Although I’m generally organizing this “classics of the history of gender and sexuality” series on a thematic basis, I moved this one out of order for logistical reasons (It’s the only one I have in pdf and I wanted get it done before I moved the other current 40+ article pdfs onto my iPad, so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.)
Rich’s article--written in 1980, the year I graduated college and came out as a lesbian--simultaneously feels dated and feels all too current. It is dated in some of the ways it uses terminology and concepts around the word “lesbian” in ways that are either overly broad or appropriative of other nuances of identity. I know that it’s frowned on to view either people or texts as “products of their time” but I think it is important to understand the context in which things are written and said.
In 1980 we hadn’t yet developed the current extensive palette of vocabulary to talk about nuances of identity. And in 1980 the queer struggle was for the right to be recognized as existing and valid in the face of overwhelming heteronomativity. If people seem to have taken overly absolute positions for queer identities that now feel narrow and prescriptive, it was in part because any equivocation, any sign of nuance or weakness in one’s political positions, was seized on as undermining the whole. If you’re a woman who has ever felt love or desire for a man, then you’re really just straight and confused. (It was social conservatives who established that interpretation first, before it became attributed as an official lesbian position.)
If lesbian activists and historians of that era seem overly eager to lay claim to marginal cases for the lesbian team, it was because all they seemed to have were marginal cases. The Ladies of Llangollen? Just good friends. Emily Dickinson? Neurotic and jealous. And for vast numbers of candidates “But they married/fucked men, so how could they be lesbians?”
But Rich’s article also feels very current in many ways: the exclusion of relations between women as a categorical alternative to heterosexuality when discussing social dynamics; discussing “women” in ways that silently assume “straight women” (and, of course, silently assume “straight white women”); the socio-political systems that indoctrinate women in (and enforce) heterosexuality because to recognize alternatives is to allow women an escape hatch, regardless of their innate orientations. When Rich lists those systems--including the interaction between misogynistic pornography culture and workplace gender power dynamics, social and legal structures that push women to rely on men for economic security and status, and so forth--many of the examples could be pulled from our current headlines.
So approach this article, written 40 years ago, with charity. And if parts of it seem quaintly old-fashioned, ask yourself why so many other parts haven’t changed.
Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Signs 5: 631-60.
Rich opens with examples of academic and feminist writing that talk about women’s lives in ways that exclude homo-affective bonds or label them as deviant. If lesbianism is mentioned at all, it is treated as being born of hostility toward men or as mere “sexual preference” or as being a direct mirror image of the male homosexual experience. She follows this bias towards “compulsory heterosexuality” in four sample texts, all presenting themselves as feminist and taking the position that social relations between the sexes are disordered and problematic, but in every case ignoring or excluding the question of how “lesbian existence” (and in the context of this article, it becomes clear that this should be read as “the existence of women’s committed same-sex relationships of any type”) would change both the analysis and possible solutions to that problem. None of the texts questions whether, all other things being equal, the same proportion of women would choose the problematic state of heterosexual marriage as it exists.
The first book, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women by Ehrenreich and English looks at professional health advice to women from a Marxist-feminist point of view with the conclusion that advice regarding sex, maternity, and child care has always echoed and reinforced the requirements that a capitalist economy requires women to fulfill. Although their analysis challenges the basis of many principles of this advice, it never deconstructs the anti-lesbian position embedded in the advice manuals, despite the clear parallels between the persecution of lesbians and more general misogyny.
The second book, Toward a New Psychology of Women (Miller) is written as if lesbians don’t exist. The third, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and the Human Malaise (Dinnerstein) argues that disordered gender relations can be addressed by more equal sharing of parenting and the erosion of gendered social roles. The current arrangements, the book argues, perpetuate social relations that are hostile, exploitive, and destructive. But the book operates on an assumption that relations between men and women are the essence of society and simply need to be made more rational. Excluded from consideration is the long history of women who either opted out of those relations or were excluded from them (singlewomen, widows, lesbians, etc.). The author considers female separatism an interesting but impractical thought experiment, ignoring the fact that the “experiment” already exists in the small scale and has done so for centuries.
The fourth book comes the closest to acknowledging lesbian existence. The Reproduction of Mothering (Chodorow) takes a psychoanalytic examination of the gendered imbalance of child-rearing and how relations with a same-gender versus other-gender primary caretaker affect a child’s psychological development. For women, she concludes, this dynamic means that men are “emotionally secondary” in their lives, that men are not as emotionally important to women as women are to men. And that women have had to learn to deny the limitations of men as lovers (compared to women) for practical and psychological reasons. But within this conclusion, she does not come to the apparently obvious attraction for women of having female lovers. Chodorow dismisses this idea with, “lesbian relationships do tend to re-create mother-daughter emotions and connections, but most women are heterosexual.” [Note: If one sometimes feels that Rich engages in bi-erasure in her rhetoric, it’s important to note that the texts she is studying also engage in bi-erasure from the straight side.] Chodorow continues, “This heterosexual preference and taboos on homosexuality, in addition to objective economic dependence on men, make the option of primary sexual bonds with other women unlikely--though more prevalent in recent years.” [Note: keep in mind that Chodorow was writing in 1978.] The presumption “most women are heterosexual” is not examined even in the face of acknowledging the potential influence of social taboos and economic inequities.
All four of the books focus on how to “fix” the existing system of compulsory heterosexuality, despite acknowledging that there are sound emotional and psychological reasons for women to enjoy bonds with other women. That women continue to disproportionately hold to heterosexual relationships because of innate preference and that engaging in homosexual relationships is the only state that requires an explanation. This is expressed sometimes as the position that all people are inherently bisexual and that in an ideal world in which gender inequities were removed, this would be expressed. But we don’t live in an ideal world and the choices women make and situations the find themselves in are shaped by the existing inequities, including unequal access to the concept of lesbian existence.
The second part of Rich’s article focuses on the question: if people’s earliest experiences of nurture and emotional caring are from women, why would women ever redirect their search for those things to men? [Note: Rich is engaging in her own essentialism and erasure here in accepting the archetype of the nurturing mother as representing an experiential truth.] Why have the dynamics of reproduction become so inseparable from the impulse toward emotional/erotic relationships that it became necessary to violently enforce women’s loyalty and subservience to men?
But she moves on to a set of dynamics laid out an essay “The Origin of the Family” (Gough) that, rather than examining the reasons for this situation, focuses on eight mechanisms by which it is maintained [my paraphrases]:
These mechanisms act together with the idealization of heterosexual romance and marriage in popular culture to make same-sex alternatives not simply unattainable but unthinkable.
The next part of the article looks at the braiding together of the sexualization of women in everyday life, especially in the workplace, with the normalization of pornographic imagery, and the use of accusations of lesbianism or prudishness against women who push back against these forces. Within this multi-layered dynamic, does the notion of women’s “consent” have any meaning? [Note: this is one part of the article where I got a strong “not enough has changed vibe,” when you look at entire industries where women feel that their economic participation is contingent on going along with pervasive, casual sexualization of their existence.] Does “consent” to heterosexual marriage have any meaning if it is offered as the only viable alternative to male predation in the workplace? [Note: In 1980, one could still have the illusion that marriage enabled a woman to remove herself from the public economy.]
What if, Rich asks, men’s sexual anxieties about women are not that sexually uncontrolled women will “devour” them, but that sexually uncontrolled women will find them irrelevant? How much of the enforcement of male sexual dominance over women is because men fear not having access to sex at all? [Note: this question in Rich’s article predates but predicts the “incel” mentality.] Female sexual slavery exists not only in conditions of physical restraint, but in any situation where women trade consent and autonomy for freedom from violence and exploitation. The concept of compulsory heterosexuality enables that system by suppressing the awareness of alternatives.
At polar opposites are the questions: why do some women never turn away from that “primary emotional attachment to women,” and conversely why do some lesbians persist in identify/aligning with men in their social and political allegiances? [Note: I feel like this can be answered by “people are complex” but we’re going somewhere more theoretical in this article.] The phenomenon of the oppressed identifying with the values of the colonizer is widespread as a survival mechanism. We see it in women being co-opted into being the “enforcers” of male dominance (e.g., women as the gatekeepers for phenomena like genital mutilation or other physical “beauty” torture practices). It is also a factor in white women’s racism where allegiance to white male oppressors is valued over identification with other women.
Rich returns to Cavin’s “rich and provocative, if highly speculative” ideas about the history of the rise of patriarchy within a posited context of matrilineal female-dominated social bands. I.e., that the mother-child bond with male children was allowed to overcome the purported practice of ejecting adolescent males. [Note: I’m glad that Rich added “highly speculative” here.] Thus the idea that the primacy of heterosexual pairings evolves from male exploitation of the mother-son parental bond. Whatever its origins, Rich suggests, is the question that feminism needs to address not so much simple “gender equality” but the enforcement of heterosexuality for the purpose of ensuring men’s unquestioned sexual, emotional, and economic access to women? And if this is the central problem of feminism, how does the erasure of lesbian possibilities undermine finding the solution?
In the third section of Rich’s article, she defines what she means by the terms “lesbian existence” and “lesbian continuum.”
[Note: this is a part of the article that I feel contemporary readers must work to enter with an open mind. The very phenomenon that Rich makes the center of this article--that a vast complex of social and historical forces combine to keep women from embracing the power of bonds with other women--continues to operate. There are ways in which use of the word “lesbian” are still being used to fracture and divide groups that by rights ought to be natural allies. I am not a disinterested bystander on this topic, as someone who identifies strongly with the label “lesbian” in a variety of its possible senses, and as someone willing to fight to the death to prevent the word from being turned into a poison pill by conservative forces who are trying to co-opt lesbian existence to weaponize it against other queer people. But that’s a rant for another time and place. For now, let me beg the reader to allow that “lesbian” can be used in an inclusive, rather than exclusive sense--in the sense used when we identify (the heterosexually-married) Sappho as a “lesbian”, when we embrace as historical antecedents the women described in 16-18th century texts as “lesbians” on the basis of erotic/romantic relationships between women, even when those same women also had erotic/romantic relationships with men.]
It’s worth quoting Rich extensively here. “Lesbian existence suggests both the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continuing creation of the meaning of that existence. I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range--through each woman’s life and throughout history--of woman-identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. If we expand it to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support; if we can also hear in it such associations as marriage resistance and the “haggard” behavior identified by Mary Daly ... we begin to grasp breadths of female history and psychology which have lain out of reach as a consequence of limited, mostly clinical, definitions of ‘lesbianism.’”
The denial of lesbian existence is made possible by the lack of automatic access to a shared community and history (unlike the existence of identities that are based on ethnic, religious, or national identifies). Lesbian existence in history can be erased not only by prevention of the creation of a historic record, but by prevention of the transmission of that record [Note: see the reason we don’t have the majority of Sappho’s poetry, or more recently the deliberate omission of vocabulary relating to lesbianism from the Oxford English Dictionary], or by the direct destruction of that record (e.g., the burning of letters and diaries). Lesbian existence can also be erased by a false equivalence of the lesbian experience as identical to that of men in homosexual relationships. [Note: in this section, we can see some unsettling hints of Rich’s woman-centered philosophy swallowing divide-and-conquer tactics when she notes that she wants to dissociate the lesbian experience from “male homosexual values and allegiances” and to consider it as “a profoundly female experience.”] Accepting “lesbian” as having only a clinical, medicalized definition divorces it from the experience of female friendship and comradeship, focusing only on the erotic and thus limiting the understanding of the erotic. [Note: She refers to the type of distinction seen in Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men where a qualitative line is drawn between romantic relationships between women based solely on whether those relationships had an erotic component. One angle that Rich doesn't---if I recall correctly--bring up explicitly, is that an insistence on a strict narrow clinical definition of "lesbian" as "a woman whose erotic desire and sexual activity not only is expressed overtly, but is solely directed toward women throughout her entire life." A big problem with such a narrow definition is that it essentially negates the possibility of finding lesbians in history.]
Rich works through a detailed catalog of the types of interactions between women that she wants to include under her concept of a “lesbian continuum” with the assertion that if all of those relationships can be dismissed as “deviant” in support of the proposition that heterosexuality is the only “natural” orientation for women, then women’s natural alliances with each other (and the resistance generated by those alliances) can be suppressed and dismissed. Similarly the “double-life” of women who would have preferred to devote themselves entirely to their relationships with women, but who married men for economic security, can be reclassified as “women’s natural preference for heterosexuality.”
The fourth section of Rich’s article is largely a summing up of her conclusions. Here are a few highlights. The denial of the reality and visibility of women’s passions for each other is a loss to the power of all women to change relationships between the sexes. It is based on a series of lies: that women are inevitably and tragically drawn to men even in destructive relationships, that women turn to women only out of hatred for men. So are all heterosexual relationships to be condemned? That’s the wrong question, she suggests, paralyzing us into a fixation on identifying “good” versus “bad” heterosexual relationships. It is the absence of choice--the refusal to acknowledge other categorical options--that must be addressed.