One of the most simultaneously interesting and annoying concepts I learned about this semester in feminist jurisprudence was the idea of compulsory heterosexuality*. At first, I was pissed off-- I don't like being told that my feelings are the result of some societally programmed false consciousness-- but at the same time, I do know that socialization has a huge effect on who we become as people-- nature creates a map, but nurture provides the force to guide us around that map.
So I ended up thinking more about compulsory heterosexuality, and how it might apply to me and to other women I know.
The idea of compulsory heterosexuality is fairly simple-- it's based on the idea that we are always presented being straight as a default and as inevitable. And culturally, that's really true-- or at least, it has been in the past. The end of every fairy tale is a heterosexual union, many people grew up never knowing any out queer* individuals, and it was assumed when everyone entered middle school that you had to have some sort of male heartthrob to crush on. Some of this is changing-- there are definitely more out queer individuals and gay couples, and there exists a growing number of kid's books that lack the traditional heterosexual pairing. It might be that the toddlers of today reach their consciousness in a world in which being straight is no longer the default assumption-- but in today's society, many people treat others as straight until proven not.
So, for someone of my age-- how much has compulsory heterosexuality affected me? I don't think it has, all that much. There definitely has been social pressure to be straight rather than gay-- both from family and from the peers I grew up with-- but I also grew up with social pressure not to date outside my race, and I certainly managed to do that in college. I'm also given to a little too much introspection-- over-analyzing all my feelings, towards everyone. Plus, I grew up with the idea that while being gay might not be socially acceptable, it certainly wasn't something bad-- yay fantasy novels? Books were definitely my first introduction to the world of non-straightness, as they were to many other ideas and concepts. I have dated men exclusively, and will be marrying a man. I do not, however, feel as if I have entered into this relationship with no choice. Instead, I have evaluated my life and my relationship choices. I have made choices along the way regarding who to date, and I have always chosen to date men, though I have certainly not chosen to date all the men who were available to me for dating.
There's another side to the compulsory heterosexuality theory though, and that side suggests that women ought to give up relationships with men to invest more deeply in relationships with other women, including sexual relationships. In this regard it lines up pretty well with the concept of political lesbianism. I am pretty much the opposite of a fan of this aspect. I find it to be completely ungenuine, and to be asking individuals to behave in a way that is unnatural for them-- just as a society that pressures everyone to act straight is asking some individuals to live in a way that is unnatural for them. I am completely in favor of investing more in same sex friendships, but I think trying to force a sexual relationship out of a friend-bond is problematic and unfair to both partners. Instead, I think it would be healthier if we could somehow remove the expectations of what gender someone should date, and encourage people to examine their emotional and sexual feelings on a case by case basis.
I do think that examining our views on sexuality is important. It is important to know what shaped us, what expectations ourselves and others have had for us, and what desires we might have that we don't consciously know. I do not think that heterosexuality is always a result of false consciousness though, and I think that both straight and non-straight sexual experiences can be equally fulfilling-- but that they are not likely to be equally fulfilling for any given individual. Just like there is nothing wrong with not being straight, being straight ought not have any judgement associated with it. And with a continually changing landscape, maturing individuals have a great opportunity to come to age more aware of themselves and their options than ever before.
What do you think about the idea of compulsory heterosexuality? How have expectations shaped your romantic experiences?
*Compulsory heterosexuality, as a term, was originated by Adrienne Rich in her essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.
*Why do I use the term queer? Because it's a broader and more encompassing term than "gay or lesbian". Queer includes gays, lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals, those who are flexible, and those who feel no label fits, among others. Queer can also include people who are genderqueer.