#FTF: 7 ways heterosexuality is still compulsory

In this week’s installment of Feminist Theory Fridays, Susan Cox explores compulsory heterosexuality and the lesbian continuum.

Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo in “The Kids Are Alright.”

Justin Trudeau lived up to his liberal dreamboat reputation by joining the Toronto Pride March last month. With a rainbow maple leaf on his cheek and Pride flag in-hand, Trudeau offered a few vague platitudes:

“We are celebrating what is extraordinary about Canada, the inclusivity that makes us great, the respect for each other and a willingness to celebrate our identities.”

Notably, Trudeau’s empty politician-speak was no different than most of the political rhetoric surrounding Pride this year, where a specific message about homosexuality has been replaced with a general emphasis on “being yourself” and “living your truth.”

The contemporary queer movement has watered-down Pride’s political struggle to “celebration of identities” and the ability of individuals to authentically express “who they truly are.” In this context, oppression is not understood as systemic, but simply what happens to people who are a considered strange/deviant (aka “queer”) because they don’t fit into the dominant categories of self-definition.

The refusal of queer politics to name the systems of power responsible for punishing individuals who transgress social norms (like gays and lesbians) is disappointing.

Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” illustrates the way in which homophobic violence is connected to patriarchy. Heterosexuality, as the basis of patriarchy, demands conformity in order maintain male power. Patriarchy has yet to fall, so despite current liberal lip-service to “inclusivity” and Facebook’s rainbow reactions, here are seven ways heterosexuality remains compulsory

1) No, you’re not born this way

Rich criticizes the prevailing understanding of lesbian existence as simply a “sexual preference” or “innate orientation,” arguing instead that heterosexuality must be recognized as a political institution that enforces women’s “emotional, erotic loyalty and subservience to men.”

This is one of the key ways feminism demonstrates that “the personal is political.” Sexuality is not merely a personal preference or something limited to to the bedroom — rather, it is foundational to social relations between the sexes and male power under patriarchy

2) Heterosexuality is the norm

Rich claims that, although heterosexuality is treated as natural and normal in our society, this doesn’t tell the whole story.

She argues that women are channeled into marriage and heterosexual romance through “covert socializations and overt forces” — “pressures ranging from the selling of daughters to the silences of literature to the images of the television screen.”

Women are taught from a young age that their value comes from being sexually attractive to men and that it is a primary means for their survival. This continues, despite the fact that studies have found that lesbians actually make more money than heterosexual women and that unmarried women are more likely to live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

Hmm… It could perhaps be the case that…

3) Heterosexuality is the norm because it benefits men

Rich argues that heterosexuality serves male power in a number of ways. Chiefly, that it aids men in securing women’s unpaid domestic and reproductive labour. Another is that heterosexuality allows men to use women as objects in male transactions as “gifts.” We see this in  practices like pimping, arranged marriage, and the use of women as entertainers to facilitate male deals (e.g. the wife-hostess, the cocktail waitress required to dress for male sexual titillation, call girls, Playboy “bunnies,” geishas, and secretaries.

Rich contends that the taboo around homosexuality and the fact it is marginalized fails to accurately explain the cultural prohibition on lesbian existence, which can only be understood by recognizing that the entire reason heterosexuality is compulsory is because it benefits men.

This means that homosexual oppression can never be fully understood without a feminist analysis of patriarchy.

So, no. Lesbians aren’t oppressed because society is made up of prudes. And homophobia as some kind of sex-neutral cultural force cannot fully describe what’s going on. According to Rich, gay males and lesbians (though both stigmatized) have a completely different relationship to the machinery of sexual oppression, which exists in order to exploit the female class

4) Lesbians are socially punished

The penalties for resisting the patriarchal order are severe. Men may attempt to reinstate their sex-right over lesbian women through sexual harassment or even “corrective rape.” Lesbian writer Jocelyn Macdonald captures this scene:

“I can’t walk down the street without some man telling me that I look unfuckable. I can’t hold my sweetie’s hand in public without some man yelling ‘Why don’t you let a real man try? I could fuck you straight, girl.’”

Rich notes that, throughout history, “attacks against unmarried women have ranged from aspersion and mockery to deliberate gynocide, including the burning and torturing of millions of widows and spinsters during the witch persecutions of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries in Europe.”

Lesbian feminist theorist Marilyn Frye argues that “access is one of the faces of power;” so, when women deny men sexual access, it is an affront to their male power. “The slave who decides to exclude the master from her is declaring herself not a slave,” Frye writes in her 1978 essay, “Some Reflections on Separatism and Power.”

Many women have learned, through first-hand experience, that sexual rejection of men is punished. Turn a man down at a bar, and his smile fades as he says, “You’re an ugly bitch, anyway.”

This means it’s not going to be “Asexual Visibility Day” that liberates asexual women from being labelled as “frigid prudes” — we’re going to have to challenge male sexual entitlement

5) Lesbians are erased

Lesbians are erased in two ways: Historically and politically. Rich writes:

“The destruction of records and memorabilia and letters documenting the realities of lesbian existence must be taken very seriously as a means of keeping heterosexuality compulsory for women, since what has been kept from our knowledge is joy, sensuality, courage, and community, as well as guilt, self-betrayal, and pain.”

Women are channeled into heterosexuality when lesbianism is erased from our history and consciousness because it is removed as an option. Lesbians are erased politically when it is subsumed into gay male politics or a generalized, sex-neutral “queer movement.” Rich argues that lesbian political interests cannot be fully addressed when lumped in with the interests of gay males, as a political struggle seeking to end homophobia in general.

The contemporary queer movement presents an even more egregious example of lesbian erasure through “inclusivity,” as queer identity includes practically everyone and everything, today. “Queer” used as a stand in for anything that is at odds with what is “normal” or legitimate. Therefore, things like wearing bizarre clothes or being a sexual sadist can qualify a person as “queer.” The golden rule is: If you identify as queer, so mote it be!

Lesbians disappear in an ever-expanding alphabet of queer identities, along with their specific political interests as women.

6) Lesbian sexuality has been colonized

I was mortified as a teenager when, as I gave my girlfriend a quick kiss, a man driving by yelled “Whooooo!” out his car window. This was just another friendly reminder from patriarchy that, as a woman, you can never escape the male gaze.

Women loving women are forced to be careful with any public expressions of affection. They need to watch out, not just for lesbian-hating bigots, but also for men who claim to “love” lesbians (aka have watched a lot of porn).

According to Rich, since it’s no longer cool to burn women who refuse heterosexuality at the stake, the multi-billion dollar porn industry has become a potent tool for enforcing male supremacy. Even lesbianism had to be “for men,” so pornography colonized lesbian sexuality, turning it into a performance for the voyeuristic male gaze.

The pornification of the lesbian experience relegated it to the sexual realm. Rich contends that patriarchy has limited women’s sexuality by excluding the joys of female comradeship from the erotic. She therefore created the term “lesbian continuum” to describe a range of “woman-identified experience.”

7) Lesbians are now considered bigots for refusing penis

As Marilyn Frye noted in 1982, lesbians have the added burden of “being assumed by many to be a morally-depraved man-hating bigot.”

It’s nothing new for men to call lesbians and feminists “man haters.” It is new, however, for people who claim to be progressives to accuse women of bigotry for sexually refusing males (people with penises). “Genital preferences” are said to be “transphobic” because this refers to a sexuality based on sex and not a potential partner’s self-conception. Lesbians are therefore guilted into thinking they need to be re-educated — that they must learn to be “open to the possibility” of having sex with males, so as to honour the identities of any potential sexual partner they may meet.

The situation for women’s sexuality looks grim. While heterosexual compulsion is strong, Rich believes it can be resisted. In fact, she says it has been resisted — as demonstrated by women throughout history: “witches, femmes seules, marriage resisters, spinsters, autonomous widows, and/or lesbians [who] have managed on varying levels not to collaborate.”

And to those who resist, Frye offers some fortitude: “If you are doing something that is so strictly forbidden by the patriarchs, you must be doing something right.”

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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