Breaking Free from Compulsory Heterosexuality

Anna is a second-year European Politics student passionate about politics, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights and academic research. In my free time, I love reading non-fiction books (about pretty much anything) and painting portraits with oil colours.

[Featured Image: A woman stands with her arms outstreached in a meadow. Source.]

The Dictionary of Gender Studies defines compulsory heterosexuality (comp het) as a term that “denotes the many ways in which heterosexuality is encouraged so as to seem inevitable and inescapable, for instance by stigmatizing lesbianism or by creating tax systems that privilege heterosexual married couples”(Griffin, G., 2017). The word was coined by Adrienne Rich in her article Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience (Rich, 1980), in which comp het is described as a ‘bias’, as an ‘institution’ and as an ‘assumption’ of a woman’s innate sexual and romantic attraction towards men. In other words, it is the assumption that the default form of human relationships is heterosexuality – everything that diverges from this is considered to be a deviation from ‘the normal’.

Generally, everyone can see how the vast majority of media representations of romantic relationships is centred around heteronormative connections, even though we are now starting to see slight improvements on this front. But comp het is a very insidious force. It pushes women to pursue a ‘standard’ type of relationship seen as the only correct way to love and have sex, regardless of one’s preferences. Or it may make us not even consider the hypothesis that we could, in fact, identify as lesbians. In other words, it renders attraction to women invisible or taboo, ensuring that the female sexual experience is controlled by, revolved around and aims at pleasing men.

The reason why comp het is so insidious is that it is easily confused for actual attraction. However, they are, by all means, not the same. 

For me, comp het manifested itself in very subtle and unconscious ways. In high school, I started to recognise a certain ‘pull’ towards other girls. However, I failed to recognise it as romantic interest, because it did not match what I had been taught attraction was. At some point I did recognise this attraction and I was scared by its implications, not so much of being a lesbian, but of having to deal with what being a lesbian means, especially in a rather homophobic town like the one I grew up in. So, I decided I had to have a ‘male crush’ to prove to myself that I was straight and really just confused. I picked a random guy whom I thought I could tolerate being with and I just made it happen. Not because I wanted a relationship with him or liked him but because I thought I had to want a relationship with him and like him. In hindsight, I can say that that was comp het at its finest, when a woman or girl randomly chooses a guy to have crush on not because she likes him, but to prove to herself she is straight (even though I already had a sense that I wasn’t) or to feel more included with her peers. The difference between this ‘pseudo-attraction’ and real attraction is that the former does not feel good. It feels almost as if you were voluntarily detaching from yourself, in some sort of emotional alienation. And what I found to be the most telling red herring was that as soon as the guys I was pursuing gave any signals of reciprocating my ‘enthusiasm’, I felt this horrible feeling of not really wanting to have any sexual or romantic involvement with them. So, I just disappeared, telling myself and others that ‘they just were not my type’.

In the meantime I was completely ignoring and shutting down my attraction towards other girls. Even when I finally accepted myself as bisexual, I still never pursued any sort of romantic or sexual liaisons with women. First, since I lived in a homophobic town, I was immensely afraid of being not only rejected if I ever flirted with a woman – and also being excluded from my social sphere, bullied and laughed at – but second, because I used to think of heterosexual relations as the norm and of wlw relations as outside norm. I thought that maybe I could like women, but that inevitably I had to like men as well, even though in reality I didn’t. Eventually, I thought I would have had to make myself like men, because that is how things work. This self-imposed attraction definitely took a heavy toll on my mental health during my teenage years. That is what comp het can do.

The good news is: it doesn’t have to be like this! I usually like to explain this through a quote from the TV series ‘Little Fires Everywhere’:  “If we can finally see the lies and the town and the cage we’re inside of, we can see so many other things too. We can see the door. A way out. And we can fly away.” If we can recognise comp het, we can start to learn the difference between real and ‘compulsory attraction’ towards men. And with this article I don’t mean to invalidate straight or bisexual identities. You can be straight. You can be bisexual. That’s great! 

The problem is when attraction towards men is not genuine, but a self-harming reproduction of what you think you are supposed to do. When this attraction does not make you feel good, but detached from yourself. When you start thinking in terms of what you ‘can tolerate’, rather than what you enthusiastically want and like. 

I still have a lot of work to do on myself. I still have this awful intrusive thought of ‘but what if in a non-specified future I end up liking a man? What will people think?’. But that’s the thing about sexuality: it is something you only can know about yourself and nobody else can tell you what you like. This also implies that sexuality is something that belongs to the present and it can also change in the future. But you don’t have to make the sexuality you know describes you best now be dependent on indistinct future crushes that might even never happen. To conclude, if anyone wants to know more about compulsory heterosexuality, I suggest a good old internet search. There’s plenty of articles written by lesbians on this topic, many of which are really helpful to recognise comp het and everything that comes with it.


References: 

Griffin, G., 2017. compulsory heterosexuality. A Dictionary of Gender Studies. Available at: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780191834837.001.0001/acref-9780191834837-e-67 

Rich, A., 1980. Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Signs, 5(4), pp.631–660.

Little Fires Everywhere

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