Ann Menasche’s “Leaving the Life”

Against the Current, No. 91, March/April 2001

Karin Baker

Leaving the Life: Lesbians, Ex-Lesbians and the Heterosexual Imperative, Ann E. Menasche (London: Onlywomen Press, Limited, 1999), $17.99 paperback.

IN THE MID-1980s, when many lesbians Ann Menasche knew were suddenly turning to relationships with men, she set out to find what was behind the phenomenon of the “has-bian.” Leaving the Life: Lesbians, Ex-Lesbians and the Heterosexual Imperative was the result.

Menasche wanted to know, were these simply women acting on repressed attraction to men?  Others who observed this phenomenon suggested that these were “political” lesbians who had chosen lesbianism in the ’70s out of their beliefs, but in the more subdued years of the `80s realized that their true sexuality was not exclusively female-oriented.

Or, as Menasche actually suspected, might these women have been pressured to move toward the mainstream in their sexuality and relationships by the oppression that lesbians, and any women who don’t follow the roles prescribed for them, must constantly face?

Menasche sees her study as a continuation of the political thought of Adrienne Rich. A lesbian feminist poet, Rich has received nearly every major literary award (except for one from the Clinton White House that she refused to accept), and has produced close to twenty volumes of poetry and four books of nonfiction in the last half century.

Menasche’s work is an exploration of the ideas in Rich’s 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Long a mainstay in any basic Women’s Studies class, the article highlights the ways that social and economic institutions coerce women toward heterosexuality, such that women’s true sexuality cannot be identified.  (See Menasche’s article, “The Repressive Politics of Compulsory Heterosexuality,” November-December 1989, ATC 23.)

Rich’s question: How many more women would choose lives with women if we had equal earning power to men, if relationships with women were valued, etc?

Mechanisms of Control

Menasche sets out to “study how the institution of heterosexuality actually limits and controls women’s sexual behavior and identity .  .  .  .” As she explains, “by focusing on the lives and stories of the lesbians-who-left .  .  .  I hope to expand our understanding of the myriad ways that heterosexuality is imposed on women: the manner in which .  .  .  three decades after the Stonewall Rebellion, we are not yet free.” (10)

Menasche based her study on a questionnaire that was ultimately completed by 147 lesbians and sixty-four former lesbians.  Of these, she interviewed twenty-four lesbians and twenty-six “lesbians-who-left,” some by phone but most in person.  Her discoveries were disturbing, but perhaps not surprising.

Of the reasons given for “leaving the life,” “only 28% of the lesbians-who-left gave falling in love with a man or experiencing a compelling heterosexual attraction as even one of their reasons for leaving .  .  .  .  And even more rarely did former lesbians state that such attractions were the only reason—4% so indicated.” (59)

What did motivate them?  Make a list of the ways lesbians experience oppression, and you’ve probably covered the most common reasons former lesbians gave for getting involved with men. Twenty-four percent “hoped to win approval from family members; 20% “wished to avoid job discrimination”; 48% “wished to fit in better with the heterosexual majority”; 34% cited lack of “role models”; 20% “wanted to be able to express affection publicly.”

“Difficulty finding a satisfactory long-term woman lover” was cited by 42%, while 24% “believed heterosexual relationships were more stable, lasting, and emotionally secure.” (59-60) The sad truth is most of the women in Menasche’s study still preferred relationships with women, but felt compelled by oppressive circumstances to be with men.

The difference between the lesbians-who-left and those who did not was revealing.  Certainly most lesbians confront the type of problems mentioned above, from job security to lack of role models and internalized homophobia.

Burdens of Rejection

Menasche’s study, at the same time, suggests why some women stayed when others did not. Former lesbians more often faced difficulties that current lesbians did not face.

For example, only 60.4% of the former lesbians reported receiving parental acceptance, compared to 77.6% of the lesbians.  More lesbians who were out in their workplace felt accepted there than former lesbians, and lesbians-who-left were more likely to have been harassed on the street.

Former lesbians also reported more internalized sexist and anti-lesbian attitudes.  Many more ex-lesbians said “they had felt like a failure when unable to make a relationship with a man work.” A greater number of former lesbians agreed with the statement “most lesbians hate men.”  More lesbians-who-left agreed with the statement “It is a lot easier on children to be raised in a heterosexual family than in a lesbian one.”

A picture emerges of the former lesbians as women who are bombarded by negative attitudes and stigma toward lesbians, who are tired of fighting against these, and who believe some of these stereotypes themselves.

Case Studies

The book includes five true stories of lesbians-who-left.  “Leslie the Married Lesbian” chose marriage because “it’s OK with my father and also the reduced hassle.”  With women she was always frustrated about not being able to show affection in public, and in any case, relationships with women never seemed to work out (apparently unable to flourish in the typically oppressive environment where she and her partners lived).

Leslie still clung to her lesbian identity, however, because of her overwhelming emotional and sexual preference for women.  Although an initial sexual attraction to her husband prompted the relationship and her mother’s “ecstatic” response to her involvement probably helped, the sexual attraction is no longer there and the marriage is now “a real struggle for both of us.”

“Helen the Heterosexual” spent twelve years as a lesbian and continues to have stronger emotional connections with women than men. Her mother found out about her lesbianism accidentally when Helen hadn’t “straightened” up her apartment sufficiently before a visit.  Her mother erupted in homophobia, telling her she’d be miserable, everyone will be against her, she’s sick and a freak, etc.

Helen struggled against her mother’s attitude, but her approval continued to be important to her. Helen believes her relationship of four years failed because she held back emotionally and smoked too much pot. Years later she discovered that when she didn’t smoke anymore it became even more difficult to be different.

When she decided she wanted to have children, Helen decided to do it within a heterosexual relationship.  “I felt it would be easier in the world .  .  .  being an acknowledged recognized couple .  .  .  to be able to be totally “out,” to have a relationship acknowledged and supported and validated in a way that gay relationships are not.”

When asked if heterosexual attraction played any role in her decision to leave a lesbian life, Helen said it didn’t, she did it for “the baby stuff, the acceptance stuff, and the ease of being in the world.”

Partial Acceptance

This book comes at a time when homosexuality sometimes appears to be becoming more socially accepted.  People seem more tolerant of queer people than when I was younger.  I meet open lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people in many places, not only in my city’s queer “ghetto.”

We have several out politicians in town, and TV shows with gay characters are no longer unusual.  While there is far from complete acceptance, there seems to be some positive movement.

This being the case, why would so many lesbians reconsider their choice?  Is the increasing social acceptance of gays mostly acceptance of gay men?  This would not be surprising given the double oppression that lesbians face as both queer and female.

Gay men can still have successful careers, the role traditionally assigned to men. The traditional definition of success for a woman—getting a man—is not an option for a lesbian.

Personal Response

As a bisexual woman, I have a very personal reaction to this book. I confess that when I hear of a woman who has rejected a lesbian identity my first assumption is that she is probably coming to terms with her bisexuality, having realized she is also attracted to men.

I know that many bisexuals are channeled into calling themselves lesbian or gay since they are either unaware of the bisexual option, or negative attitudes lead them to avoid it. A woman concluding she is actually bisexual and coming out as such seems like a good thing to me.

I would propose that, along with compulsory heterosexuality, we have social institutions that compel “compulsory `monosexuality’.” Most people feel that they need to make a choice—either straight or gay.

I started reading Leaving the Life with the assumption that I would run across passages that the author had interpreted as internalized lesbophobia, but that could just as easily reflect a woman’s unexpected realization that she could enjoy relationships with men. However, I quickly realized that the facts and figures do not suggest that.

Perhaps some of Menasche’s conclusions could be affected by a predisposition to read lesbophobia into the statements of her respondents.  If I said that I am happy in my relationship with a man, and acknowledge that I have it easier than if I were with a woman, would she conclude that I avoided pursuing relationships with women for this reason?

However, nothing in the book implies such a bias. The statistics Menasche cites—72% of the women in her study did not give emotional or sexual attraction to men as even one of the reasons why they sought relationships with men—and the statements she quotes make it clear that the phenomenon of abandoning lesbianism has a lot to do with lesbian oppression.

Most of these women were overwhelmed by the constant struggle necessary to live the life of a lesbian in our society.

Of course this is no surprise.  Homophobia is still alive and strong, sexism continues to thrive.  Women who try to build lives with other women challenge both these institutions head on. This book is a valuable record of the way oppression operates, the way some struggle against it and the reasons why others succumb.

Menasche ends with an appeal and a vision:

“For women to have our full dignity and humanity, we must have the freedom to love. As long as women’s lives are defined and circumscribed by the heterosexual imperative; as long as we need men to survive economically, socially, psychologically; .  .  .  no woman, whatever her sexual identity, can call herself free.

“What would the world be like if women were no longer terrorized into heterosexual relations .  .  .  ?  What if, instead, women’s passions for other women became as much a part of social life as the air we breathe, recognized and celebrated, equally with heterosexual love, by the entire culture?  What if, in such a world, men no longer had an `edge’ because of their gender, and were judged solely on their own individual merits?  Would they become better friends, better parents, better intimate partners, better people?  Would we see an end to male violence?  How much more power would women have in our personal lives, and in the larger society?” (217)

In other words, besides the obvious point that fighting for lesbian liberation is good for lesbians, it is essential for all women.  Lesbian oppression is one of the means by which women are controlled.  But also, as Menasche points out, lesbian liberation benefits men by helping to free them from restrictive traditional male roles.  The information Leaving the Life makes available is an important piece of this process of human liberation.

Karin Baker is a member of Solidarity in San Diego.  She is a teacher and is active in BiPol, a bisexual political action group.

ATC 91, March-April 2001