen L. (1979). Female Sexual Slavery. NYU Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-8147-1069-2.
  19. ^ a b Tolman, Deborah L. (2006-06-01). "In a different position: Conceptualizing female adolescent sexuality development within compulsory heterosexuality". New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development. 2006 (112): 71–89. doi:10.1002/cd.163. ISSN 1534-8687.
  20. ^ Epstein, Debbie, Sarah OFlynn, and David Telford. Silenced sexualities in schools and universities. Trentham Books, 2003.
  21. ^ Lenskyj, Helen (March 1991). "Combating Homophobia in Sport and Physical Education". Sociology of Sport Journal. 8 (1): 61–69. doi:10.1123/ssj.8.1.61.
  22. ^ a b Richardson, Mattie Udora (2003-01-01). "No More Secrets, No More Lies: African American History and Compulsory Heterosexuality". Journal of Women's History. 15 (3): 63–76. doi:10.1353/jowh.2003.0080. ISSN 1527-2036.

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