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  • Emilia Barriga

On Compulsory Heterosexuality

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

by Emilia Barriga

I sometimes cannot help but dream and imagine about who would I be in a different reality. I wonder how would I be in another socially constructed world, one without binaries, without regimes, without forced identities. How much freer would I be. How much would I ebb and flow. How much all of my desires would just run through in and out of my body. I would be as beautiful as the ocean.

In the Euphoria episode, “Fuck Anyone Who’s not a Sea Blob”, Jules, like me, connects her desire to be ocean-like with her sexuality and gender. One of the best things I’ve seen on television so far. Hunter Schaffer’s explorations of her identity and sexuality in this episode are incredibly vulnerable, but they are what made it such a painful delight to watch. First time I ever realized what compulsory heterosexuality (comphet) looks like was when watching this episode.

"Compulsory heterosexuality" refers to how a patriarchal, heteronormative society socially conditions women to view interactions and connections with men as the only available option. In the Euphoria episode, Jules refers to comphet as she talks about how she has framed her entire womanhood around men when she is not even interested in them anymore. As a trans girl, the pressure that Jules must feel to conform to patriarchal expectations of what it means to be a woman must be insufferable. However, her experiences are not exclusive to trans girls, compulsory heterosexuality affects all women.

In her 1980’s essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, Adrienne Rich asserts that a feminist critique of heterosexuality is long overdue. She argues, “to take the step of questioning heterosexuality as a “preference” or “choice” for women—and to do the intellectual and emotional work that follows—will call for a special quality of courage in heterosexual identified feminists, but I think the rewards will be great: a freeing-up of thinking, the exploring of new paths, the shattering of another great silence, new clarity in personal relationships” (27).

As someone who has identified as heterosexual most of my life, I can confirm Rich’s claims, questioning my heterosexuality has been an intellectual and emotional trainwreck. For most of my life, I’ve been convinced that either you are born that way (thank you Gaga), and you know it since you are 5, or you are not gay. And whereas the former is undoubtedly the truth for some people, it is not a comprehensive description of sexuality. Not until recently, I understood the sexuality spectrum with more clarity. As puts it, sexuality and gender identity can be fluid and they are really complicated (plus, claiming that there’s a gay gene can open up a eugenic can of worms.) Although I’ve been familiar with Rich through her poetry and mentions of her ideas in my literary theory classes, she is not the one who made me question my attraction to men. I must give credit to TikTok, once again.

A couple of months ago, a document called The Lesbian Masterdoc started trending. When I read it, I already knew I was sexually fluid, but I still had doubts about the “validity” of my feelings. Reading it has helped me understand my sexuality, but it has also made me realize the terrifying nature of my relationships with men. The bullet points that scared me the most are the ones that follow:

  • “You lose all attraction or get extremely uncomfortable if there are any implications that [men] might like you back. ​ You get deeply uncomfortable and lose all interest in these ​unattainable guys if they ever indicate they might reciprocate” (11).

  • “You mistake the desire for male approval as attraction. You don’t necessarily want a relationship with men, but you want men to want a relationship with you” (11).

  • “Reading your anxiety/discomfort/nervousness/combativeness around men as attraction to them. Confusing your anxiety around men for “butterflies” or being flustered” (11).

  • ”Reading a desire to be attractive to men as attraction to them” (11).

I could have quoted twenty more bullet points but these are the most relevant because they underscore the nature of my power relationship with men. For the longest time, every time I had a crush on a guy, the moment they liked me back, I stopped caring. Look, this could also be due to problems I have with self-esteem but I know they are not completely to blame because I do let people love me, and I have no issue appreciating that. What I have an immense problem with, however, is male validation. The desire for men’s validation has been so embedded in my appetite that as Adrienne Rich articulates “even when that attraction is suicidal, it is still an organic imperative” (35).

I am painfully aware that I sound insane (that’s what the patriarchy does to you, ask Sylvia Plath), but this is not an individual problem. Compulsory Heterosexuality is one of the key methods the patriarchy exercises to hold control over women as it forces them to depend on men. As Rich explains, heterosexuality is imposed on women through material and mental forces. For example, under capitalism, the low-paying positions of women force them to consider heterosexual marriage as the only available means to have money. Rich argues, “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” (21). Obviously, this need was more of an imperative in the 19th and 20th centuries when women couldn't work at all; however, even now, the reality remains that men hold the economical power and a vast majority of women are at the bottom of the pyramid (with the exception of the liberal feminists CEOs who have some other form of privilege). This is why so many women are accused of sleeping their way to the top, and even though the people who say these accusations are ill-intentioned and exaggerated, it does not mean that they are entirely wrong. As Rich illustrates, “the woman who too decisively resists sexual overtures in the workplace is accused of being dried up and sexless and lesbian” (…), hence, “her job depends on her pretending to be not merely heterosexual, but a heterosexual woman in terms of dressing and playing the feminine” (21).

At this stage, mental forces play their role, for how do we learn to play the feminine if not through numerous reifications of gender roles. Everywhere, from our own family to pop culture, is filled with messages that reinforce compulsory heterosexuality. I grew up watching corny disney movies about heterosexual love, reading and watching stories where most of the time women had to put up with horrible treatment from men as if it was their only option. And whenever WLW relationships have been portrayed, they have been either depicted as aberrations or exceptional occurrences. The truth, however, is that lesbianism has not been that infrequent, as Rich claims, there has been a closing of archives and destruction of documents relating to lesbian existence (e.g.: biographers erasing Emily Dickinson’s relationship with Sue Gilbert). Obviously, this has to do with gay stigma, but also, with presenting heterosexual love as women’s only choice.

Apparently, all the indoctrination in the world is not enough for men to feel secure about themselves because men feel the necessity to control women’s sexuality, minds, and bodies to the point of using physical forces like rape (e.g. corrective rape of lesbians), arranged marriage, sexual trafficking, abortion bans, etc. All of these physical forces do not even pretend heterosexual love is a choice, it is, rather, an obligation women are degradingly submitted to. Rich claims, each of these adds to the cluster of forces that have convinced women “that marriage and sexual orientation toward men are inevitable—even if unsatisfying or oppressive—components of their lives” (20).

For far too long, women’s forms of resisting male access to their lives, like friends who ran to live together, or women who decided to not marry, have been punished and considered pathological. Because of this, Rich introduces the term “lesbian continuum” to include a range of women-identified experiences (not exclusively sexual or romantic) like the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of support, etc. This is not exclusive to lesbians. It is imperative to recognize the pedestal we put men on because of compulsory heterosexuality in order to be able to identify real attraction and love.

Adrienne Rich via Lithub

Before reading Rich’s essay I could have probably anticipated some ideas about why heterosexuality is compulsory thanks to my degree’s classes on Queer Theory and Poststructuralism. Simply put, the existence of the binaries of men and women, and gay and straight are one of the strongest upholders of the patriarchy. They enforce women’s dependency on men and limit gender identities in order to control them. Fittingly, as Foucault argues in The History of Sexuality, the Western construction of gender and sexual identities regulates and reifies[1] desires. He argues that the idea that our desires reveal some fundamental truth about who we are is a Western construct. Rich questions, “why species survival, the means of impregnation, and emotional/erotic relationship should ever become so rigidly identified with each other?” (17). The answer is simple: the reification of desires and the gender-sexuality dichotomy helps the patriarchy because it regulates women’s sexual drives, emotions, and bodies. Notwithstanding, reification does not only benefit the patriarchy, most regulatory regimes benefit from it. For instance, capitalism thrives on capitalizing on identity in order to force individuals to buy specific products designed for their groups. Anthropocentrism advantages from the belief that humans are complete and unified individuals who are not connected to anything around them, which is one of the reasons we have a climate crisis.

Challenging anthropocentrism and the patriarchy, Astrida Neimanis proposes that we are bodies of water—bodies that extend, transcorporeally, into other assemblages and release uncontrollable eruptions (46). This is rather similar to Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas of being a Body-Without-Organs: to be a BwO is to let “the connection of desire, the conjunction of flows, continuum of intensities” move through in and out of your body (161). Likewise, water dissolutes and flows throughout the earth. Neimanis muses that we are made of mostly wet matter (from 60 to 70%), so as bodies of water “we leak and seethe, our borders always vulnerable to rupture and renegotiation” (2). So perhaps my dreams of being as free as the ocean are not dreams for I cannot dream to be something I already am. All the identities and categories the patriarchy has forced me to adopt have simply been ways to contain my waterness. But water drips and flows, and I am too tired to pretend that it doesn’t.


[1] Reification refers to the act of turning something abstract, such as an idea, relation, system, etc. as if it were a concrete object. By labeling our attractions as “heterosexual” or “homosexual”, desires become concrete ideas. This is not to say that in our present society labeling sometimes does not help, but such labeling would not be necessary if it weren’t for the patriarchal-heteronormative society that we live in.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The history of sexuality. Penguin UK, 2019.

Neimanis, Astrida. Bodies of water: Posthuman feminist phenomenology. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence." Signs: Journal of women in culture and society, vol 5, no. 4, 1980, pp. 631-660.


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