Kicking the hornets’ nest
Adrienne Rich’s ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’
I’m hesitant to plunge back into these tumultuous waters, but with all the confusion and high-emotions I wanted to plainly layout my thoughts on the matter. Let me be clear that these are simply my thoughts and I don’t make any claims of authority on the subject bar my own experience as a lesbian dealing with compulsory heterosexuality.
Adrienne Rich’s groundbreaking article Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, written in 1980, has been cited time and again in the debate about Political Lesbianism in the past few decades. A self-professed Political Lesbian having bloomed late in life after having children and becoming widowed, Rich’s radical perspective that ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ funnelled young women into matrimony and childbearing to the exclusion of all else, was an “aha!” moment for feminists trapped in heterosexual unhappiness.
“The assumption that “most women are innately heterosexual” stands as a theoretical and political stumbling block for feminism.”
A great deal of the article is an analysis of the conditions through which women are prepped for heterosexuality and to make good wives and mothers. Rich explores the naturalisation of women as “sexual prey to men” through pornography saying, “even so-called soft-core pornography and advertising depict women as objects of sexual appetite devoid of emotional context, without individual meaning or personality — essentially as a sexual commodity to be consumed by males”.
For me, Adrienne Rich’s analysis of compulsory heterosexuality as a concept is sound and entirely relatable. As children even today in the ‘Global North’, we are groomed to take our place in the heterosexual circle of life. We are tidied into gendered categories and encouraged into life roles based on our sex. Princesses fall in love with Princes, families on TV have a mum and a dad, women are depicted as madonna or the whore, and men the larrikin or the provider. Both boys and girls absorb these messages preparing them for their roles of dominator and dominated, nurturer and provider, husband and wife, mother and father. The assumption is that we all will follow this path in the role specific to our sex.
Of course, socialisation cannot be held entirely responsible for this as there must be a degree of evolutionary compulsion that has humans organising predominantly in ways that ensure the continuance of our species.
The implication which Rich outlines is that women are often socialised into heterosexuality without ever being conscious of alternative options. They take their place in the machinations of male dominated society and view any dissatisfaction or unhappiness with their life as an inevitability. They are taught to ignore or resist a pull towards other women in order to put their husband and offspring first.
“Women learn to accept as natural the inevitability of this “drive” because they receive it as dogma.”
Most feminists can agree on the existence of some kind ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. It is from the second part of the article title that most disagreement arises: Lesbian Existence. Rich describes her motivations for writing the article as “in part to challenge the erasure of lesbian existence from so much of scholarly feminist literature, an erasure which I felt (and feel) to be not just anti-lesbian, but anti-feminist”. It is this erasure of lesbians as a class and the deprivation of cultural collectivism that she critiqued in her contemporaries throughout the article and strangely, it is what led her to be critical of her own article and ‘lesbian feminism’ years later.
Over the twenty-three years since it was written, I probably became more critical of my essay than any other possible reader. I stopped giving permission for its inclusion in anthologies and college readers because I felt it flawed, outdated, and in certain important ways no longer representative of my thinking and the thinking I respected.
When I began to hear that it was being claimed by some separatist lesbians as an argument against heterosexual intercourse altogether, I began to feel acutely and disturbingly the distance between speculative intellectual searching and the need for absolutes in the politics of lesbian feminism.
Writing in the Women’s History Journal in 2004, Adrienne Rich thanked her influencers, old and new, and sought to clarify some of the points she felt had been taken too far in her original article in 1980. I, personally, found much relief in her brief but apologetic clarification of her framing of ‘the lesbian continuum’.
In the decades since the 1980 publication, some feminists have used this concept to dilute the meaning of ‘lesbianism’ to include women who organise politically with other women or exclusively keep female company. They have placed themselves on this imaginary continuum despite having not a jot of attraction towards women and having no intention of having sexual relationships with them. This never sat well with me; the idea of an oxymoronic lesbian who is not attracted to women. It felt exploitative - like our current situation of trans-identifying males announcing themselves as lesbians. It also contradicted Rich’s asserted motivations for the piece in that if anyone can be a lesbian despite being either not female or not homosexual, then lesbianism becomes more meaningless than when it was hidden in the shadows. These concepts of the ‘lesbian continuum’ are lesbian erasure. Adrienne Rich says in her own words:
In framing a “lesbian continuum” I was trying — somewhat clumsily — to address the disconnect between heterosexually-identified and lesbian feminists.
So, we have heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual: where does the political lesbian fit in?
In my opinion, a political lesbian sits somewhere near homosexual. Wait! Stop screaming and hear me out. In my experience, genuine political lesbians are women who — usually a little later in life than most — have come to lesbianism through feminism or through some kind of political realisation. They are attracted to women — though they may have suppressed this attraction for much of their lives — and as Rich so cleverly puts it: “there is a nascent feminist political content in the act of choosing a woman lover or life partner in the face of institutionalized heterosexuality. But for lesbian existence to realize this political content in an ultimately liberating form, the erotic choice must deepen”.
Political lesbians have usually already had meaningful longterm relationships with men prior to their revelation (or similar experience). It is my opinion, that in order not to be a disingenuous bisexual, a political lesbian will have no intent of returning to sexual or romantic interactions with men. Quite reasonably, the wariness lesbians might feel towards political lesbians is likely to be inflamed into hostility if a woman calls herself a lesbian will having continued dalliances with men. These women are — excuse my French — taking the piss as much as males identifying as lesbians do.
It is likely that the existence of political lesbianism and/or late bloomers will continue until such a time that compulsory heterosexuality is no longer a reality. Although sex-based grooming is less stringent than generations gone before, there are still a lot of conscious and unconscious incentives to follow the heterosexual funnel. Today, there is in fact plenty of push from society to erase lesbians; so much so that girls are in alarmingly increasing numbers ‘identifying as’ boys, binding their breasts, and taking medical steps towards transitioning. Meanwhile, those of us who do resist heterosexuality in its ‘normal’ form, are now punished for our rejection of the male body and heterosexual sex by aggressive pressure to have sex with males who ‘identify as’ women. It is hardly surprising in this context that enthusiasm towards lesbianism is pretty low.
“The lie keeps numberless women psychologically trapped, trying to fit mind, spirit, and sexuality into a prescribed script because they cannot look beyond the parameters of the acceptable. It pulls on the energy of such women even as it drains the energy of “closeted” lesbians — the energy exhausted in the double life. The lesbian trapped in the “closet,” the woman imprisoned in prescriptive ideas of the “normal” share the pain of blocked options, broken connections, lost access to self-definition freely and powerfully assumed.”
As lesbians, I think we should be welcoming and supportive of the women who have been sucked into the funnel, but who will seek to join us later down the track. There is a huge difference between the appropriation of lesbianism — and the elements of culture we have been able to hold on to — and the many varied ways women come to know they are lesbians and begin to enact their sexuality. While our protective instincts to shield ourselves from further erasure are entirely valid, the nature of our oppression as females and the push towards heterosexuality means that we need to be understanding of those who take the long route. What’s more, it is likely the next generation of political lesbians will be joined by a new group; detransitioners. They will need us too.
“…for women heterosexuality may not be a “preference” at all but something that has had to be imposed, managed, organized, propagandized, and maintained by force…”
Sexuality is not social.
I entered the Great Political Lesbian Wars of 2019 at the point at which I was sent a screenshot of a heterosexual woman tweeting that unlike biological sex, sexuality is social. I had sat quietly and bit my tongue thinking that the argument needed to be left to simmer down, but that tweet was a red flag to a bull.
“Heterosexuality has been both forcibly and subliminally imposed on women. Yet everywhere women have resisted it, often at the cost of physical torture, imprisonment, psychosurgery, social ostracism, and extreme poverty.”
As a lesbian, a homosexual, I know only too well that if I had been socialised to be anything, it would be heterosexual. It is quite absurd to assert that all sexuality is social when we are all socialised towards the same thing: heterosexuality. It is even more absurd to invoke Adrienne Rich’s original article as evidence of this. Rich’s article discusses ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, but this addresses the enactment of sexuality. By this I mean, that the point of her piece is that society shoves all of us towards the compulsory heterosexual marriage that ensures male dominances socially, politically, and economically, regardless of what our actual sexuality is. It is because of this that political lesbians exist! It is how homosexually attracted people end up in heterosexual relationships through familial or societal pressure.
“Lesbian existence comprises both the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life.”
I knew from a very young age that something “was wrong”. That’s how it felt — wrong. I knew instinctively that the ‘admiration’ had for my babysitter or the older girls who helped out at my holiday programme was something more than what was normal. I was terrified of inadvertently revealing the strength of my feelings towards them so I engaged in a bizarre game of pretending to be indifferent or hostile towards them, but not so much that my parents wouldn’t enrol me next term or have the babysitter back again. I was raised Catholic, but I can’t remember any overtly homophobic sentiments ever being present in my home. It was more whispers and gossip about people who were gay or maybe it was picked up at school. I really don’t know. I just knew at about 7 years old that my feelings towards girls had to be a total secret forever.
For some reason, when I was about 12 or 13, I decided to quietly explore my truth and started chatting to other self-professed young lesbians or bisexuals on MySpace. I ended up with a ‘girlfriend’. She was 16 and lived down the line somewhere. Only she wasn’t — after a couple of months of continuous texting I found out she was a man. An adult man, pretending to be a teenage girl. I was terrified and deleted MySpace (which was fine because Bebo came along sometime around then!) Perhaps because I was still attending a Catholic school at this point, I saw the whole debacle as punishment. I thought it was a sign that I needed to put this whole thing to bed…so to speak.
And I did. I lived my teenage years like a heterosexual young woman. I shared details of my ‘crushes’ with my friends and eventually found myself a boyfriend. I was 17 and he was 18 when we met and we stayed together for 4 years. He is an attractive, truly lovely person and I think that is what helped me realise that my secret lesbianism was the real deal and wasn’t going anywhere. We had planned a future together. I knew he would be a good husband to me and a good father to any children, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I broke up with him and after some months of existential crisis I started ‘coming out’.
I am not a ‘Gold Star Lesbian’, but very few of us are. Most of us find ourselves coerced by compulsory heterosexuality at some point and I certainly was. Every female crush I had was pushed out of my mind consciously and kept a complete secret. Male crushes were invented and shared far and wide. Why? Because I genuinely thought what I was feeling was wrong. Heterosexuality seemed the natural and right thing. It was what I needed to do. It honestly, wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I started to tentatively entertain the idea that maybe fighting my feelings was the wrong thing.
At every point I was being socialised and it wasn’t towards lesbianism. I was being socialised towards heterosexuality and yet I was still conscious of my homosexuality, always. That is sexuality. Sexuality is the innate drive of attraction towards one sex or both. Whether we enact that sexuality or resist it, is likely a question of socialisation. I have a theory that sexuality feels more intensely innate to homosexual people simply because it is counter to the norm. Genuinely heterosexual people are unlikely to be conscious of their sexual gut feelings or drives because they are viewed as normal. There is no reason for them to be watchful of themselves and hide their true feelings. This is compulsory heterosexuality in action; it is imposing the norms and experiences of the heterosexual on bisexual and homosexual people.
Lesbianism and political lesbianism can and should coexist. At a certain point they overlap because an honest political lesbian ultimately is a lesbian and not a bisexual. Adrienne Rich also asserts that the “implication that women turn to women out of hatred for men” is a lie. She accepts that “profound scepticism, caution, and righteous paranoia about men may indeed be part of any healthy woman’s response to the misogyny of male-dominated culture,” but rejects the idea that lesbian existence is a “mere refuge from male abuses, rather than as an electric and empowering charge between women”.
It is important that the context in which texts are written and read is taken into account when analysing works like Rich’s. It is important too, to not see one text as the definitive single document to which we all must adhere — otherwise political lesbianism would be a religion and Adrienne Rich would be the goddess! In this case, even Rich herself does not stand by some of her analysis. She, like me, does not like the lesbian continuum — or at least what it has become. There is no reason that women centred organisations or political allyships or female friendships shouldn’t be given special names and revered. They just aren’t lesbianism and should not be called such.
Any theory or cultural/political creation that treats lesbian existence as a marginal or less “natural” phenomenon, as mere “sexual preference,” or as the mirror image of either heterosexual or male homosexual relations is profoundly weakened thereby, whatever its other contributions.
Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980), Journal of Women’s History, vol. 15, no. 3, 2003, pp. 11–48.
Rich, Adrienne. “Reflections on ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality’.” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 16, no. 1, 2004, p. 9+.