“Compulsory Heterosexuality” was named as a “crime against women” by the Brussels Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in 1976. Compulsory heterosexuality ignores the question whether, other things being equal, women would choose heterosexual coupling. Heterosexuality is presumed as a sexual preference of most women, either implicitly or explicitly. In this essay, Rich first addresses the idea of lesbian existence, which she defines as both the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continuing creation of the meaning of that existence.
She then discusses what she calls the idea of a “lesbian continuum,” which she defines as a range of woman-identified experience. In her terminology, the lesbian continuum acknowledges not only a woman who has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. Rather, lesbian identity in Rich’s use also refers to forms of primary intensity between and among women, which Rich sees as constituting bonding against male tyranny. Rich claims that patriarchal definition has separated female friendship and comradeship from the erotic. Importantly, Rich points out that, contra Freud, our primary relationships are with our mothers; our first primary bonds are with our mothers. Why, then, does Freud’s family romance put the father at the center of the equation? It makes more sense to imagine both males and females as having a primary attachment to women.
Rich then explores the ways in which women have resisted male tyranny expressed through compulsory heterosexuality, including refusing to have children, helping other women not have children, refusing to produce a higher standard of living for men, and female antiphallic sexuality. This is also revealed through what Rich refers to as a female double life, in which women make life endurable for each other. In contrast to the ways in which lesbianism has been portrayed in pulp fiction, Rich points to literature such as Toni Morrison’s Sula, which portrays a much more sensitive, nuanced female homosocial relationship.
She then explains the ways in which compulsory heterosexuality leads to a loss of power. Under this ideology, it is assumed that women are inevitably drawn to men; that women need men as social and economic protectors; that the heterosexual family unit is the basic social unit. Lesbianism is assumed to be synonymous with man-hatred, despite the unacknowledged fact of the basic misogyny embedded in the culture.
Rich ends the essay by noting that “Should we condemn heterosexuality?” is the wrong question to ask. Rather, it’s the absence of choice which has remained the unacknowledged reality. This has led to women not having the power to determine the meaning and place of sexuality in their lives.