A Guide to Adrienne Rich's Article “Compulsory Heterosexuality and

A Political
Institution that
A Guide to Adrienne Rich’s Article “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”
About the Author
Adrienne Rich was was an American poet, essayist and
She published “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian
Experience” in 1980.
Purpose of the Article
In this article, she uses textual and historical arguments to
encourage heterosexual feminists to examine heterosexualatiy
as a political institution which disempowers women.
What’s Wrong With Heterosexuality?
Female heterosexuality is assumed and enforced by a patriarchal society.
(A patriarchal society is where men hold all the power and women are excluded.)
In this patriarchal society, it is often “assumed” that heterosexuality is ALWAYS a
woman’s sexual preference.
Ex. Every Disney princess movie out there begins with the ideal that “someday my
prince will come.”
How is Heterosexuality a Political
Heterosexuality is NOT necessarily natural or innate for females.
Instead heterosexulity is a POLITICAL INSTITUTION that has been and continues to
be forced onto women by patriarchal societies that want to make women secondary
to men.
For Rich, heterosexuality loses it’s meaning as a sexual orientation and is instead
similar to other political institutions like racism.
So, What’s the Real Problem?
Women are lied to.
They are told they are heterosexual beings by their parents, teachers, priests,
friends, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and colleagues. Their entire existence is around
“finding a man.”
And the problem is there are no alternatives for women in our culture or academics!
Until recently, there were NO scholarly articles or cultural messages out there that
tells women that they are not objects of men.
Are Males Specifically to Blame?
Rich would say it’s the patriarchy, not individual men.
For a very long time, man have wielded illegitimate and exploitative power over
The next slide introduces you to 8 ways men use their power in society to suppress
women in a heterosexual relationship...
8 Historical Characteristics of Male Power
used to Suppress Women:
There is no literature on lesbianism
Men force their sexuality upon women
dependent on them
through rape
Men use women as objects
Men control women’s reproductive
Men are culturally and historically
treated as more important
Men force women to be economically
Men control child custody
Men hide knowledge about lesbianism
from women
Why do Men Feel They Need to Control
They have a primal fear that women could be indifferent to men altogether.
Men fear that they can have emotional, sexual, and economic access to women
ONLY on a woman’s terms.
Are Lesbian Relationships Realistic for
Rich shows how heterosexual relationships give women social and economic security.
Being married to a societally dominant male offers much more protection than
remaining single or pursuing a relationship with a woman.
Heterosexuality may not be a preference for some, but rather a step towards a
woman's future safety.
Why Are Relationships with Women
Men want women to believe that pursuing a relationship with a woman is not the
path to safety because this would be a lesbian relationship. And being in a lesbian
relationship means neither woman has any social power.
The patriarchy associates lesbian relationships as women simply wanting to
recreate mother-daughter emotions and connections. They basically invalidate the
relationship by desexualizing it.
So, Rich explains lesbianism in a new way….
What is Lesbianism?
Rich states right away that lesbianism is a stigmatized term.
Lesbianism is more than a sexuality. It is an emotional and psychological
identification with other women.
It is a bonding that has occurred all throughout history, no matter what a woman’s
personal sexual orientation is.
So, Rich introduces 2 new terms: Lesbian Existence and Lesbian Continuum
What is Lesbian Existence and the Lesbian
Lesbian existence is the rejection of a compulsory way of life. It is an attack on male
right of access to women.
And the Lesbian Continuum is a way to broadened lesbianism to include female
friendship/comradery. She explains that with this view, all women would be placed on
this lesbian continuum.
Stop the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality!
Rich is calling for us to undo the power men have wielded over women.
Take-Away Message:
Women may have a preference toward heterosexualty BUT they also may have
had heterosexuality imposed, propagandized, or forced onto them.
We need to stop the promotion of heteronormativity that ensares women into
the myths and norms maintained and perpetuated by society.
Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs: Journal
of Women in Culture and Society Signs 5.4 (1980): 631.