Compulsory heterosexuality is the idea that female heterosexuality 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. 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.
Compulsory heterosexuality is reinforced throughout our daily lives by a multitude of social institutions: media, law, politics, literature, and religion, as regarded by Rich.
Manifestations of male power
Rich claims male dominance and its presence in social institutions are major factors in enforcing female heterosexuality. To describe this phenomenon, she references Kathleen Gough's essay "The Origin of the Family," which contains a list of "eight characteristics of male power in archaic and contemporary societies." These traits include:
- "to deny women [our own] sexuality
- or to force it [male sexuality] upon them
- to command or exploit their labor to control their produce
- to control or rob them of their children
- to confine them physically and prevent their movement
- to use them as objects in male transactions
- to cramp their creativeness
- to withhold from them large areas of the society's knowledge and cultural attainments"
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.
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."
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 Arrangeements and the Human Malaise by Nancy Chodorow–all presented as feminist texts and all taking "a basic assumption that the social relations of the sexes are disordered and extremely problematic." None of them question or examine the issue of compulsory heterosexuality, or acknowledge that a woman might not choose heterosexuality if she were socialized in a more equal society, and Rich argues that this is emblematic of most feminist theorists.
Sexism in the labor force
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.
- Rich, Adrienne (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Onlywomen Press Ltd. p. 32. ISBN 0906500079.
- Gough, Kathleen (1973). The Origin of the Family. New Hogtown Press.
- 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.