In this article:
- In a society where compulsory heterosexuality is pervasive, it’s not uncommon for lesbians to come out as bisexual instead of lesbian.
- But are you bi or are you just using that label because you’re struggling to accept that you don’t fit in with the heteronormative expectations you were raised with?
- While that doesn’t mean all bisexual women are actually lesbians, the reality is that it can be really hard to disentangle internalized homophobia from your thoughts and understanding of who you are.
Gen Z, or the generation born between 1997 and 2012, is shaping up to be the queerest generation yet.
Unfortunately for them, however, they’re growing up in a media environment that’s more or less the one that the rest of us grew up with — one that, despite gains in LGBT+ representation in film and TV, is still very heteronormative. So what do they do?
Go on TikTok, of course.
Gen Z comprises a whopping 60% of users on the platform, which has become a queer haven of sorts. It’s an invaluable resource for representation, connection, and self-discovery, particularly in the middle of a pandemic.
In this process, hashtags like #comphet are helping young people learn about a term coined over four decades ago by feminist lesbian poet Adrienne Rich, to help describe an all-too-common experience for queer women.
Videos tagged with #comphet have collectively been viewed nearly 94 million times. But what is it?
A Quick Primer on Comphet
Short for “compulsory heterosexuality,” comphet is a term to describe heterosexuality as a political institution that is legally, politically, and socially enforced.
Much like motherhood and family, being heterosexual is taught as an innate, indispensable part of what it means to be a woman — so much so that any deviation from straight, cisgender norms among women is snuffed out.
As a system of oppression, it means that to be different, or queer, means to be subjected to violence, discrimination, and economic loss.
But the trouble with heterosexuality being so deeply ingrained in our everyday lives is that the oppression works in a more subtle, but equally sinister way: through compulsion.
The compulsion in “comphet” means that aside from the fear of external consequences for not being straight or cisgender, people end up policing themselves, too — often without knowing it.
Compulsory heterosexuality means that for queer women, attraction to and having relationships with men is obligatory and a status quo that’s very hard to question, and even harder to defy.
Rich’s original essay, entitled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” and published in 1980, is a deep dive into the power structures that maintain heterosexuality and how these work to uphold male supremacy.
But as badass as Rich is, the essay isn’t exactly an easy read, and so people have made her ideas more accessible (and more inclusive for trans folk) over the years.
For example, in 2018, Angela Luz came out with a document called “Am I a Lesbian?” and provided a 21st century, easy-to-read version of the critical essay.
These two documents inform what’s become the easiest way to engage with Rich’s ideas today: a wave of TikTok videos explaining the concept and sharing relatable experiences with how it might manifest in everyday life.
So Are You Bi or Is It Comphet?
Rich argues that the biggest casualties of comphet are lesbians, whose existence is erased and actively oppressed.
Being exposed only to cis-hetero norms growing up is a huge reason why so many of us only come out much later in life, if at all, and why many lesbians have a history of dating (and even marrying) men, even though they simply are not attracted to them.
And so the big question for many queer women thinking about their sexuality has become: Are you bi or are you a lesbian experiencing comphet?
TikTok user Capri Campeau starts her discussion on comphet with a simple scenario: There’s a conventionally attractive man walking towards you. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?
She raises one subtle, but powerful mechanism of comphet: validation.
Because comphet centers womanhood on men, we tend to look towards men for validation and assurance that yes, we’re doing this entire being-a-woman thing correctly. And often, this need for validation can feel very much like attraction.
This TikTok, from laneyyrae, goes through a list of different questions you might ask yourself to figure out whether what you’re feeling is attraction or a need for male validation, based loosely on the Am I a Lesbian? master doc and her own experiences.
She also points out that there is a difference between feeling butterflies around people we like and being stressed out — and making that distinction is important.
This TikTok by sara.grace.young about crushing on men and women illustrates how comphet may manifest among lesbians who think they are bi.
Bisexuality has been defined by Robyn Ochs, a bisexual advocate and editor of Bi Women Quarterly, as “the potential to be attracted — romantically and/or sexually — to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”
The keyword here, however, is “attracted,” and in this video, there’s a stark difference between saying, “That one seems fine,” and just straight-up enjoying someone’s appearance, energy, and presence.
At the end of the day, if you have to convince yourself to like a man, then it’s probably not attraction.
Adding to this point about attraction is emilee, who presents another hypothetical scenario for women with a potential boyfriend or husband.
She argues that attraction should feel good — always.
Some people talk like being a lesbian struggling with comphet is a state of being constantly disgusted with men. I get that. But also, you don’t have to be throwing up or super anxious around men to be a lesbian or to experience comphet.
Sometimes, it’s just the absence of that warm and fuzzy feeling you’re supposed to get when you’re close to someone you’re really attracted to.
If you’re just tolerating the man you’re with, or finding that the reality of being with a man doesn’t quite live up to the idea of being with them, then you’re probably not attracted to men.
In just under a minute, Ann provides a pretty good analogy to experiencing comphet as a lesbian — using, of all things, lettuce and oranges — and snacking on a clementine in the process.
“Just because I can fathom the possibility of mustering an appetite for iceberg lettuce,” she says, “doesn’t mean I don’t know what I like.”
The comments are also a gold mine for expanding the analogy a little further. A highlight, for lesbians who realized they were lesbians after bad experiences with men: There are people who get food poisoning from lettuce but still like lettuce anyway, so liking oranges has nothing to do with food poisoning.
And that’s on being fruity.
There’s also a bit more than just validation and the question of attraction at play. Comphet doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
It undeniably plays with other things that people who aren’t men — more specifically, those of us who aren’t white men — contend with every day, like feeling safe in public spaces.
Devoune points out that they used to like men because of the added security of having their bodies around. And for them, part of being in a relationship was what they describe as “the commitment to the act” of liking a man.
This TikTok posted by Angel is pretty straightforward: Against a backdrop of Tom Holland pirouetting, she lists several lesbian issues.
“Feeling disconnected from womanhood because of how much it’s centered around men,” is a glaring one, as is the dual problem of comphet and other people’s invalidation of the entire experience.
But the other items on the list point to how comphet is more than just dating men even if you don’t really want to be with them: It’s a whole life thing.
Being a lesbian dealing with comphet means coming to terms with the fact that you aren’t “normal” the way society expects you to be, and losing the heterosexual future family the world made you believe you should have can be really sad.
Comphet is something we’ve been exposed to since birth, and so looking inward and studying how it’s affected who we are — and from there, understanding how fundamentally different we are not just from others, but from the self we thought we were — can feel very isolating.
In this TikTok, Emma’s story of how she realized she was a lesbian is a funny take on the comphet experience. But it’s also a reminder that even though dealing with comphet can be hard, finally seeing yourself clearly after pretending for so long can also be pretty freeing.
That, and maybe all we need is a lesbian therapist.
If you can’t afford a therapist, then Kat Blaque’s 51-second TikTok is a pretty good alternative for dealing with comphet.
From very early on, we’re taught that it’s our job to make men happy.
We have to dress pretty for them, change how we walk and talk to be attractive to them (but not too attractive that they can’t take us seriously), and then through hard work, someday we’ll be fulfilled once they fall in love with us.
But Kat — in stunning make-up, no less — says something deceptively simple: Straight men are not a prize for us to win. “I’m not walking through this world… just waiting to be valuable to a heterosexual man. No!”
And this lesson isn’t just for the lesbians of the world. It’s for every woman. Once you realize it’s not your job to please men, then it’s much easier to enter relationships because you want to, and leave them if you want to.
Once we de-center men from our lives, we’re more able to make choices that reflect our own feelings and are geared towards our own happiness.
Last but not least, this TikTok from Tam is a reminder that there’s no deadline. It’s not always easy to figure out if you’re a lesbian or not, so there’s no “correct” timeline for dealing with comphet.
Remember: There’s No Pressure
There’s a certain comfort in labels, especially when it comes to identity. It’s a way to ground yourself and feel like you belong to a greater community that understands you.
But in your journey towards self-discovery, especially with regard to something as complex and as fluid as gender and sexuality, know that there’s no need to pressure yourself.
In answering the question of whether you are bi or a lesbian with comphet issues, give yourself as much time as you need, and don’t feel like you need to stick to one label or the other over time.
The thing with comphet is that it’s compulsory — it happens without us often even thinking about our own choices. This leads to less than meaningful relationships where we’re unhappy but don’t know why.
So the important part of the journey is that you’re checking in with yourself, examining your thoughts and your feelings, and thinking about what relationship, label, or setup is best for you.
And so, if you’re looking inward and finding that you’re still not sure what label fits best, then that’s okay. Adrienne Rich talked about comphet as consistent denials of feeling, so the one hard rule I’d recommend is to be honest and acknowledge how you feel, and then go from there.