In this article:
- Compulsory heterosexuality, or “comphet,” refers to the way a society enforces heterosexual and cisgender norms on its members, punishing or discriminating against any deviation from them.
- When girls are raised to believe that finding a man to marry is one of the prime directives of their lives, it can be hard to acknowledge or accept that you don’t fit into (or want) that ideal heterosexual life.
- As a result of compulsory heterosexuality, some queer women don’t fully accept their sexuality until much later in life (if at all) and may end up spending decades in unhappy, unfulfilling relationships.
Compulsory heterosexuality, a term coined over 40 years ago by feminist poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, has been making rounds on social media — particularly on TikTok and Twitter. Often shortened to “comphet,” web searches for the term first peaked in June 2020 and then doubled by July 2021.
But what does it mean?
In her essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Rich describes compulsory heterosexuality as a political institution that reinforces cisgender and heterosexual norms, and oppresses any form of deviation from them — particularly when it comes to women who love women.
In simpler terms, it’s how women are raised to think that marrying men and making men happy is our job. Because women are taught from very early on to think of our futures as inevitably tied to men, it can be hard to figure out who we really are and what (or who) we want.
This isn’t to say that being a straight woman is to be fooled by compulsory heterosexuality — it only means that the world is built in such a way that you are encouraged to be straight, and straightness is affirmed and supported.
To be different, and more specifically, to be a lesbian, means that the idea of love and sexuality as completely detached from men is constantly questioned and erased.
Rich, who herself was married to a man for nearly two decades before publicly coming out as a lesbian, critiqued how even within feminist writing, straightness was treated as the norm.
From the moment we are born, we are taught about what a woman is and what a man is. We are taught that the gender we are assigned at birth means we must adhere to one or the other. And under compulsory heterosexuality, a huge part of what it is to be a woman is to be attracted to and attractive to men.
We’re taught to look, dress, sit, and even talk a certain way for men. We’re bombarded with movies about falling in love with men and magazines telling us how best to please men.
We live in a world where one of the most powerful men once created a website to rank women by how visually pleasing they were (or weren’t) to him, and we can barely walk down the street without someone telling us to smile.
In her essay, Rich describes compulsory heterosexuality as an ideology that is made possible by (and reinforces) gender-based inequality, borrowing from the characteristics of male power listed by Kathleen Gough in her essay, “The Origin of the Family.”
She explains that we can explore the ways we are taught that heterosexuality is the norm by looking at how men have historically sought to control women by:
- Denying women their own sexuality through practices like chastity belts, punishing female adulterers more severely, as well as the erasure of lesbian stories and archives;
- Forcing male sexuality on women through sexual assault, or more subtly, in teaching women that men have “needs” that women must meet and in normalizing humiliation and sexual violence in pornography;
- Commanding their labor through the unpaid status of household work and male control of abortion and women’s reproductive health;
- Controlling or robbing them of their children through female infanticide,
- Physically confining women and preventing their movement through sexual harassment on the streets, and rape culture that blames victims for it;
- Using women as objects in transactions through arranged marriages and women’s roles as entertainers;
- Curbing their creativity through the erasure of women’s art and traditions, the idea that women’s purpose solely revolves around marriage and motherhood, and more subtly, the idea that men’s pursuits are more valuable than women’s; and
- By withholding society’s knowledge from women through the gender gap in education and the erasure of women and their contributions in history.
By breaking down the mechanisms of control this way, Rich argues that gender inequality — and the compulsory heterosexuality that it creates and depends on — can be better understood as “a pervasive cluster of forces, ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness.”
In other words, it’s everywhere.
The end effect, Rich explains, is that women are led to believe that not only are our needs, dreams, and desires secondary to men, but that being with men is expected and even important, if we are to survive and remain respectable in society.
Heterosexual romance is presented to women as both a duty and a source of fulfillment, with the lesbian possibility, therefore, made invisible.
Comphet as “Denials of Feeling”
This often causes women who love women to doublethink and deny what we feel. No matter how much a woman might love another woman, it can be hard letting go of the idea that you could still achieve the straight life society has mapped out for you — that is, if you try hard enough.
As a child, I remember being asked which boy in nursery school I had a crush on (and not whether I had a crush in the first place), and I felt pressured enough to blurt out the first name I could think of, to adults’ delight.
In middle school, compulsory heterosexuality meant being taught how a proper lady behaves, and how this knowledge will help us be good wives in the future.
In my all-girl high school, it was in the suspicion thrown at peers who had short hair or boyish interests, in being told that attraction to other girls was “just a phase” we’ll grow out of once we meet boys, and in hearing horror stories of girls being expelled for being caught in homosexual relationships.
In adulthood, compulsory heterosexuality meant coming out as bisexual and having people breathe a sigh of relief that I could still end up with a man if I wanted to.
And more recently, it’s in slowly realizing that I don’t want men at all, even though I dated men in the past, but still having that voice in my head asking me if I’m really sure.
No matter how sure I know I am, and even as I type this, compulsory heterosexuality makes me second-guess what I know to be true.
Compulsory heterosexuality affects people across genders and sexualities, but it’s most harmful to lesbians.
This is why the term’s recent resurgence on social media is marked by the revival of a 2018 document called “Am I a Lesbian?” by Angela Luz, which includes a more accessible 21st century explanation of compulsory heterosexuality.
In it, she writes that compulsory heterosexuality is why lesbians “might struggle through learning the difference between what you’ve been taught you want (being with men) and what you do want (being with women).”
And this is why so many lesbians have a history of dating men to prove a point to themselves and the people around them — a point that, ultimately, serves no one but the patriarchy.
It’s important to note, however, that this concept does not invalidate the actual experiences of bisexuals and pansexuals, whose experiences of loving men are no less real than those of loving women and non-binary people.
But for lesbians struggling with compulsory heterosexuality, it can come in the form of thinking you might still date men if you find one that meets certain vague and impossible standards, or if they’re celebrities or otherwise unattainable.
It can be liking the idea of being wanted by a man and feeling like you are attractive to them, but being anxious when men actually show interest.
It’s also in mistaking your attraction to other women as just a phase — which people might explain away as you being “not really gay” or that you “just haven’t found the right guy.”
Moreover, lesbians in relationships with men might feel reluctant to commit, and only do so to please their partner and others around them. It’s in thinking about dating, kissing, and marrying men in terms of what you might be able to tolerate, instead of what you might actually want.
So Is It Bisexuality, or Just Comphet?
The answer to this will be different for everybody, and the “Am I a Lesbian?” masterdoc is just one tool that you might use to look inward and examine how you perceive yourself and your relationships.
Giving yourself time and space to think about your feelings can be very helpful in coming out to yourself and eventually, to others.
If you have the resources, experts also recommend seeing an affirmative therapist, as this type of professional is trained to identify and help people work through internalized homophobia.
Whatever you choose, remember that self-discovery is a continuous process, and it’s okay to be unsure.
We’ve all been exposed to compulsory heterosexuality since before we could walk and talk, and it makes sense that the process of discovering who you are and what you want underneath everything that compulsory heterosexuality taught us will take some time.
In the meantime, we can all practice more inclusive language to help dismantle compulsory heterosexuality.
For example, gender nonspecific terms like “partner” or “date” might be more useful than asking people if they have a boyfriend or if they’re bringing a girl along to an event.
After all, Rich explains that the idea behind naming the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality isn’t just about validating individual lives and experiences. It’s also about learning how to be more mindful of heteronormativity, and the ways our lives are shaped around it.
This, she says, can help free up our thinking, explore new paths, and help us find new clarity in our relationships — whatever label we realize suits us best.