Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality”: Constructing Heteronormativity

In her groundbreaking article for the feminist journal Signs in 1980, feminist poet and scholar Adrienne Rich argued that we need to see and understand heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood as political institutions and not simply as a “natural” life path that women are “innately oriented” to desire – that is, we are not born desiring these things, but rather learn to desire them. Judith Lorber would say that we learn that certain desires are connected to “doing gender,” or performing femininity or masculinity. In other words, we need to understand how the dominant social order has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

So not just gender and sex, but also human sexuality is reinforced through socialization and the ways we are taught to “police” each other’s behaviors and desires.

In American culture, heteronormativity is the dominant narrative – that is, heterosexuality is considered “normal” and images of heterosexual life dominate our advertising and popular culture. Just look at the cover of every “rom-com” ever produced:

rom coms

Since the 1990s, popular culture has embraced some images of homosexuality, but because even people who are gay live in a patriarchal society, for decades, pop culture was still largely dominated by images and stories of gay men. Shows like “Will & Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and more recently “RuPaul’s Drag Race” all feature gay men.

Of course, we might also consider the ways in which these particular stereotypes of gay men have so frequently served and supported heteronormativity. For example, the cast of “Queer Eye” allows for straight men to engage in fashion and appearance without their own heterosexual masculinity being called into question. Or the images of gay men we so often see in fashion or in drag culture seem to instruct women to better perform femininity, sometimes by highlighting its extremes.

queer eye

But where, we might ask, are all the lesbian women? Though they’re becoming slightly more common, gay female celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres still tend to be exceptions. (Check out “Leaps and Strides: The History of Gay Characters on TV.”)

While shows like Orange is the New Black were revolutionary in their focus on women and women’s relationships (heterosexual, homosexual, and intimacies in between), some feminists have mixed feelings about the show, including Roxane Gay (author of Bad Feminist, recently hired by Purdue), questioning whether the characters succeed in challenging certain stereotypes of both lesbian relationships as well as women of color. For starters, the whole idea that prison fosters homosexual behavior.



Ok, so calling an independent woman today a lesbian for being too “pushy” or sure of herself doesn’t have quite the same impact it did in 1970 when women involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement frequently had this insult hurled at them. (This is a perfect example of binary thinking: if a woman will not perform femininity, she must by default want to be the opposite, i.e., masculine. There’s no continuum on which one might identify oneself here – there is only a pair of opposites.)

So how have our attitudes toward women perceived as lesbian changed?

Let’s consider for a moment the whole barsexual trend. A “barsexual” is slang for a woman who kisses or otherwise engages in sexual behavior with female friends (often at bars) in order to attract the attention of the men they are actually romantically or sexually interested in.

Watch this clip from the Tyra Banks’ Show, where a woman in the audience who is lesbian confronts two heterosexual female guests on the show who engage in barsexual behavior:


  • How does such behavior help or hurt women – particularly young women like those on the show – interested in supporting solidarity with their sisters (lesbian or otherwise)?

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