In 1980, Adrienne Rich articulated how compulsory heterosexuality controls and oppresses women. She explains how men systematically force women into heterosexuality. Specifically through:
1. Denying us our own sexuality (punishment including death for female adultery and lesbianism, FGM, contemporary feminist debates about the compulsory nature of PIV and the way it is culturally perceived as the only valid sexual act even if women don’t want it, fits in here)
2. Forcing male sexuality on us (through rape, being beaten, and physically, emotionally and psychologically coerced into sex with men, male sexual harassment and assault, socialisation that tells us male sexual aggression is a “right“ and he “can‘t help it“)
3. Controlling women’s labour (through the institution of marriage/cohabitation and motherhood and the informal (unpaid) domestic role in the home as well as predominantly carrying out low paid caring roles in the workplace)
4. Controlling women’s movements and keeping them imprisoned (through fear of being attacked in the streets, rape as terrorism, “feminine” dress codes which restrict e.g. high heels, enforced economic dependence for women with children)
5. Using women as sexual objects (through selling prostituted women for sex, arranged marriages, “wife-hostess”, using “air-brushed” images of female models to sell products, the sexual objectification of women in the media and the overt coercion for those women to conform to ideas of “femininity”, including through cosmetic surgery, so that all women will aspire to being similarly sexually objectified)
Adrienne Rich says that a range of physical, psychological and cultural methods are used to maintain male power via compulsory heterosexuality.
For her, in 1980, lesbianism was often seen as “deviant” or invisible. Queer theory and “equality” legislation has altered the landscape of sexuality, slightly, in the UK, but none of the changes have eradicated the hold hetero-patriarchy maintains over women. And that means being a radical lesbian feminist or a political lesbian is as important as it ever was when she first articulated the theory.
Nowadays, the idea that we are “born” with an innate sexuality is so entrenched that political lesbianism is even questioned by some radfems as “appropriating” lesbianism. For this criticism to make any kind of sense then the assumption that we are “born” with an inherent “natural” sexual attraction to one gender or another or both must be upheld. It entirely fails to recognise the compulsory nature of heterosexuality which Rich first outlines (followed by Sheila Jeffreys and others) where women are not free to choose their sexuality under patriarchy. We are coerced, controlled and forced into heterosexuality.
Enshrined in UK “equality” legislation is a similar notion about a fixed and “can’t be helped” sexuality. Sexual “orientation” (ie our “natural” inclinations) are protected from discrimination. No one is allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexuality (note that this also includes heterosexuality because that’s what legislation within a liberal framework does; upholds the status quo while providing limited protection from overt discrimination towards those who are oppressed). Lesbiansandgaymen are to be afforded (almost) the same “rights” as heterosexuals to ape the heterosexual world such as having civil partnerships and being treated like a heterosexual couple. This satisfies conformist rich, white gay men but does nothing to dismantle the institution of hetero-patriarchy which oppresses and controls women, including lesbians.
There is also a contemporary emphasis on “fun feminism” which is a goal in and of itself. “I am a feminist because I indulge my sexual fantasies and desires irrespective of any political analysis about how they uphold, imitate or reflect patriarchal practices and irrespective of how much, ultimately, they perpetuate my own oppression and the oppression of other women – so long as I’m enjoying myself! Or pretending to”.
Choosing an alternative to the hetero-patriarchy is political. Withdrawing from patriarchy and embracing loving women and being woman-identified, if it is part of a wider radical feminist movement to dismantle patriarchy, is activism. It is vital that radical feminism has an attractive alternative to patriarchal organisation for female-born women. It sets us free from the treadmill of competition for men’s attentions and desires; free to explore what we want and free to be an activist within a women-only radical feminist movement. But it’s not just about withdrawal. It’s not negative. Choosing women is a positive choice – one that patriarchy so deeply fears that it operates a whole system of control which stops us from easily finding each other. Being sexual with women, and not men, is a positive choice for political lesbians. It is integrated by radical lesbian feminists with other ways in which patriarchy is undermined by woman-loving acts.
In 2012, political lesbianism has not lost its power. Being in women-only spaces, loving women, uniting in sisterhood, is on a lesbian continuum. Being a lesbian is *not* (only) about being “sexual” with women. We can love women any way we choose. Putting women first is a political act and the more women-only radical feminist opportunities there are to do this in real life, the more women will discover that sisterhood is powerful.
STOP PRESS: This topic was discussed at the London #radfem2012 conference. It is a topic alive and well and relevant to the lives of women of all ages.
Further reading: Compulsory Heterosexuality and lesbian Existence” A Rich (1980) Only Women Press http://www.terry.uga.edu/~dawndba/4500compulsoryhet.htm