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social sciences

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Compulsory Heterosexuality  

Compulsory heterosexuality is the assumption that women and men are innately attracted to each other emotionally and sexually and that heterosexuality is normal and universal. This institutionalization of heterosexuality in our society leads to an institutionalized inequality of power not only between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals, but also between men and women, with far reaching consequences.

Under a regime of compulsory heterosexuality, men control all aspects of women's lives, including their sexuality, childbirth and rearing activities, safety, physical movement, labor, and access to knowledge. Compulsory heterosexuality leads to discrimination against homosexuals and the intolerance and/or invisibility of gay men and lesbians in society.

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Moreover, compulsory heterosexuality routinely punishes those who do not conform to heterosexuality. Thus, same-sex relationships are made taboo and, often, criminalized, while pressure is placed on people to form heterosexual relationships and bonds. The need to enforce male-female relationships as a social norm suggests that heterosexuality may be less an innate response and more of a social conditioning.

Poet Adrienne Rich introduced the concept of compulsory heterosexuality in her writings, most notably in her 1980 essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Rich was one of the first public intellectuals to challenge the idea that heterosexuality is the natural expression of human sexuality and that other forms of sexuality are deviant.

Rich argues that heterosexuality, rather than being natural or innate, is an institution designed to perpetuate male social and economic privilege. Rich contends that since the first erotic bond is to the mother and that this primary bond is what is natural, it follows that woman-identification is a more "natural" state of being than heterosexuality.

A post-modern critique of Rich's description of compulsory heterosexuality questions its assumption that it is possible for any identity to exist naturally. Another critique is that Rich places too much emphasis on woman-identification as the basis for lesbian activity and almost ignores sexuality. In her essay, sexuality is seen as masculine and not a part of woman-identification, thus perpetuating the idea that women are not naturally sexual.

Gayle Rubin argues that although the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality is a powerful force in the social construction of lesbianism as "deviant," the feminist insistence on regulated sexuality even between women is equally powerful and also oppressive.

According to Rubin, Rich and other anti-sex feminists redefine lesbian sexuality within feminist terms, rather than challenging the entire notion of "sexual correctness." This, in turn, creates a form of social control within the feminist movement, using the fear of "unfeminist" or "oppressive" sexuality to construct a normative "feminist" sexuality with all other forms as deviant. Rubin believes that this type of lesbian-feminism continues to regulate women's sexuality and thus works against the feminist goal of liberating women from all forms of oppression.

However, while the idea of compulsory heterosexuality has critics in both conservative and academic circles, the concept has been accepted and embraced in many college classes and by human rights activists. As one example of its scope, the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, held in Brussels, March 4-8, 1976, named compulsory heterosexuality (in the form of discrimination against and persecution of lesbians) as a "crime against women."

Stephanie R. Olson


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   Related Entries
social sciences >> Overview:  Cultural Identities

A growing body of scholarly and other work on Cultural Identities challenges the "naturalness," and even the political necessity, of a unitary gay and lesbian identity.

social sciences >> Overview:  Identity Politics

Not limited to activity in the traditionally conceived political sphere, identity politics refers to activism, politics, theorizing, and other similar activities based on the shared experiences of members of a specific social group, often relying on shared experiences of oppression.

social sciences >> Overview:  Patriarchy

Patriarchy, literally "the rule of the fathers," is a social system in which men hold positions of power and women are oppressed and glbtq people are treated negatively.

social sciences >> Overview:  Sexual Citizenship

The concept of sexual citizenship draws attention to the political aspects of erotics and the sexual component of politics.

literature >> Rich, Adrienne

Adrienne Rich, who aestheticized politics and politicized aesthetics, is America's most widely read lesbian poet.

social sciences >> Woman-Identified Woman

A cornerstone of lesbian activism in the 1970s, the concept of the woman-identified woman expressed the need for women to define themselves without reference to male-dominated societal structures.


Lockhart, Janet, and Susan M. Shaw. "Writing for Change: Raising Awareness of Difference, Power and Discrimination."

Rich, Adrienne. Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1986. New York: Norton, 1986.

_____. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5 (Summer 1980): 631-60.

Rubin, Gayle. "Thinking Sex." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin, eds. New York: Routledge, 1993. 3-44.

Sears, James T., and Walter L. Williams. Overcoming Heterosexism and Homophobia: Strategies that Work. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.


    Citation Information
    Author: Olson, Stephanie R.  
    Entry Title: Compulsory Heterosexuality  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated February 27, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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