Adrienne Rich’s essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” marked the end of “sisterhood feminism” – which was an assumption that all women who shared the same kind of oppression, were sisters. She highlights on lesbianism and heterosexual women in the feminist movement and calls out on feminism to endorse the fear of lesbians.
She believes that heterosexuality is social rather than natural and has to be analysed as it is a social institution. Feminists according to her, should focus on the enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economic and emotional access rather than on gender inequality, taboos against homosexuality or on patriarchy in cultures.
The essay is divided into four parts. Rich focusses on three most important things here – sexualised relations of power within institutions, lesbian experience and questions on sexual identity.
In her foreword (1983) she mentions that she wrote this essay as she felt that lesbian existence should be deleted. This deletion is not just anti-lesbian or anti-feminist but would distort experience of heterosexual women. It was written for the heterosexual feminists to realise that heterosexuality is a political institution that disempowers women and it should be changed.
Women are considered to be emotional and sexual property of women and equality as such can be dangerous to family, religion and state. Women are controlled by patriarchal society, motherhood, economic exploitation, nuclear family, compulsory heterosexuality and there is legislation, religious fiat, media, censorship which are strengthening these institutions.
Adrienne Rich begins her first part of the essay by quoting Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook which says that men have one need which is a sexual one while women have two which is again a sexual one and the need to reproduce.
Rich mentions the assumption by Rossi that “women are “innately” sexually oriented only toward men and by that Lessing meant that “the lesbian is simply acting out of her bitterness towards men, are by no means theirs alone.” Rich questions as to why lesbian community is crushed, considered to invalid and are asked to stay “hidden in the closet” and the total negligence of lesbian existence in a range of writings.
Any theory or cultural/political creation that treats lesbian existence as something marginal or a less natural phenomenon or a mirror image of heterosexuality or homosexual relation is henceforth weakened irrespective of its contribution. “Feminist theory can no longer afford merely to voice a toleration of “lesbianism” as an “alternative life style” or make token allusion to lesbians.”
The second part begins with how Rich believes that theorists have not taken the job to understand societal forces affecting women ranging from physical enslavement to disturbing options which dislocate their emotional and erotic energies away from women.
She goes on to argue that mothering is just not the only sufficient cause for lesbian existence, however, this view is presented as such that increased parenting by men would decrease the enmity between both the sexes and give men more power to stabilize their power over women.
In this context, Rich quotes Kathleen Gough’s essay “The Origin of the Family” in which she lists eight features of men’s power in ancient and contemporary times.
- Men’s ability to deny women their sexuality
- To force sexuality on women
- To command or exploit their labour to control their produce
- To control or rob them of their children
- To confine them physically and prevent their movements
- To use them as objects in male transactions
- To cramp their creativity and
- To withhold from them large areas of society’s knowledge and cultural attainments
Rich gives her own elaboration on these categories which shows the atrocities that has been inflicted on women since archaic times and it is still continuing. These methods hence help men to maintain their power over women.
Women have realised that marriage and sexual orientation towards men are inevitable, even though it can be oppressed on someone. “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.”
Kathleen Barry pointed out that clitoridectomy is a way of torturing, more like, a way to convert young girls into a marriage material. It intends to make women have a more intimate marriage with a man and not to form a sexual relationship with another women.
Rich says that men actually fear women’s ability for sexual and emotional indifference as opposed to MacKinnon’s views on “daily eroticization of women’s subordination” – which means that men’s main motive is to control women sexually.
She also reviews Barry’s work on ‘female slavery’ which joins together all the conditions which are enforced on women including prostitution, marital rape, incest, violence, pornography, dowries, etc. Barry believes that “female sexual slavery is present in all situations where women or girls cannot change the conditions of their existence…regardless of how they got into those conditions…they cannot get out; and where they are subjected to sexual violence and exploitation.”
The structuralist rationalizations for exploitations are rejected by Barry. He does sees the problem with naming and developing female sexual slavery as compulsory heterosexuality. The idea of heterosexual romance is inserted in our brains through fairy tales, songs, movies, books, etc. This is separate from the universal ideology of uncontrollability of sexual drive. During adolescence boys tend to learn about their sexual needs in an early stage while a girl learns that her sexual drive is driven by a boy’s sexual drive. During this stage, girls turn away from their primary relationships with her girlfriends and move towards male allegiances, making her same-sex friends as a secondary component. Rich questions this change in behaviour in women. She argues that in the “mystique of the overpowering, all-conquering male sex drive, the penis with a life of its own, has rooted the law of male sex, right to women, which justifies prostitution as a universal cultural assumption on the one hand, while defending sexual slavery within the family on the basis of family privacy and cultural uniqueness on the other hand…the male sex drive becomes the norm and rationale for adult male sexual behaviour…women learn to accept as natural the inevitability of this drive.”
Male identification points out that how women place men as superior to them, making men’s credibility, status as more important than that of women.
Rich highlights women need physical, emotional and economical access from men hence enforcing heterosexuality. This is possible when lesbian existence is considered as invisible. Lesbian experience has been marked as wicked and contradictory, treated as an exception and not normal whereas heterosexuality is not questioned as it is more normal in the society. She therefore questions it to fuel feminist thought and action.
In the third part, Rich gives a difference between lesbian existence and lesbian continuum to provide us with the historical nature of these relationships and to locate individual experience which might not reflect a conscious sexual desire for other women but Rich defines it as the sharing of “rich inner life” with other women which is considered as an attack on male access to women, patriarchy – giving an act of resistance.
Being a lesbian is seen as a female experience with different meanings and oppressions according to Rich. She uses lesbian continuum to capture women’s experiences and their loving nature of caretaking, living separate from men and others according to Rich. If one wants to look at compulsory heterosexuality as an act of resistance then one will notice the feminist rebellion over the period of time, existing in all cultures. Examples for such rebellions can be the refusal to reproduce children or to provide for men or to obey them.
To see this now, heterosexuality has been forcibly imposed on women either consciously or unconsciously. Society definitely plays a role. Examples from today’s time like how from childhood, girls are supposed to play with Barbie dolls or with kitchen set and boys are supposed to play with hot wheels show how society is forcing something on us. Rich argues that the number of women living with a heterosexual orientation is a reflection of the limited choice women have in terms of economics, rather than sexual object choice.
In the fourth part, Rich talks about sexual identity. Women have to subdue their desire for other women because of forced heterosexuality on them, hence limiting their power, giving men more power than women. Therefore, choosing a female partner in forced heterosexuality context will be considered as an act of resistance, but for lesbian existence to realise its potential, erotic choices must expand into conscious woman-identification into lesbianism. She believes that lesbian existence acts a perimeter for feminism as it has the power with itself to liberate all women. Until such changes takes place, Rich believes that women cannot actually have power. However, lesbian continuum on the other hand also has to be given thought. She ends her essay by answering to the question whether all heterosexual relationships be condemned, even if they are mildly oppressive in nature? For this she replies that this question should not be answered right now as “absence of choices” is something which is an issue right now and deserves everyone’s focus on it.