May 8, 2008
The persistent relevance of Rich’s ‘compulsory heterosexuality’
I was just re-reading Adrienne Rich’s influential essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” for the thesis chapter I’m writing. In reading it, I was particularly struck and rather saddened by how so much of what she said is still relevant nearly 30 years later.
Quick summary of Rich’s article: an institutional analysis of heterosexuality is needed. Most feminist texts (at least at that time) assumed that heterosexuality is “desired” by “most” women. Rich argues that this can only be assumed because we do not consider the ways in which heterosexuality is compulsory for women, and the article in part suggests many of the ways it becomes compulsory. Further, adherence to heterosexuality requires lesbian invisibility, which is also produced in many ways (including lesbian visibility in terms of exotic or fetish for male pleasure and the need to present oneself in terms of heterosexual desirability and availability, as indicated by the quote below).
Unfortunately, I don’t have time for much actual exegesis, but I wanted to post one of the quotations that I found particularly interesting.
In discussing Catherine MacKinnon’s Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, Rich says:
Two forces of American society converge; men’s control over women’s sexuality and capital’s control over employees’ work lives […] Economically disadvantaged, women– whether waitresses or professors– endure sexual harassment to keep their jobs and learn to behave in a complaisantly and ingratiatingly heterosexual manner because they discover this is their true qualification for employment, whatever the job description. And, MacKinnon notes, the woman who too decisively resists sexual overtures in the workplace is accused of being ‘dried-up’ and sexless, or lesbian.
[…] A lesbian, closeted on her job because of heterosexual prejudice, is not simply forced into denying the truth of her outside relationships or private life; her job depends on her pretending to be not merely heterosexual but a heterosexual woman, in terms of dressing and playing the feminine, deferential role required of ‘real’ women.
We see that this happens not just in the workplace but in social identity generally. But aside from identity production, that there are economic consequences that emphasize the need to present heterosexual femininity, whether lesbian or not, perpetuates both gender inequality and the erasure of lesbian existence.
Read it in full:
journal article (accessible through most universities)
in her book, Blood, Bread and Poetry