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

“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”.

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”.

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.

“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.

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