Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience

Time for another review of something Sexy-Capitalismy.

Last year I read the important and influential essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience published in 1980 by Adrienne Rich. This week Ben Riley and used the essay as a launching pad for our latest episode of Queers. So I thought, why not also do a bit of a review?


Rich’s essay is an important entry in lesbian theory and the idea of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. Rich outlines her theory of compulsory heterosexuality as such:

“I am suggesting that heterosexuality, like mother-hood, needs to be recognized and studied as a political institution–even, or especially, by those individuals who feel they are, in their personal experience, the precursors of a new social relation between the sexes.”

Rich’s essay is long and in-depth and I’m not going to be able to cover it all here, but let’s have a look at what she means by this, and what implications it has.

The idea of heterosexuality as a political institution is not an unheard-of one. The concept is simple: heterosexuality (and in turn homosexuality) are not inherent “natural” terms — they represent political realities. We can see this most clearly through the use of the terms themselves. Heterosexuality and homosexuality only really appeared as terms in the late 19th and early 20th Century, a reaction (in my view) to a growing individualisation around sexuality, which framed sexuality as an inherent part of one’s “self”.

This idea (that our sexualities are political) is naturally a challenging one, something which Rich identifies in her piece. As she says:

“The assumption that “most women are innately heterosexual” stands as a theoretical and political stumbling block for many women. It remains a tenable assumption, partly because lesbian existence has been written out of history or catalogued under disease; partly because it has been treated as exceptional rather than intrinsic; partly because to acknowledge that 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 is an immense step to take if you consider yourself freely and “innately” heterosexual.

This is the difficult thing about compulsory heterosexuality (and homosexuality). It is something we all live with, and something that feels innate to ourselves and our society. In turn it is hard to see, and even harder to challenge. This difficulty however does not mean we cannot engage with the political realities of heterosexuality:

Yet the failure to examine heterosexuality as an institution is like failing to admit that the economic system called capitalism or the caste system of racism is maintained by a variety of forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness. 

After establishing this system Rich spends most of her time looking at the impacts of it. Naturally (as described in the title) she takes an approach that focuses on female oppression, arguing that compulsory heterosexuality is used as a way to oppress women. Rich pulls from a number of sources for this but it is her commentary on Kathleen Gough’s work that I find the most interesting. She states:

“In her essay “The Origin of the Family,” Kathleen Gough lists eight characteristics of male power in archaic and contemporary societies that I would like to use as a framework: “men’s ability to deny women sexuality or to force it 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; or to withhold from them large areas of the society’s knowledge and cultural attainments.”

Rich expands on Gough’s schema before looking at how they relate to the idea of compulsory heterosexuality. Here she says:

“These are some of the methods by which male power is manifested and maintained. Looking at the schema, what surely impresses itself is the fact that we are confronting not a simple maintenance of inequality and property possession, but a pervasive cluster of forces, ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness,  that suggests that an enormous potential counterforce is having to be restrained.

“Some of the forms by which male power manifests itself are more easily recognizable as enforcing heterosexuality on women than are others. Yet each one I have listed adds to the cluster of forces within which women have been convinced that marriage and sexual orientation toward men are inevitable, even if unsatisfying or oppressive components of their lives. The chastity belt; child marriage; erasure of lesbian existence (except as exotic and perverse) in art, literature, film; idealization of heterosexual romance and marriage– these are some fairly obvious forms of compulsion, the first two exemplifying physical force, the second two control of consciousness. While clitoridectomy has been assailed by feminists as a form of woman-torture, Kathleen Barry first pointed out that it is not simply a way of turning the young girl into a “marriageable” woman through brutal surgery; it intends that women in the intimate proximity of polygynous marriage will not form sexual relationships with each other; that–from a male, genitalfetishist perspective–female erotic connections, even in a sex segregated situation, will be literally excised.”

Assumed heterosexuality is a system designed for male oppression of women —   a system of controlling women’s sexuality, largely for the benefit of men. Rich builds on this by exploring the work by Mackinnon, who looks at the intersection between compulsory heterosexuality and economics (long quote!).

“In her brilliant study Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, Catharine A. MacKinnon delineates the intersection of compulsory heterosexuality and economics. Under capitalism, women are horizontally segregated by gender and occupy a structurally inferior position in the workplace; this is hardly news, but MacKinnon raises the question why, even if capitalism “requires some collection of individuals to occupy low- status, low-paying positions such persons must be biologically female,” and goes on to point out that “the fact that male employers often do not hire qualified women, even when they could pay them less than men suggests that more than the profit motive is implicated”. She cites a wealth of material documenting the fact that women are not only segregated in low-paying service jobs (as secretaries, domestics, nurses, typists, telephone operators, child-care workers, waitresses) but that “sexualization of the woman” is part of the job. Central and intrinsic to the economic realities of women’s lives is the requirement that women will “market sexual attractiveness to men, who tend to hold the economic power and position to enforce their predilections.” And MacKinnon exhaustively documents that “sexual harassment perpetuates the interlocked structure by which women have been kept sexually in thrall to men at the bottom of the labor market. Two forces of American society converge: men’s control over women’s sexuality and capital’s control over employees’ work lives.”  Thus, women in the workplace are at the mercy of sex-as-power in a vicious circle. Economically disadvantaged, women–whether waitresses or professors–endure sexual harassment to keep their jobs and learn to behave in a complaisantly and ingratiatingly heterosexual manner because they discover this is their true qualification for employment, whatever the job description. And, MacKinnon notes, the woman who too decisively resists sexual overtures in the workplace is accused of being “dried-up” and sexless, or lesbian. 

This is what I really love about Rich’s article. Rich manages to synthesise theories of male oppression of women with capitalist oppression of workers, linking it all to a system of heterosexuality. And here we can see how compulsory heterosexuality works as a system. The system, in my mind, is one built on the needs of capitalism — the need for a growing work force (requiring constant reproduction) and the existence of a family unit to ensure the proper upbringing of these children, the correct passage of inheritance, and the continued passage of individualist capitalist ideals. Women bear the brunt of this oppression due to being the carriers of children, and in turn those who end up suffering the force of compulsory heterosexuality. This expresses itself in a number of ways, economically, socially and culturally — all the features described by Kathleen Gough in her essay.

To end, we should ask the question, does this, however, mean the abandonment of heterosexual relationships? Rich says that is the wrong question to ask:

The question inevitably will arise: Are we then to condemn all heterosexual relationships, including those that are least oppressive? I believe this question, though often heartfelt, is the wrong question here. We have been stalled in a maze of false dichotomies that prevents our apprehending the institution as a whole: “good” versus “bad” marriages; “marriage for love” versus arranged marriage; “liberated” sex versus prostitution; heterosexual intercourse versus rape; Liebeschmerz versus humiliation and dependency. Within the institution exists, of course, qualitative differences of experience; but the absence of choice remains the great unacknowledged reality, and in the absence of choice, women will remain dependent on the chance or luck of particular relationships and will have no collective power to determine the meaning and place of sexuality in their lives.

As we address the institution itself, moreover, we begin to perceive a history of female resistance that has never fully understood itself because it has been so fragmented, miscalled, erased. It will require a courageous grasp of the politics and economics, as well as the cultural propaganda, of heterosexuality to carry us beyond individual cases or diversified group situations into the complex kind of overview needed to undo the power men everywhere wield over women, power that has become a model for every other form of exploitation and illegitimate control.

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