Have you ever looked back on a crush, or maybe even a relationship with a man, and realised you maybe weren’t actually into him like that; you just thought he was super cool, or you liked his style, or you admired his accomplishments and you weren’t sure how to process or show that beyond romantic/sexual interest? Welcome to compulsory heterosexuality.
Compulsory heterosexuality or ‘comphet’ as it’s colloquially known, is a term used to describe the way in which our culture coerces us into viewing all intimacy or connection between men and women as sexual or romantic. For example, I’m currently trying to work out whether I’m actually hot for the dishevelled, unstable version of Bo Burnham, or whether I’m just in awe of what a phenomenal piece of art Inside is. Like all women, I’ve been conditioned from childhood to see all feelings I have towards men as attraction.
The term compulsory heterosexuality is having a moment online right now, possibly due to a viral Google Doc known as ‘The Lesbian Masterdoc’. The document, which has recently been doing the rounds on TikTok, was written by Angeli Luz when she was a teenager and draws on her own struggles with figuring out her lesbian identity.
“Compulsory heterosexuality is what forces lesbians to struggle through learning the difference between what you’ve been taught you want (being with men) and what you do want (being with women),” the document explains.
“I think that 'comphet' is helpful because it really gets at the feeling of just how compulsory heterosexuality feels to so many people: all of the cultural, emotional, and material forces pushing us in that heterosexual direction. It also gets at how relationships between women are so undervalued and seen as so much less real and significant as relationships with men,” says author and scholar Meg-John Barker.
The term has evidently been extremely useful for many young women and gender-variant people in figuring out their identities and the validity of their attraction to men. But it isn’t without its controversies.
The origin of compulsory heterosexuality
The term was coined by lesbian feminist Adrienne Rich in her essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience’. Rich argues that heterosexuality is not a natural inclination in women: it’s a political institution in which women are oppressed by men. Women are servants to men on multiple levels, including; domestic labour, sexual subservience, and emotional labour.
“Women have married because it was necessary, in order to survive economically, in order to have children who would not suffer economic deprivation or social ostracism, in order to remain respectable, in order to do what was expected of women because coming out of ‘abnormal’ childhoods they wanted to feel ‘normal’" and because heterosexual romance has been represented as the great female adventure, duty, and fulfilment. We may faithfully or ambivalently have obeyed the institution, but our feelings - and our sensuality - have not been tamed or contained within it,” she writes.
Rich proposed that women’s sexuality existed along a ‘lesbian continuum’, wherein women had more to gain from intimacy and relationships with women, whether that intimacy was friendship, romance, or sexual, than from any relationships with men. Rich advocated for political lesbianism (choosing to either not have relationships with men, or pursue relationships with women, regardless of your sexual orientation, for political reasons) and lesbian separatism; claiming that women could only be free to be their authentic selves when free from men’s - and by extension the patriarchy’s - influence by pursuing lives with other women.
Unlike some advocates of political lesbianism and lesbian separatism, Rich believed that everyone, including all women, is innately attracted to women , whereas attraction to men is learned. Rich argued that women’s attraction to men was in fact internalised patriarchy and not genuine.
Compulsory heterosexuality: The controversies
Many young women online have found the term useful to describe why it took them so long to figure out their queer identities; they had internalised the idea that they had to be attracted to men and therefore created crushes or misconstrued their interest in male friends or celebrities.
However, the term has also been used to exclude and invalidate other queer women, particularly trans and bisexual and pansexual women. Like many (but not all) lesbian feminists, Rich did not include trans women in her feminism, denying that trans women were ‘real’ women. In her infamous book The Transexual Empire, Janice Raymond cites a conversation with Rich where she describes trans women as “men who have given up the supposed ultimate possession of manhood in a patriarchal society by self-castration.”
The phrase has also been used to invalidate bi and pan’s women’s experiences. Thanks to monosexism - the societal belief that only monosexual (aka; attracted to one gender) identities are real, stable, or valid - bi and pan people’s attractions are regularly denied and invalidated, even within queer communities.
“I think it's useful because compulsory heterosexuality does impact everyone. However, the word is so often used intra-communally to suggest that bi folks are actually just gay/queer but struggling with societal pressure to hold on to being straight. I mean, the Lesbian Masterdoc, in particular, is viewed as like, the Sapphic Bible in some spaces and a lot of what is written there just imposes a label on experiences and behaviours that can also be bisexual/pansexual/queer,” explains bisexual author and advocate Gabriellel Alexa.
Lesbian writer, speaker and consultant Ellen Jones has similar thoughts about the phrase. “I think comphet and heteronormativity (the belief that heterosexuality is the default, normal, or preferred orientation) get conflated a lot. I actually prefer heteronormativity as a critical lens and disagree with the idea that it can't be used to evaluate power structures.”
“Always with these things I tend to ask 'what does this open up and what does it close down?'” suggests Barker. “Personally I'm of the view that language changes in meaning all the time. For example we use the word 'queer' in very different ways, 40 years on, than it was used in 1980 when Rich's paper was written. I doubt that people on social media are generally meaning the exact same thing by 'comphet' as Rich meant back then.”
Meg-John suggests ‘compcishet’ might be a useful term to describe this experience while explicitly including trans experiences. Another useful term could also be ‘internalised heteronormativity’ (internhet?). But given the steam comphet has already picked up online, perhaps the best way forward is to reclaim the phrase in a way that’s inclusive of all sapphics.
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