Compulsory heterosexuality is a term popularized by poet Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Compulsory heterosexuality is a system of oppression that denies people’s sexual self-determination by presenting heterosexuality as the sole model of acceptable sexual and romantic relationship. Like other forms of social control, compulsory heterosexuality is a systemic problem, reinforced by interlocking institutions—including political, religious, economic, legal, medical, familial, and educational—that work in concert to maintain the privilege of man/woman heterosexual couplings and emotional pairings.
Though Rich described the ways lesbians and woman-identified values are threatened with erasure, compulsory heterosexuality coerces everyone, including straight people, who are expected to marry and reproduce:
The logic of compulsory heterosexuality is grounded on a model of binary gender difference. In other words, compulsory heterosexuality relies on the underlying assumption that people are either men or women. Upon this assumption is layered another: that men and women are the proper sexual pairing and that men and women are the exclusive objects of each other’s emotional and physical desire.
Often, biological reproduction, traditionally accomplished through male/female sexual intercourse, has been used to cement the “naturalness” of the heterosexual, man/woman pairing. The capacity for biological reproduction through male/female sex has been translated into a prescriptive norm that insists that men and women should form sexually reproductive couples.
In a patriarchal society, compulsory heterosexuality affects men and women unequally because sexism is a structural feature of the system that forces women to choose men as partners. Marriage and motherhood extend and reinforce the political inequality of patriarchy, even though they can be at the same time deeply rewarding for women. Like sexism, racism is a constitutive feature of compulsory heterosexuality because it is used to further limit sexual possibilities by valuing, for instance, intraracial man/woman pairings over interracial ones.
Though heterosexuality is often experienced as instinctual, freely chosen, and personal, it is also always a political institution or, in the words of Rich, “a beachhead of male dominance.” Resisting compulsory heterosexuality, though often difficult, can allow for greater sexual self-determination, broaden erotic possibilities—especially between and among women—and allow for more equal relations to emerge among people with a variety of gender identifications and expressions.
Read: Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980)
Monique Wittig, “The Straight Mind” (1980)
Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” (1980)
TOP Photo Credit: Poetry Foundation