Compulsory heterosexuality

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Compulsory heterosexuality is the idea that heterosexuality, particularly in females, is both assumed and enforced by a patriarchal 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.[1] Adrienne Rich popularized the term compulsory heterosexuality in her 1980 essay titled "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."

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 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. Rich goes on to argue that regardless of a woman’s sexual orientation, any woman can choose to be a lesbian. 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]


Adrienne Rich argues that compulsory heterosexuality is reinforced by of 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)."[3]

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.[4] 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."[5]

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. "1) to deny women [our own] sexuality

  2. 2) to force it [male sexuality] upon them

  3. 3) to command or exploit their labor to control their produce

  4. 4) to control or rob them of their children

  5. 5) to confine them physically and prevent their movement

  6. 6) to use them as objects in male transactions

  7. 7) to cramp their creativeness

  8. 8) to withhold from them large areas of the society's knowledge and cultural attainments"[6]

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 when "forms assess health risks by asking 'Are you sexually active?' followed by questions about what birth control methods the patient uses."[7] 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."[8]

Sexism in the labor force[edit]

Rich argues for compulsory heterosexuality in the workplace, to which end she references Catherine 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.[9] 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."[9] 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.[10]

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.

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.[5] 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.[11] 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."[11]

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.[12] 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.[13] 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 of compulsory heterosexuality and 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 deferential affects 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."[14] 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.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Rich, Adrienne (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Onlywomen Press Ltd. p. 32. ISBN 0-906500-07-9. 
  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. ^ Duggan, Lisa (2002). The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism. United States of America: Duke University Press. p. 179. 
  4. ^ Roy, Michael (2012). "The Invention of Heterosexual Culture by Louis-Georges Tin". ProQuest. MIT Press. Retrieved December 9, 2015. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Gough, Kathleen (1973). The Origin of the Family. New Hogtown Press. 
  7. ^ Suzanne, Kelly (2012). Women: Images and Realities, A Multicultural Anthology, Fifth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 345. ISBN 978-0-07-351231-0. 
  8. ^ "H-160.991 Health Care Needs of the Homosexual Population". American Medical Association. 2015. Retrieved December 8, 2015.  External link in |website= (help)
  9. ^ a b MacKinnon, Catherine A. (1979). Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 0-300-02299-9. 
  10. ^ Barry, Kathleen L. (1979). Female Sexual Slavery. NYU Press. p. 9. ISBN 0-8147-1069-7. 
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ Epstein, Debbie, Sarah OFlynn, and David Telford. Silenced sexualities in schools and universities. Trentham Books, 2003.
  13. ^ Lenskyj, Helen. "Combating homophobia in sport and physical education."Sociology of Sport Journal 8.1 (1991): 61-69.
  14. ^ 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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