Monday, May 3, 2010

Compulsory Heterosexuality

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.

3 comments:

April said...

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.

I used to have the same feelings about political lesbianism. Lately, though, because of some random experiences and admittedly pot-influenced thought processes and discussions, I think I've started to understand why someone may enter that lifestyle willingly, while knowing they are more sexually attracted to men than women. I should add the disclaimer that, while I've had enjoyable sexual experiences with women, I consider myself to be a heterosexual woman. While I've been sexually attracted to a few women in my adulthood, I've exclusively pursued romantic and sexual relationships with men (the experiences with women were not pursued or planned).

I think that, to many women, "giving up" men can feel much like "giving up" TV or fast food, to use a couple superficial (but still sometimes difficult to accomplish) examples. To many women, regardless of their sexual proclivities, men are the enemy, because of a history of abuse and maltreatment and oppression at the hands of males. Every women doesn't have this experience, of course, but every woman doesn't necessarily view their sexual attraction as the most important and undeniable part of their identities. I think that making a choice to forge a romantic and sexual attraction to a member of the gender you aren't usually interested in might also be a learned skill. Not, of course, necessary for everyone, but possible, in my opinion. I think that in many situations where a woman is a "political lesbian," she is already set on the idea of bonding with women-- the only part of the human race with whom she feels able to form lasting connections-- informs her ability to take that a step further, into a sexual and/or romantic relationship. I don't see myself entering a lesbian relationship under those pretenses because I don't have the experience of only being able to relate to other women, and in my present life, I am only just starting to "connect" with other women in a healthy and rewarding way.

The anticipates and often realized results of "converting" to lesbianism for political reasons can often trump the sometimes disappointing realities that come from it (denying yourself sexual contact with people you may be more attracted to). And it's important to remember that most women who are "political" lesbians, rather than "true" lesbians are honest about this fact, and the reasons behind their decision, and aren't often attempting to appropriate a lesbian identity from someone who's been made to suffer because of who they are. They're merely choosing what they know to be the best way for themselves to escape the abuse and oppression they've suffered at the hand of the "opposite" sex.

Sorry for the ramble. Anyway, I thought this was a really enlightening post. I've been intrigued with the idea of "political lesbianism" and, even though I didn't have a name for it until now, "compulsory heterosexuality." Thanks for this post!

Hagouchonda said...

"Compulsory Heterosexuality"
Oh! My God! How someone can be sooooo stupid! It's the stupidest thing I ever heard about! No surprise for me, it's a feminist theory... LOL!

Heterosexuallity is the normality simply because IT'S THE ONLY WAY THAT PRODUCE CHILD and this mean that non-heterosexuality is an evolutive death-end. If thing are other way homo sapiens sapiens go extinct -PERIOD. Simple plain basic biology and darwinism.

Do you know the name of the asshole who 'invented' this ridiculous stupidity?!

Thank you for this good LOL!

Amanda said...

Hagouchonda,

As I mentioned in the body of the post itself, the term compulsory heterosexuality was coined by Adrienne Rich.

In focusing solely on the reproductive aspects, you're missing the bulk of the post. Yes, hetero people are more likely because they're more likely to reproduce. But the point is that perhaps people are not fully experiencing their own desires, but are instead funneling their experiences through a societally accepted framework of understanding. It involves thinking more deeply about why we are the way that we are.