This reading is optional if you would like to follow along with the essay that was read in the first video lecture for this module.
Greta Christina’s article can be found here.
Rich begins her article by showing that in both feminist and non-feminist writings of her time, women’s innate sexual orientation was assumed to be towards men and lesbians, when depicted at all, were represented as turning towards other women because they were hurt by or bitter towards men. Lesbianism was represented as a choice women made when heterosexuality had gone wrong. In contrast, Rich argues that lesbianism is a primary orientation and natural, and that it is more often heterosexuality that is secondary and imposed on women.
Because, for Rich, lesbianism is not a marginal, deviant or secondary phenomenon, but is primary and fundamental, she argues that it is not enough for feminism to simply acknowledge lesbianism or that lesbian texts exist or to make “token allusions” to lesbianism while remaining primarily preoccupied with heterosexuality. She contends that feminist research would be stronger if it didn’t assume heterosexuality as the natural orientation of most women, while ignoring lesbianism and failing to recognize the manifold ways in which heterosexuality is forced onto women who might otherwise be lesbians. She considers several examples of feminists texts that ignore lesbianism and how they would have been stronger if they hadn’t.
As Rich explains in her article, some of the ways in which women have historically been compelled to be heterosexual that these feminist books overlook include:
- violence against women who are not protected by men
- the fact that women’s work (housework, childcare) is unpaid or under-paid and women have thus often been forced to depend on men financially
- male control of all the powerful discourses of their society (theology, law, science) which prescribe heterosexual marriage and motherhood as women’s only choice
- the idealization of heterosexuality and motherhood
- the invisibility, erasure, censoring of any other options besides heterosexuality, and demonizing representations of lesbianism when it is represented at all
Under these conditions, Rich argues that we can scarcely say that heterosexuality is simply the predominant “preference.” If you do something to save your life, to survive, because you are given no other choice, or because all the discourses of your society compel you that way, you are hardly making a choice based on “preference.” Rich argues that heterosexuality for most women has been a necessity for survival, not a choice or a preference or even an orientation.
Rich is making a point similar to one made by Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth-century feminist text, The Subjection of Women. The argue that if women are really inferior to men, men would not need to pass laws to keep them in an inferior position as women they would stay in such a position naturally. The fact that men of the time did feel the need to pass laws to keep women in a subordinate position proved for the Mills that these men did not in fact believe that women were naturally subordinate. Rather, the passage of such laws demonstrated men’s fear that, given the freedom, women would rise above their current subordinate status. Likewise Rich is arguing with respect to lesbianism: if women were naturally heterosexual, men would not have needed to come up with so many devices to force them into heterosexual relations, such that for most of history women have needed to sleep with or marry men simply to survive. Surely if men are coming up with so many means to compel women into heterosexual relations, they fear that if left to their own devices or given the freedom to choose, many women would not choose to be with men.
“If women are the earliest sources of emotional caring and physical nurture for both female and male children, it would seem logical, from a feminist perspective at least, to pose the following questions: whether the search for love and tenderness in both sexes does not originally lead toward women; why in fact women would ever redirect that search; why species-survival, the means of impregnation, and emotional/erotic relationships should ever have become so rigidly identified with each other; and why such violent strictures should be found necessary to enforce women’s total emotional, erotic loyalty and subservience to men.”Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality”
A common assumption is that it is the means of reproduction that make men and women naturally oriented towards one another. Put otherwise, most people are heterosexual because the survival of the species requires this. But here Rich asks why we should so rigidly associate the method of impregnation with our emotional and erotic relationships. You don’t need to spend your entire life with a man or only love men just because you need a bit of sperm a few times in your life in order to conceive. Even before the invention of sperm banks, women could simply have sex with men on occasion when they wanted to have a baby. This should not exclude lesbianism or make heterosexuality the only or primary form of sexuality.
Interestingly, Freud grappled with the issue of why women would ever become heterosexual in the first place. In his earliest works Freud simply assumed that babies are naturally heterosexual so, according to his famous theory of the “Oedipus Complex,” the boy will fall in love with his mother and the girl will fall in love with her father. In the case of the boy – which he focuses on in his early work – he thinks that maternal care-taking and nurturing, whether by the boy’s mother or by a nurse or other female care-taker, is the cause of the boy’s erotic attachment to women. Only decades later does he realize that if this is true for the boy, it would also be true for the girl; she too gets the same physical care from a woman as the boy, and her sexuality is like the boy’s at this age, Freud thinks. He realizes he cannot assume a natural heterosexuality – the girl would have a “pre-Oedipal” period during which she is in love with her mother, not her father.
But why would she ever leave the pre-Oedipal period behind? According to Freud, the boy gives up his incestuous love for his mother because of the threat of castration – castration anxiety – he fears he will be castrated if he doesn’t. But this threat doesn’t work on the girl because she is already “castrated,” Freud says, in the sense that she is already without a penis. So there is no real threat to make her give up her incestuous love of either parent. So he has no explanation for why she ever turns towards men or enters the Oedipal period of her sexual development, other than the force of social pressures and convention, or what Rich will describe as the various mechanisms of “compulsory heterosexuality.”
While Freud says little about what these “social pressures and conventions” entail, part of the power of Rich’s article is the overwhelming array of examples that she gives showing how heterosexuality is forced on women. Again, her point is that if patriarchy is compelling women in so many ways to be heterosexual, heterosexuality is not coming naturally to them.
Rich is challenging a liberal understanding of what it means to consent. It may appear that women are “consenting” to much of the heterosexual sex that takes place in our society. But Rich thinks that all or most heterosexual sex is in fact compelled (“compulsory”), or forced, or non-consensual. It’s not all rape—not violent—but women do not exist in a situation in which we can actually say that their consent is meaningful.
Rich does not want to limit lesbianism to women having (or desiring) genital sex with other women. While Rich uses the term “lesbian existence” to describe the lives of women who do have sex with other women, she also introduces a second term, the “lesbian continuum,” and places most women on this continuum. As Rich argues, there is more to lesbianism than genital sex, just as there is more to any kind of romantic relationship than genital sex or sex more generally. Being part of the lesbian continuum is for a woman to have what Rich calls ‘primary intensity’ with other women, and she thinks that this is the case for most women: even if they are only having sex with men, and perhaps only desiring to have sex with men, Rich argues that often women’s emotional lives are dominated by other women, and this could be in negative as well as positive ways. Rich thinks that most women are part of the lesbian continuum since most men are not good at intimacy, and women have often been married to men with whom they could not communicate, with whom they shared little intimacy, with whom they could not share their emotional experiences, men who were dismissive of their feelings or did not meet their emotional needs. Often these women shared their pasts and their day to day feelings not with their husbands but with their women friends and family members. For Rich, these women are part of the lesbian continuum.
Rich points to examples of women on the lesbian continuum such as:
- marriage resisters and communities of women who refused marriage
- women involved with secret sororities
- Emily Dickinson writing a lifetime of letters to other women while never marrying
- Zora Neale Hurston whose sexual relationships were with men but whose survival relationships were with women or whose emotional sustenance came from other women
“To equate lesbian existence with male homosexuality because each is stigmatized is to deny and erase female reality once again.”Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”
Finally, Rich argues that lesbianism is a distinctly female experience, like motherhood, and should not be folded into the larger Gay Liberation movement that was and continues to be dominated by men. She observes that lesbians are oppressed in ways that gay men are not since they experience sexism as well as heterosexism, whereas gay men still have the social and economic privileges that come with being men. Rich moreover argues that although heterosexism has obliged many gay men to pass as straight, this has not meant that they have had to be actively sexual towards women, whereas to pass as straight lesbians have had to accept being sexualized and sexually objectified by men. Finally, she argues that the Gay movement has been dominated by men and gay men’s values and concerns and thus it has not addressed the sexism that oppresses lesbians in addition to heterosexism.
Writing at the end of the 1970s, Rich contended that lesbians do not share many of the values that characterize the male gay community. Rich thus wanted to separate the liberation movement of lesbians from that of gay men and to place the lesbian cause firmly within the feminist movement. Her article urges feminists to recognize lesbianism as a profoundly female experience, and as a more profound feminist concern than is generally recognized. In contrast, later lesbian and queer feminist theorists have seen lesbianism and feminism in tension. In particular they have found feminism to be overly sexually moralistic and have sometimes found more allegiance with gay men or within a larger LGBTQ movement than with mainstream feminism. This is a view that we will see in the second reading for this module, Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex.”
Adrienne Rich’s article can be found below.
In “Thinking Sex,” Gayle Rubin describes the Western Judeo-Christian approach to sexuality as fundamentally repressive, looking down upon any form of sex which is not procreative and performed by heterosexual married couples. Although she makes this claim about Western history in general, she also makes a historical argument that there have been several periods of “sex panic” in recent history – periods in which an almost hysterical interest is taken in sex and sex is seen as dangerous and damaging. In these periods, there have been particularly intense attempts to repress sexuality, for instance to prevent childhood autoeroticism, censor pornography, persecute queer people, arrest sex workers and shut down brothels. These periods are characterized by widespread fear of sexual predators that do not correlate with any actual increase in sexual crime and are disproportionate to the reality of sexual danger.
Rubin argues that the period in which she was writing was one such period of sexual repression and panic. She describes her era as having a “misplaced scale” when it comes to sex acts; that is, sex acts were understood as more significant than they really are. As she writes, “Sexual acts are burdened with an excess of significance.” Rubin moreover contends that one type of feminism was monopolizing feminist discourses on sex, and that this feminism was characterized by the same negative attitudes and misplaced scale with respect to sex as the dominant culture. And yet, Rubin insists, there is another way in which feminism can and has approached a politics of sexuality, which is to struggle for women’s sexual liberation rather than for the further repression of sex. Here, Rubin is introducing a distinction between what is often described as “sex negative” and “sex positive” feminism, or “anti-pornography feminism” versus “pro-sex feminism.”
“The anti-pornography movement and its avatars have claimed to speak for all feminism. Fortunately, they do not. Sexual liberation has been and continues to be a feminist goal. The women’s movement may have produced some of the most retrogressive sexual thinking this side of the Vatican. But it has also produced an exciting, innovative, and articulate defense of sexual pleasure and erotic justice. This ‘pro-sex’ feminism has been spearheaded by lesbians whose sexuality does not conform to movement standards of purity (primarily lesbian sadomasochists and butch/femme dykes), by unapologetic heterosexuals, and by women who adhere to classical radical feminism… Although the anti-porn forces have attempted to weed anyone who disagrees with them out of the movement, the fact remains that feminist thought about sex is profoundly polarized.”Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex”
In “Thinking Sex,” Rubin observes that many feminists have seen sexuality as the crux of women’s oppression, and have thus claimed authority on sexual oppression. In “Feminism, Marxism, Method and the State,” for instance, Catharine MacKinnon wrote that “Sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away… Feminism fundamentally identifies sexuality as the primary sphere of male power.” Rubin argues, however, that there is more to theorizing sexuality than theorizing oppression, and while we should turn to feminism to understand gender oppression, it is gay and lesbian studies that have developing sophisticated theories of sexuality. As she writes, “I want to challenge the assumption that feminism is or should be the privileged site of a theory of sexuality. Feminism is the theory of gender oppression… Gender affects the operation of the sexual system, and the sexual system has had gender-specific manifestations. But although sex and gender are related, they are not the same thing.” In particular, Rubin cites gay and lesbian historians as well as gay philosopher Michel Foucault as the authors who have challenged the dominant sexual essentialism and produced a body of work on the social construction of sexuality.
“Modern Western societies appraise sex acts according to a hierarchical system of sexual value. Marital, reproductive heterosexuals are alone at the top erotic pyramid. Clamouring below are unmarried monogamous heterosexuals in couples, followed by most other heterosexuals. Solitary sex floats ambiguously. The powerful nineteenth-century stigma on masturbation lingers in less potent, modified forms, such as the idea that masturbation is an inferior substitute for partnered encounters. Stable, long-term lesbian and gay male couples are verging on respectability, but bar dykes and promiscuous gay men are hovering just above the groups at the very bottom of the pyramid. The most despised sexual castes currently include transsexuals, transvestites, fetishists, sadomasochists, sex workers such as prostitutes and porn models, and the lowliest of all, those whose eroticism transgresses generational boundaries.”
“The anti-pornography movement and its texts have been the most extensive expression of this discourse. In addition, proponents of this viewpoint have condemned virtually every variant of sexual expression as anti-feminist. Within this framework, monogamous lesbianism that occurs within long-term, intimate relationships and which does not involve playing with polarized roles, has replaced married, procreative heterosexuality at the top of the value hierarchy. Heterosexuality has been demoted to somewhere in the middle. Apart from this change, everything else looks more or less similar. The lower depths are occupied by the usual groups and behaviors: prostitution, transsexuality, sadomasochism, and cross-generational activities. Most gay male conduct, all casual sex, promiscuity, and lesbian behaviour that does involve roles or kin or non-monogamy are also censured…”Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex”
Rubin argues that Western society is characterized by a hierarchical ordering of sexual acts and types of sexual subjects. Within the non-feminist mainstream society, the heterosexual, monogamous, married, procreative couple having vanilla sex is at the peak of this hierarchy, and monogamous, married, vanilla same-sex couples are somewhere in the middle, approaching respectability by the 1980s. At the bottom of the hierarchy, however, are all those whose sexual acts the dominant society condemns, whether because they are promiscuous, having sex for money, or categorized as perverse or even criminal because of their desires. Rubin argues that sex negative feminism has maintained this hierarchical approach to sexual acts and types of sexual subjects, simply inverting the ranking of monogamous lesbians and monogamous heterosexuals, so that it is the latter who are in the middle and the “good” lesbians who are at the top.
What was most controversial about Rubin’s article is that she does not seem to object to any of the sexual acts that she describes in this hierarchy, and seems even to defend the sex acts which she describes at the very bottom of the hierarchy for both mainstream society and sex negative feminists: what she calls “cross-generational” sex or “those whose eroticism transgresses generational boundaries.” Although these phrases could describe two adults of different generations having sex, “cross-generational” sex usually refers to relationships between adults and minors. In addition to defending these relationships, Rubin seems to defend what she describes as sex involving “kin,” or incest. Like “cross-generational” sex, sex between kin could mean sex between adult, consenting remote cousins, but often incest involves minors and much closer familial relations. Thus, in this early work Rubin seems to object as much to the condemnation of sex with minors and incest as to prohibitions on masturbation, homosexuality, non-monogamy, BDSM, sex work and pornography.
Although Rubin’s article remains a canonical feminist text, most sex positive feminists today would draw lines differently from Rubin. In particular, while, like Rubin, contemporary sex positive feminists object to the censorship of pornography, the criminalization of sex work, homophobia and transphobia, the idealization of monogamy as superior to promiscuity and polyamory, and the categorization of kink as perverse, they would not defend sex with minors or incest in the same breath as these other sexual acts.