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What is Compulsory Heterosexuality: An Introduction

Compulsory heterosexuality (aka 'comphet') is a term that describes how heterosexuality is the dominant force in our culture

Compulsory heterosexuality (aka ‘comphet’) is a term that describes how heterosexuality is the dominant force in our culture. According to Rob Semple (they/them), an agender artist and cohost of Inner Hoe Uprising, a queer Black feminist podcast: “Compulsory heterosexuality is the standard that is promoted socially. It’s practiced out of habit.”

Where Did the Term Compulsory Heterosexuality Originate?

The term was originally made famous by Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Rich’s theory conveys that women and femmes in all cultures are made to believe that they have an innate preference for relationships with cisgender men, which causes women and femmes to devalue and minimize the significance of their relationships with other women and femmes. In addition, she adds that women and femmes are socialized to identify with cisgender men and “to [cast their] social, political, and intellectual allegiances” with them and are not encouraged to identify with other women and femmes. 

She writes: “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 fulfillment. We may faithfully or ambivalently have obeyed the institution, but our feelings – and our sensuality – have not been tamed or contained within it.” 

How Do the Manifestations of Male Power Tie Into This Concept?

Male dominance that occurs in a patriarchal society is a significant factor that enforces compulsory female heterosexuality. Kathleen Gough, a social anthropologist, and feminist, argues there are eight characteristics of male power in both archaic and contemporary societies. These include:

  1. Rejecting women’s sexuality
  2. Forcing male sexuality upon women
  3. Exploiting women’s labor
  4. Controlling or robbing women of their children
  5. Confining women physically
  6. Using women as objects for male transactions
  7. Denying women their creativity
  8. Denying women from the knowledge and cultural attainments

Together, these characteristics create a culture where women, femmes, and AFAB people are convinced that heterosexuality is inevitable by “control of consciousness.” This is especially true when used alongside lesbian erasure.

Heterosexuality makes women and femmes dependent on men for their needs and desires. According to The Radical Lesbians, heterosexual orientations can only exist under a society where male domination occurs. As a result, women and femmes must uplift each other instead of being implicit in male oppression. In addition, she argues that female heterosexuality may also exist under the illusion of seeking access to power through men rather than actual sexual attraction. Essentially, male socialization confuses power and dominance with sexual attraction.

Are There Any Controversies Regarding the Term Compulsory Heterosexuality?

Many young women and femmes have found this term helpful in describing why it took so long to discover their queer identities. These people had been fed the idea they had to be attracted to men and then internalized it. As a result, they invented crushes or misunderstood their interest in male friends or celebrities.

However, the term has been weaponized against other queer women, especially transgender, bisexual and pansexual women and femmes. In addition, the theory itself has been criticized since it upholds a system of binary gender. More intersectional critiques of this theory prove that compulsory heterosexuality ignores individuals who act outside of their assigned or prescribed gender roles and ignores these individuals’ agency. 

In fact, Rich herself was a known TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) who did not include trans women in her feminism. In a conversation with Rich, Janice Raymond said Rich describes trans women as “men who have given up the supposed ultimate possession of manhood in a patriarchal society by self-castration.”

Given the ongoing violence against trans women and other forms of transphobia within our culture, it’s essential to recognize the amount of transphobic and transmisogynistic language used within queer communities.

“Comphet” has also invalidated the experiences of bisexual and pansexual women and femmes. In our previous article about monosexism, we discussed how some people believe that people can only be attracted to one gender. However, we know that bi and pan people’s attractions are real, even though they are continually denied and invalidated within some queer communities. 

Bisexual author and advocate Gabrielle Alexa said:

“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.”

Where Has the Term Comphet Currently Been Popping up in Our Culture?

Ideas regarding the idea of “comphet” are coming up on TikTok, like during the “Am I a Lesbian” Masterdoc, for example. There is also the 31-page doc written by Angeli Luz and originally published on Tumblr in 2018. Basically, it sums up the societal pressures on women, femmes, and people assigned female at birth (AFAB).

The document states, “Compulsory’ is the opposite of ‘optional. Being straight is something our culture tries to force on us.”

In Summary

According to writer Meg-John Barker, ‘compcishet’ might be a more accurate term that describes this experience while being more inclusive of trans experiences. However, seeing as the term comphet has been picking up so much traction online, one way it could progress is by reclaiming the term so that it includes all sapphics.

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Billie Olsen

AUTHOR: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.

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