Posted by Pallavi Kaul
bisexual, cisgender female
Artwork by Bhavya Sharma
In a heteropatriarchal society like ours, heterosexuality is largely enforced on people. Compulsory Heterosexuality is a term popularized by lesbian feminist Adrienne Rich in her essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980). She states that “heterosexuality is not simply the result of a natural attraction between men and women but is, in fact, an institution that is forced upon people, through various forms of psychological, physical, legal, economic and cultural coercion.” Male-female relationships aren’t simply imposed upon people because they are a “natural attraction”; there is a larger socioeconomic and cultural context that makes it a norm. In deeply homophobic countries such as India, there exist laws that punish homosexuality; there are norms that expect people to marry a person of the “opposite sex”, there is a taboo surrounding queerness so prevalent that all conversations about it are curbed. The assumption that all people are heterosexual, the way children are taught to perform heterosexuality since early childhood and the blatant marginalization of and violence against non-heterosexual people are just some parts of compulsory heterosexuality.
While compulsory heterosexuality impacts all people, it is mostly harmful for women. Women’s freedom is restrained, because it is asserted that they form relationships with men. Since quite early on in their lives, women are socialized such that they become conditioned to believe that their future must involve a sexual/romantic relationship with a man. Their attraction to men becomes mandatory; any space to realize their sexuality, any sexuality, is taken away. Women internalize these beliefs; their self-expression becomes almost entangled with the prescribed relationship with men around them. A woman is compelled to perform herself for a man, for his desire. Her relationships with men are given the primary importance, because that is what she is here for. Heterosexual women are groomed to please their subsequent male partners. They stay in unhealthy relationships because they are taught that being with the wrong man is still better than being without a man. There are women who don’t have economic independence, women who fear social rejection, women whose religious or cultural rules don’t allow leaving their men. But to a large extent, this is unconscious. Women don’t even realize that they have a choice. Society conditions them so deeply that they don’t even stop and analyze the way they express their heterosexuality.
Perhaps the most affected by compulsory heterosexuality are wlw. When heterosexuality is put on a pedestal and considered the norm, the attraction of queer women towards other women is shunned or punished. The homophobia that queer women face is directly correlated to how the society forces heterosexual attraction upon them. Lesbians often struggle with internalized homophobia, having been taught since childhood that homosexuality is “not normal”. They face lesbophobic violence, both physical and psychological. They are punished for their homosexuality by friends and family, as well as the larger community. The existence of women whose futures do not involve relationships with men poses a threat to the heteropatriarchal society. Bisexual/Pansexual women, on the other hand, face erasure of their attraction towards women, they are assumed to “eventually end up with a man”. An important aspect of their bisexuality/pansexuality, that is their same gender attraction, is ignored in favor of ensuring that their attraction to men is singularly highlighted. Queer women face misogyny as well as queerphobia. The sociopolitical forces that make heterosexuality mandatory for women facilitate the propagation of the many penalties that wlw face. It creates an environment where they feel threatened to express their sexuality; they often struggle with accepting their sexual orientations as valid, they are ostracized for their attraction to women.
Moreover, compulsory heterosexuality shapes the experiences of queer people, impacted by both systematic oppression as well as microaggressions of cishet people. It ensures that heterosexual women continue to perform emotional labor for men at the cost of their own selves. It ensures that wlw are marginalized and invalidated, both by internal forces and external ones. It ensures that there is no place for women to lead a life where they aren’t constantly catering to the needs and desires of men, where their lives aren’t forced to revolve around men. It ensures that the larger sociocultural context remains as misogynistic and queerphobic as it always has been. And most importantly, compulsory heterosexuality ensures that the cisheteropatriarchal institutions remain in place, and cishet men continue to stay in power.
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