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Compulsory Heterosexuality and

Lesbian Existence 


Adrienne Rich

 

Adrienne Rich's essay constitutes a powerful challenge to some of our least examined sexual assumptions. Rich turns all the familiar arguments on their heads: If the first erotic bond is to the mother, she asks, could not the "natural" sexual orientation of both men and women be toward women?

Rich's radical questioning has been a major intellectual force in the general feminist reorientation to sexual matters in recent years, and her conception of a "lesbian continuum" sparked especially intense debate. Does lesbianism incorporate all support systems and intense interactions among women, or is it a specifically erotic choice? What is gained and what is lost with the second, narrower definition? Rich's assumptions also usefully raise the more general theoretical question: Is adult sexuality so closely associated with the infant bond that genuinely satisfying sex relations are likely to be structured primarily around nurturance?

I

Biologically men have only one innate orientation--a sexual one that draws them to women--while women have two innate orientations, sexual toward men and reproductive toward their young.(1)  

I was a woman terribly vulnerable, critical using femaleness as a sort of standard of yardstick to measure and discard men. Yes--something like that. I was an Anna who invited defeat from men without ever being conscious of it. (But I am conscious of it. And being conscious of it means I shall leave it all behind me and become--but what?) I was stuck fast in an emotion common to women of our time, that can turn them bitter, or Lesbian, or solitary. Yes, that Anna during that time was . . .  

[Another blank line across the page:](2)

The bias of compulsory heterosexuality, through which lesbian experience is perceived on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent, or simply rendered invisible, could be illustrated from many other texts than the two just preceding. The assumption made by Rossi, that women are "innately sexually oriented" toward men, or by Lessing, that the lesbian choice is simply an acting-out of bitterness toward men, are by no means theirs alone; they are widely current in literature and in the social sciences.

I am concerned here with two other matters as well: first, how and why women's choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners co-workers, lovers, tribe, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise; and second, the virtual or total neglect of lesbian existence in a wide range of writings, Including feminist scholarship. Obviously there is a connection here. I believe that much feminist theory and criticism is stranded on this shoal.

My organizing impulse is the belief that it is not enough for feminist thought that specifically lesbian texts exist. Any theory or cultural/political creation that treats lesbian existence as a marginal or less "natural" phenomenon, as mere "sexual preference," or as the mirror image of either heterosexual or male homosexual relations is profoundly weakened thereby, whatever its other contributions. Feminist theory can no longer afford merely to voice a toleration of "lesbianism" as an "alternative life-style," or make token allusion to lesbians. A feminist critique of compulsory heterosexual orientation for women is long overdue. In this exploratory paper, I shall try to show why.

I will begin by way of examples, briefly discussing four books that have appeared in the last few years, written from different viewpoints and political orientations, but all presenting themselves, and favorably reviewed, as feminist.(3) All take as a basic assumption that the social relations of the sexes are disordered and extremely problematic, if not disabling, for women; all seek paths toward change. I have learned more from some of these books than from others; but on this I am clear:...
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