In 1980 Adrienne Rich published an essay called Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence. Compulsory Heterosexuality, as the name suggests, is the notion that our society is built on the assumption that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise.
In many ways, the essay is outdated and follows a more lesbian-based and gender-binaried structure, however the key concept itself is still valid today. It’s something that all of us, of any sexuality, can identify in our society.
It’s obvious in the films and tv we watch, in the ways adults put young boys and girls together in jest and explains the whole reason for ‘coming out’ – if you don’t come out as LGBTQ+ to the world, its assumed that you are heterosexual.
Personally, compulsory heterosexuality is what kept me from realising and accepting my own attraction to women throughout my young adult life. Many queer people will say when they come out, “I always knew”, but for me, I really didn’t. Because of the films I was watching and the music I was listening to, I admired boy-girl relationships and fantasized about what my adult dating life would look like. But I also focused on the woman on screen in romantic scenes, I was fascinated by masculine presenting women in the media and I would wonder how it would feel to kiss a girl at school I was ‘really good friends with’.
Whilst all of this sounds obvious now, at the time it went straight over my head. Same-sex attraction was simply not on my radar being at a catholic school in the north east of England, and so I genuinely believed I was just a heterosexual 15 year old having these queer (pardon the pun) thoughts.
Compulsory heterosexuality means that if you’re a girl having a fondness for a girl, it’s assumed you want to be her friend, and if you have a fondness for a boy, it’s assumed you have a crush. Many young people (and grown adults questioning) internalise this, and believe it.
It was only when I reached Sixth Form and university that I began to understand my attraction towards women for what it really was.
Female sexuality in the media
For years I identified as ‘a straight girl with a physical attraction towards women’ because I didn’t know what a same-sex relationship could look like. I couldn’t see myself being romantic with a girl, and I didn’t have any portrayals in the media that felt relatable. Reaching my final year at university, having seen female friends in relationships with girls and understanding more how it could be, I finally realised that I desired it.
Although I knew I was attracted to women, I still had difficulty believing it and picturing it because I couldn’t see any women who looked like me, or had my experience, in the media.
It’s only in recent years that queer women on screens have started to defy sterotypes – not necessarily hyper feminine or masculine, not going through a phase, not knowing their sexuality from a young age. For many people, including myself, a lack of varied representation can lead to repression; surely I can’t be attracted to women, because I can’t imagine myself in the same-sex relationships and life paths I’ve seen on screen.
This was all made more difficult due to the fact that girly girls are assumed to be heterosexual (thanks again, compulsory heterosexuality). You begin to question things like ‘but who would be the girl and who would be the boy?’ and ‘do I have to dress more gay?’.
On nights out at uni I would painstakingly flirt with girls who thought I was just being friendly, and on one occasion (during a time where I was testing the label ‘gay’) a man just refused to believe I didn’t want to sleep with him.
Varied representation is so important, as it not only validates and encourages those who know their sexuality, but can be a fundamental stepping stone in realising sexuality in the first place.
Cancel Compulsory Heterosexuality
If as a society we break down compulsory heterosexuality, we can be more accepting of queer people, fluidity of sexuality and even help catalyse an LGBTQ+ person realising how they feel and who they are.
There are many ways to do this in small everyday ways, such as not assuming a person’s gender or orientation, and also not assuming that these things are 100% fixed in place for a person’s entire life.
Be kind and open to people who are questioning and coming out; strike a tactful balance of fully believing and validating how they identify but also knowing if things change, that’s ok too. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t believe a gay woman because her sexuality might change; it just means, if it happens to change, you continue being open and accommodating.
Similarly, if a person says “I’m actually not sure”, that’s ok too. There is no hurry or pressure to find a label or identification. Simply let that person know that you’re there for them, and encourage them to continue their journey however they feel comfortable.
If they come out with a label, congratulate them, and if they don’t, congratulate them all the same. Many people find labels helpful and validating, particularly if you are someone who isn’t too familiar with the LGBTQ+ community. However, they are simply words that we have placed onto certain parts of the spectrum of sexuality, and if someone doesn’t find one that quite fits, or spends a long time moving between a few, we must respect that.
An article by Kate McCaughey
Kate is an English Literature and Theatre Studies graduate from the University of Leeds. Now living and working in the North East of England as a writer, Kate is Passionate about current socials inequalities and focus much of her work on LGBTQ+ issues, class and women’s rights. These range of skills in copy editing, zine editing, spoken word and theatre makes Kate an incredible addition for Proudly.Blog.