Compulsory Heterosexuality & Lesbian Existence

Ann Menasche

All the top tunes fell us we need guys.
We’re nowhere without them they emphasize.
All the TV movies, books and magazines,
They gives us the same old dance, the same old routines.
It’s boy-girl, boy-girl–sure it gets tedious,
Heavy-handed hetero harangue from the medias,
And they go on and on about it ad nauseam
They con us, bully us, guilt-trip, lie.
They ignore us, ridicule, trivialize us.
Why boys? What’s the story?
What’s the REAL story?
—”Boy-Girl Rap” by Alix Dobkin

PEOPLE ASSUME THAT women are innately, biologically sexually oriented toward men. Many believe the slander that women become lesbians out of hatred of men. Lesbian feminists, above all Adrienne Rich, have been putting forward a radically different perspective.(1) We see compulsory heterosexuality as a political institution, a beachhead of male dominance, that crushes, invalidates and forces into hiding love between women.

The purpose of this institution is to assume male access to women sexually and economically and to ensure the perpetuation of the heterosexual nuclear family.

As Rich points out, the treatment of lesbian existence as marginal, less “natural” or merely sexual preference harms the struggle for the liberation of women as a whole.

Lesbian feminists reject a clinical, purely sexual definition of a lesbian, a definition that separates lesbianism from female friendship and comradeship. Lesbian existence is both the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life. It is a profoundly female experience, not equivalent to either a gay male experience or a heterosexual experience. In this culture lesbianism is, consciously or unconsciously, an act of female resistance and nay-saying to patriarchy.

Women find delight in each other that proceeds not from weakness but from recognition of each other’s strengths. Rich posits the concept of the lesbian continuum, which she defines as including a wide range of woman-identified experience, not simply the experience or desire for genital sex. It includes any intense bond between women: the bonding of women against male tyranny, girl friendships at age eight, two women share in a laboratory, a dying woman of ninety, touched an handled by women. According to Rich, all these women exist on the lesbian continuum, whether or not they identify as lesbians.

There are untold numbers of women, many of whom remain married their entire lives, who would prefer emotional, sexual relationships with other women if they were given real choices. Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry once pointed out that we can never know for sure how many married women would prefer such relationships with other women but are not prepared to risk living a life alien to what they’ve been taught to believe was their natural destiny and their only expectation for economic security. Rich concludes that though within the institution of heterosexuality there exist “qualitative differences of experience … the absence of choice remains the great unacknowledged reality.”

There is a whole cluster of forces—economic, ideological and repressive—that convince women that marriage and sexual orientation to men are inevitable, even if unsatisfactory or oppressive. We need to see how these forces are intricately connected to the reinforcement of the oppression of women as a sex.

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, there was toleration and even encouragement (within certain prescribed limits) of female romantic friendship, which is in no essential way different from modem lesbianism.(2) These were eras when women had no economic options outside of marriage. So there was no threat to the social order by women’s attachments to each other, because the women were inevitably married or got married soon thereafter.

The relative freedom of women to develop emotional relationships went hand-in-hand with persecution of female transvestites, who were women attempting to pass as men and to take on male prerogatives for themselves. The actions of these women were viciously suppressed, but the romantic relationships between women were not.

The poet Emily Dickinson, for instance, is imagined by many people as sitting in her room by herself with no emotional life—an image that is totally untrue. Through many years she wrote passionate love letters to her sister-in-law Sue Gilbert. She was unselfconscious about these letters; she didn’t feel she had to censor anything. In 1852 Dickinson wrote, “Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday and be my own and kiss me as you used? … .(1) hope for you so much and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you, that the expectation once more to see your face again makes me feel hot and feverish.”

Dickinson’s experience was not unusual. One 1897 study of romantic friendships in girls’ schools and women’s colleges showed that 60% of the girls in the study had been involved in romantic, passionate friendships like the one Dickinson was involved in. Another 20% wanted to but hadn’t found the right woman.

It’s interesting to note that the passages in Dickinson’s letters I quoted from were deleted when the letters were published in 1924. Something had changed.

In the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, for the first time in the United States, women began working outside the home in large numbers. This process accelerated considerably during and after the First and Second World Wars. We saw the rise of the women’s suffrage movement, the early feminist movement. A life independent of men and marriage began to be economically possible for a small number of women. So for the first time in at least several centuries, love between women became a threat to the social order.

In the late nineteenth century, science came to the rescue of compulsory heterosexuality by labeling lesbianism a disease. Sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebbing declared that lesbianism was a sign of an inherited diseased condition of the central nervous system.

Havelock Ellis said the women’s movement involved an increase in feminine criminality and feminine insanity and that in connection with these we should scarcely be surprised to find an increase in homosexuality. Ellis pointed out that female independence often led to homosexual behavior, especially in the case of women who took jobs, since at work they would come into contact with like-minded women. He was quick to state that a woman who was led to homosexuality through feminism was not a real lesbian, but only a spurious imitation unless she was born with the germs of inversion.

Freud claimed that the lesbian condition was not genetic but the result of childhood trauma and arrested development. He held up hopes for a cure. Science thus offered lesbians two choices—either they were congenital freaks and therefore incurable, or they suffered from a curable neurosis. Given this choice of theories, it is no wonder many lesbians preferred the former theory, the congenital one, because it provided some hope of obtaining tolerance.

At the same time that anti-lesbian ideology developed, so did modern lesbian identity. For the first time there were women who had the economic independence and tremendous courage it takes to recognize and live out their erotic and emotional preferences for other women; to identify themselves as lesbians and as part of a community of similar people, lesbian and gay; and to organize politically on the basis of that identity.

It is a lot harder for women to construct a life independent of intimate relationships with men than it is for men to construct a life independent of intimate relationships with women. John D’Emilio has pointed Out that in the 1950s Kinsey found a strong positive correlation between years of schooling and lesbian activity. College-educated white women, far more able than their working-class sisters to support themselves, could survive more easily without intimate relationships with men.(3)

A more recent study found that 38% of its lesbian sample were college graduates and an additional 32% held advanced degrees. In the general population, only 13% of women over twenty-five have college or advanced degrees.(4) Even though these studies probably underestimate the number of working-class lesbians, the link between education, economic independence, and the freedom to live as a lesbian remains a convincing one.

World War II gave countless women their first opportunity to leave their families and small towns and seek an independent life. Many moved to big cities to work with other women in war industries; others joined the military. During that time, a lesbian bar subculture and lesbian friendship networks began to take root.

In the late 1940s the process of women getting into the workforce was reversed. Women were being told that Rosie the Riveter had to be a housewife now and, consequently, large numbers of lesbians were again forced into marriage and heterosexuality. Yet, in another sense, there was no going back. The bar subculture continued, and many novels with lesbian themes were published. This era also saw the birth of the Mattachine Society, a gay-rights organization, and the first lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we saw the rise of the modern gay liberation movement With the second wave of feminism and a continuing increase in the number of working women, the number of women discovering and acting on their lesbian preferences increased. At the same time, a lesbian-feminist political movement has been created and a women’s culture of lesbian and women-identified music, literature and art has flowered. This women’s culture is a culture of resistance, a source of validation and spiritual renewal. It enables women to survive as lesbians in this heterosexist and sexist culture and to fight against the system.

By the late 1960s, women were defining lesbianism in a different way. Lesbianism was a positive identity and seen as a form of rebellion against the limitations of the female role. One of the classic pieces that was written at the time defined a lesbian as:

“… the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. She is a woman who often beginning at an extremely early age, acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and a freer human being than her society perhaps then but certainly later can allow her She may not be fully conscious of the political implications of what for her began as personal necessity, but on some level she has not been able to accept the limitations and oppression laid on her by the most basic role of her society—the family role.”(5)

In the last few years, economic independence for women has again become harder, and there has been a government and right-wing backlash against the feminist gains of the 1970s. As would be expected, this social climate has had an impact on lesbians and on the lesbian-feminist subculture. Nowadays, it is extremely difficult to find women’s albums without male performers or technicians on them. Even more disturbing, many performers who came out of the women’s culture are now deleting the lesbian and feminist content from their music in an attempt to win mainstream appeal.

Not coincidentally, at the same time there has been the phenomenon of the so-called ex-lesbian. There’s been a growing trend—not on the scale of the early 1950s—but a trend of women who have lived as lesbians and who prefer women, but who are getting married or becoming sexually involved with men under the pressures of the present conditions.

What are some of the ways heterosexuality is organized, maintained and enforced on women? I’d say there are three basic categories: economic, ideological and repressive.

Economic compulsion involves women’s economic dependence on men, which is enforced in many ways: through paying women about sixty cents for every dollar men make; through discrimination in all kinds of jobs—the segregation of women into lower-paying, lower-status positions, sexual harassment in the workplace; through the sexual division of labor both in society and in the home—the forcing of domestic tasks onto women, the double workday, the lack of childcare that makes economic independence for mothers extremely difficult Without men, women who have children are almost inevitably forced into poverty.

Men’s control of women’s sexuality and capital’s control over employees work life converge in the workplace, as Catherine MacKinnon has pointed out, in particular through widespread sexual harassment.(6) In the workplace the deferential, heterosexual behavior that women absorb in childhood is reinforced as they learn that their economic survival is dependent on pleasing men. The workplace is also a place where women learn to view themselves as sexual prey.

Women still have fewer opportunities for education; 60% of the world’s illiterates are women. As we might expect, lesbian identities and lives are not only more common along with women who are highly educated but also more common in advanced capitalist countries where there is a higher percentage of women in the workforce.

For example, prior to the revolution in Cuba lesbians and gays in the 1940s and 1950s, almost without exception were married.(7) In Peru even today, it is almost find a lesbian who is not involved with men. It is very common there for women who prefer emotional/erotic relations with other women to be married or have boyfriends.

There are also ideological pressures that force women to engage in heterosexual relationships. These pressures play an increasingly important role because the economic compulsion, though still a major factor, is not as strong as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As the economic compulsion weakens, the propaganda gets more intense.

These ideological pressures are first manifested in the sex-role conditioning that children get from the time they are born: the girls with the pink and the dolls, the boys with the blue and the trucks. From the time a person is born, she/he is treated differently on the basis of her/his biological sex.

The importance of sex-role conditioning in creating heterosexuality as we know it is recognized almost universally by modern sexologists. In addition, they assign greater weight to social conditioning than to whether individual parents are gay or straight, in assuring the production of an overwhelmingly heterosexual population. Whatever the parents are, you’ve still got TV, books, movies, other kids and teachers.

The second way these ideological pressures manifest themselves is in the conditioning of women into male-dominated society. Women are conditioned into sexual passivity. One of the hardest things about being a lesbian is that one must learn to initiate something. It’s amazing, given female conditioning, which women can ever initiate anything—that is the real miracle of it.

Violence and sexual abuse by men against women is so pervasive in this culture that it is often viewed as normal. There is a deeply ingrained cultural message in which sex roles, inequality and violence are actually eroticized. Erotic feelings are so connected with difference in power and inequality that a person is often incapable of experiencing those feelings unless that power or sec role disparity exists. This not only promotes heterosexuality but also explains the popularity of sadomasochism in both straight and gay culture.

The erotic is also separated from the emotional in our culture, with the result that a woman can prefer the company of other women, and have deeper, more satisfying emotional ties with women than with men, but still feel she needs men for sex.

What are the effects of the fact that approximately one-third of all women have been raped or sexually molested as children by their fathers, brothers, uncles or family Mends, on a woman’s concept of herself, her self-esteem, her ability to be intimate and to develop an integrated sexuality? What are the effects on adult women of rape and the widespread phenomenon of wife battering? Can violence and physical/sexual abuse by men against women cause some women to identify more closely with male power and to feel too powerless themselves as women to survive psychologically without male approval?

These ideological pressures also stand revealed in the all-pervasive heterosexual propaganda that Alix Dobkin exposes so well in “Boy-Girl Rap.” It’s so pervasive that most people aren’t even aware of it the selling of heterosexual romance in movies, TV, books, magazines, popular songs, where heterosexuality is defined as the natural preference of the overwhelming majority of women, the overwhelming majority of people of both sexes. Befriending or love is a major tactic of the procurer, the abusive father, the battering husband, all of whom take advantage of women who are steeped in the ideology of heterosexual romance.

There is a lot more propaganda asserting that women need men than that men need women. A man could have an important function in the world, have a good job, without necessarily having to have a wife. But since a woman is defined in terms of men, a woman without a man is stigmatized, particularly if she has children. Recently in the media there was a heterosexual marriage scare. The basic message of that scare was that if women don’t hurry up and get back in line and get married, they will be forced to remain single—meaning that women who remain single are alone and therefore disgraced, failures as human beings.

Not only does this propaganda against lesbians harm those who are currently lesbian-identified, and the many others who would prefer emotional/erotic relationships with other women if they had real choices. It intimidates all women into taking a less militant stance, and frightens them away from solidarity with their sisters.

Women are also taught to despise and mistrust other women, to see other women as competitors, as unreliable, as less interesting and less worthy than men. This is internalized female self-hatred. Women’s culture is an important counteracting force to these tremendous societal pressures. It is an oasis for the revival of the spirit.

Then there is the issue of lesbian invisibility; which is crucial in enforcing heterosexuality on women. The history of women’s intimate relationships with each other has been erased, so if a woman finds that she loves another woman, she doesn’t even know that other women in the past have had feelings like hers. She has no sense of roots or role models. One of the main means of enforcing heterosexuality on women, Adrienne Rich points out, is rendering invisible the lesbian possibility, an engulfed continent that rises fragmented to view from time to time only to become submerged again.

Usually there is nothing but silence about lesbians in popular culture. However, when they are talked about at all, the slander against them is that lesbians are evil, vampirish and manhating. There has been a whole series of lesbian vampire films, a lot of them from the 1940s and ’50s, which have basically the same theme: There is the lesbian vampire who is evil and predatory, there is the innocent woman who is the victim and there is the man on the white horse who saves her. These films imply that any woman who is powerful—the lesbian vampire is a powerful image in its own way—has to be evil.

There are other ideological pressures that force heterosexuality on women:

• The failure to discuss lesbian and gay history and sexuality in school, even in the case of many otherwise progressive sex education courses.

• The role of sexologists and psychiatrists in defining love between women as immature or sick.

• The role of religion in breeding homophobia and guilt over lesbian feelings and relationships.

• The stigma on expressing affection publicly with persons of the same sex, particularly in advanced capitalist countries, especially the United States.

• Forcing lesbians into the closet of silence about their lives in ways that are never demanded of heterosexuals.

• The failure to give social recognition and legitimacy to lesbian relationships and lesbian families, including the right of two women to marry and to raise children together. The option to marry, since marriage is held up to be so important in this society, is a very important one for lesbians.

• The trivialization of lesbian relationships as less serious, transitory, and as a turn-on for the voyeuristic fantasies of heterosexual men, which is a very common theme in pornography. To give a painful example from my own life: when my lover moved into my house and stopped sleeping with her boyfriend, he told a friend of mine that he was still the only man in her life, he was the man, and at least thank goodness I wasn’t a man.

It is important that we ask-how many socialists and socialist groups contribute to lesbian invisibility by failing to incorporate lesbians into socialist-feminist theory, and by creating a social atmosphere where heterosexuality and heterosexual coupling is presumed.

Backing up the economic and ideological sides of compulsory heterosexuality is out-and-out repression. Lesbians are punished for living as lesbians or physically forced into heterosexuality. Forced or arranged marriage still exists in many pa of the world. Both my grandmothers were married off at a very young age, so to talk about their sexual preference is ridiculous. Among the upper classes in this country arranged marriages are common, particularly if a woman is found out to be a lesbian. My first lover, who was from a wealthy family, was marred off when they discovered she was a lesbian.

Homophobic psychotherapy and commitment to mental institutions still happen. Even though the American Psychological and Psychiatric associations have changed their, positions, there are a hell of a lot of therapists out there who are still perpetrating that kind of homophobic psychotherapy or a liberal variation of it. Many are trying to “cure” lesbians and gays, or trying to convince them they are “really” heterosexual or bisexual. Adrienne Rich cites the case of a married lesbian who was raped for six months by her husband as part of “therapy” to cure her.

In the legal arena, sodomy laws still criminalize lesbian acts in half the states. Many lesbian mothers still lose custody of their children because they are lesbians. Often courts put conditions on custody or visitation awards by requiring that the lesbian’s partner not live in the home or not be present during visitation.

Many lesbians experience social isolation and forced exile from family, community or country. Lesbian witchhunts still occur in the military. This year three marines were imprisoned for being lesbians.(8)

Employment discrimination against lesbians is widespread. In five different studies in major cities, including New York and San Francisco, 31% of the lesbians surveyed anticipated employment discrimination because of their sexual orientation and 13% had actually experienced it. Of these women, 8% had lost or almost lost their jobs because they were lesbians. In order to avoid discrimination, 72% of the lesbian community remained at least partially hidden at work, with 28% completely closeted on the job! Clearly this is not a minor inconvenience for lesbians but threatens their daily economic survival.

What significance does all this have for those of us who are struggling to create a socialist society?

It is not sufficient for us to merely support lesbian and gay rights, as important as that is. We must stand in opposition to all the myriad ways—economic, ideological and repressive—in which heterosexuality is institutionalized and enforced on women, and support the creation of a society that maximizes sexual choice, while opposing all forms of sexual violence and abuse.

Lesbian existence, in its broadest, non-technical sense, must be fully incorporated into socialist-feminist theory. And we should support and solidarize with lesbian culture as a culture of resistance against sexist and homophobic oppression, in the same way that we support and solidarize with Black culture as a culture of resistance against racist oppression.

As socialists, we need to view sexuality as a social construct and to recognize that there is no innate sexuality in any particular direction or directions. We must educate ourselves and others in the social movements in which we work away from assumptions about what is “normal” and ‘natura1″ and from homophobia in all its manifestations. It is our responsibility to create revolutionary organizations where lesbians feel comfortable, where lesbian lives are validated and lesbian issues are taken seriously.


  1. I would like to give particular thanks to Adrienne Rich for her pathbreaking article, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in Ann Snitow et al., eds. Powers of Desire: the Politics of Sexuality (New York: Monthly Review, 1983).
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  2. My account of 16th-19th century romantic friendships between women is drawn from Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: Morrow, 1981).
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  3. John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” Powers of Desire: the Politics of Sexuality (New York: Monthly Review, 1983).
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  4. JoAnn Loulan, Lesbian Passion: Loving Ourselves and Each Other (San Francisco: Spinsters/aunt lute, 1987).
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  5. Radicalesbians, “Woman-Identified Woman,” 1960; republished in Sarah Hoagland and Julia Penelope, eds., For Lesbians Only (Onlywomen Press, 1988).
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  6. Cathei4ne A. MacKinnon, Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979); cited by Adrienne Rich.
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  7. Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby Rich, “Homosexuality, Homophobia and Revolution, Notes on an Understanding of the Cuban Lesbian and Gay Male Experience,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 9, no.4 (Summer 1984):683-699.
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  8. The big wave of anti-Lesbian witchhunts in the military was in the 1950s. See Allan Berube and John D’Emilio, “The Military and Lesbians During the McCarthy Years,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society, 9, no.4 (Summer 1984):759-775.
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November-December 1989, ATC 23

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