The Official Blog for ENGL 41416.

In this week’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980) brings light to the issues, such as freedom of sexuality, that directly affect women due to the pressure and extreme force of a male dominated society. However, what I latched onto in the essay was Rich’s notion that compulsory heterosexuality is a “lie”. What is compulsory heterosexuality? Why is it considered a lie? And how are women affected by this lie?

Compulsory heterosexuality is a fixed and required sexual attraction to the opposite sex. The institution of compulsory heterosexuality denies the “reality and visibility to women’s passion for women, women’s choice of women as allies, life companions, and community, the forcing of such relationships into dissimulation and their disintegration” that is “under intense pressure”. (296) Woman is not free to explore and examine her sexuality in a society that strategically places her in a box (objectified) that is set-aside for a man. The lie, or lies is man’s way of controlling the female’s mind, and as a result, her body too.

According to Rich, the lie of compulsory female heterosexuality “keeps numberless women psychologically trapped, trying to fit mind, spirit, and sexuality into a prescribed script”. This script that Rich refers to is the social script, that tells women what to say and what to do. It is the script that guides our mothers, grandmothers and aunts, as well fathers, grandfathers, uncles and brothers. The men have a role to play and so do women.

Rich concludes the essay asserting a message to her audience that we must “address the institution itself… It will require a courageous grasp of the politics and economics, as well as the cultural propaganda, of heterosexuality to carry us beyond individual cases or diversified group situations into the complex kind of overview needed to undo the power of men everywhere…” (297) Woman has been given a role in society. She is referred to as a nurturer that is innately motherly. She is too the object of a man’s attraction. In order to exist in a man’s world, she must abide by the rules, which is to stay in her place Yet, what man says does not have to be so. If man will not give us options then we should create them, whether sexually or creatively. The type of discourse that seeks to control and manipulate the freedoms of women needs to be examined and challenged.

In “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” Adrienne Rich explores texts written about female sexuality and sexual preference. She argues that these texts, even those written from a feminist perspective, marginalize lesbians; she asserts that, “Any theory or cultural/political creation that treats lesbian existence as a marginal or less “natural” phenomenon, as mere “sexual preference,” or as the mirror image of either heterosexual or male homosexual relations is profoundly weakened thereby, whatever its other contributions” (632). I had numerous questions about this statement throughout the article, primarily because the issues in the cited texts are explained so well, but the there was so much background and foundational information missing that the message of the article got lost in a plethora of questions. It isn’t clear what the differences between lesbian, heterosexual, and homosexual are, and why they therefore they cannot be viewed as opposites.

I agree with Rich, that assuming that women become lesbians do so to escape from masculine oppression marginalizes the position of a lesbian. However, I did not understand why viewing being a lesbian as a sexual preference is a problem. She explains why heterosexuality is not really a choice, but I did not understand how going against the norms established by a patriarchal society would not be considered a choice. There are many reasons (economic, cultural, legal) why women may feel the need to enter into a heterosexual relationship, particularly since society is not conducive to female bonds. Rich engages various article, including Nancy Chodorow’s “The Reproduction of Mothering”, which explains how heterosexuality is not a real choice, but instead decision that society guides women toward using various factors. Rich cites Chodorow’s statement that, “This heterosexual preference and taboos on homosexuality, in addition to objective economic dependence on men, make the option of primary sexual bonds with other women unlikely” (Rich, 636). While Rich realizes that Chodorow is implying that heterosexuality isn’t a real choice for women, she finds this article problematic because it aims at perpetuating a man-made system. Rich explains that arguments about sexual preference and choice assume that, “women who have chosen women have done so simply because men are oppressive and emotionally unavailable; which still fails to account for women who continue to pursue relationships with oppressive and/or emotionally unsatisfying men” (637).  I would imagine that particularly in reading Chodorow’s article, the question of why women  continue to pursue relationships with men is answered by the understanding that women have been guided into this choice.

Chodorow also implies that a heterosexual bond is counter-intuitive for females, since the primary emotional bonds are first made with the mother. Rich takes this even further by stating that, “If women are the earliest sources of emotional caring and physical nurture for both female and male children, it would be 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…” (637). I find this statement to be problematic in the same way she finds the arguments about sexual preference and choice to be problematic. If the natural impulse of both men and women would lead toward women, what does this say about homosexual men?

By MaryKate Schwerdt

“Just as the term parenting serves to conceal the particular and significant reality of being a parent who is actually a mother, the term gay may serve the purpose of blurring the very outlines we need to discern, which are of crucial value for feminism and for the freedom of women as a group.” (Rich 349)

Although the notion of “blurring” quoted above is quickly mentioned in the edited version of Adrienne Rich’s article in our textbook, it grabbed my attention and brought me back to last week’s Kaplan piece. In her article about the televisual apparatus, Kaplan speculates that the blurring of various dichotomies by television (tv/movie, male/female, private/public, fiction/reality) could result in a postmodernist world where these dichotomies are so blurred that they don’t exist. This is particularly worrisome and relevant to our class because if this comes to fruition, Kaplan says, “postmodernism would eliminate gender difference as a significant category.” She goes on to say, “a new postmodern universe arguably makes impossible the critical position itself, making then irrelevant any feminist stance.”

Through the first quote above, Adrienne Rich seems to have already picked up on the postmodernist changes already upon us. “Parenting” is a potentially harmful term while it’s understood that the majority of child rearing in conventional families is done by the mother. This is a perfect example of how it’s hard to take a feminist stance on blurred identities. Someone criticizing parenting methods with a sexist bias can hide behind the fact that the term “parenting” encompasses the behaviors mothering AND fathering without dividing those behaviors along gender/sex lines. The same can be said for the term “gay” encompassing all homosexual behavior. How can there be such a thing as feminist societal critiquing when the concept of the female/feminine is stifled and cunningly removed from the vernacular before the antagonism towards it?

This unprogressive blurring brings us feminists to a sort of identity crisis.  To confine something as fluid as human behavior and desire into a tiny static inflexible box is limiting and frankly unfair to those who do not meet exact criteria. For example, the rigid, or academic as Rich calls it, term “lesbian” suppresses women in three of the eight ways listed in the article. It denies women their own sexuality (#1) by excluding those who don’t fit the academic definition, it cramps woman’s creativeness (#7) by establishing a certain criteria that needs to be met in order to call oneself a “lesbian”, and it also withholds from woman large areas of societal knowledge (#8) by keeping women who are experiencing various, not necessarily erotic, feelings along the lesbian spectrum ignorant and isolated from other women experiencing the same, unable to make vital connections about that part of their lives. On the other hand, give these desires free reign is to erase all boundary, causing them to slip through the fingers of identity, leaving them nameless and defenseless.

Rich attempts to resolve this conflict with the term “lesbian spectrum,” which is effective in establishing gentle, flexible boundaries but still employs a loaded word. However, I cannot help but worry for the other aspects of female identity that are being blurred out of a definable existence, like what it means to be feminine and what it means to be a mother, in this burgeoning postmodernist world that seems to be eager to ditch titles before the prejudice.

I was surprised to see Adrienne Rich’s philosophy of lesbian continuum within her essay because she seems to see heterosexuality and male homosexuality as so opposed to lesbian existence. Rich seemed to come up with a plethora of examples for how women are obligated to be heterosexual, but she also seems to have as many ways that a woman could be on her lesbian spectrum. Given that there is a boundless notion of woman’s attraction to woman and that her sensuality is so multi-faceted, she draws harsh divisions between the heterosexual world and the lesbian world. She reminded me of Irigaray’s theories in that sense, with the complicated views of female sensuality, but a view of the masculine presence as threatening. However, Irigaray writes on a largely symbolic level, and Rich seems to have more complaints about societal binarisms she sees are true and dangerous.

I had a difficult time sorting through the two tensions of a unique lesbian existence and a lesbian continuum. I was especially confused based on how extraordinarily broad her definition of the lesbian continuum is:

” many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support… marriage resistance,” (292)

This puzzled me because virtually every feminist would fall under this category. If you are a person who supports female freedom of expression and equality and who feels a strong kinship towards women, you are a lesbian, according to this definition.

I thought her definition of lesbian existence might make the lines between lesbianism and heterosexuality and highlight how lesbianism is a specific issue in the feminist community. However, I became more confused when she defines it as “breaking a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life. It is also a direct or indirect attack on male right of access to women,” (292). If given this definition out of context, this could easily be identified as the definition for the feminist agenda.

This brings me confusion to a head. According to these definitions it seems that all feminists are automatically on the lesbian continuum. This does not personally bother me as a conclusion, but based on Rich’s assertion that lesbians have a very unique existence that needs to be celebrated, I feel that I should not be included. I wonder why Rich constructs much of her essay as a cry for rising up against an opponent, when by this very definition, it seems that a feminist man, who is attracted to men could even be a lesbian as well.

I hope to puzzle through this more during class, but I am at least pleased to find that the issues and confusion I am having are because of issues of blurred divisions between binaries. I found this argument to be a far more compelling aspect of the compulsory sexuality discussion than the Rich’s additions to Kathleen Gough’s descriptions of how men impair the sensual rights of women. It was intriguing and compelling because it was so difficult for me to reason through.

In Adrienne Rich’s article, “Compulsory Sexuality and the Lesbian Existence,” the writer claims that it is necessary to examine the “Lesbian Continuum” and “Lesbian Existence” instead of looking at compulsory sexuality in terms of “lesbianism.” As she writes, “the term lesbian has been held to limiting, clinical associations in its patriarchal definition, female friendship and comradeship have been set apart from the erotic, thus limiting the erotic itself.”(349) After all, If we’re looking at nonscientific explanations for compulsory heterosexuality, i.e. societal or historical, then we cannot consider the homosexual experiences between women on merely scientific or clinical terms.

I found the idea of a lesbian continuum particularly interesting because it is a medium of analyzing history as well as the personal lesbian experiences of a woman. Since this experience is profoundly feminine, it is necessary too look at it in only a woman context. This means that in investigating the lesbian experience, we must separate if from that of gay men or other “against the grain” oppressed groups because by blurring their differences, we lose our ability to recognize “the particularly oppressions, meanings, and potentialities”(349) of woman as a group. Thus, a lesbian continuum and not a gay continuum.

It is important not to think that a continuum somehow denotes that there are levels or degrees of lesbian experiences. It is harmful to think of the lesbian experience in this way because it suggests that there are ways to be less lesbian and therefor more socially acceptable.”Lesbian existences comprises both the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life. It is a direct or indirect attack on male right of access to women…an act of resistance.”(349) All woman exists on this continuum because it is a central fact of history that woman have always resisted the tyranny imposed upon them by men. (351) Therefore, women have existed in and out of this continuum for hundreds of years. Therefor, the experiences of the independent female communities of the 12th and 15th centuries(350) are no less a rejection of patriarchal domination than the Indian wives in Fire who take control of their own sexuality and reject the compulsory heterosexuality of their community.

By Frank Miller

In her essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich introduces her audience to what she perceives as the commonly practiced travesty that is heterosexuality. She begins with a quote borrowed from Alice Rossi’s “Children and Work in the Lives of Women”: “biologically men have only one innate orientation–a sexual one that draws them to women–while women have two innate orientations, sexual toward men and reproductive toward their young” which she offsets with her argument. She explains that the dismissal of the lesbian perspective is commonplace in literature; subsequently arguing that some texts may have greatly benefited from the author’s acceptance “with lesbian existence as a reality, and as a source of knowledge and power available to women; or with the institution of heterosexuality itself as a beachhead of male dominance.”

Touching on several influential psychological texts, including Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering, she determines how closely the lesbian has been integrated and appropriately judged, deeming nearly all of the texts as insufficient. Her psychological analysis leads her to propose an essential question: “If women are the earliest sources of emotional caring and physical nurture for both female and male children, it would seem logical [to ask] whether the search for love and tenderness in both sexes does not originally lead toward women.” She confesses that she is not a believer that lesbian relies on the mother’s unconditional love unto the child; yet, explains that she has seen a significant increase in fathers tending to children. She claims that as some believe this may deplete machismo, she believes that the transition could continue “without radically altering the balance of male power in a male-identified society.” From this point she highlights Kathleen Gough’s “The Origin of the Family,” a compiled list of the unwritten rules of archaic machismo expressed upon women, rules which seem “innate” for men engaging in heterosexual practice.

However, the core of Rich’s argument lies within the coined term: “lesbian continuum” which may be defined as “a range–through each woman’s life and throughout history–of woman-identified experience.” The lesbian continuum also includes “the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support.”

Though published in 1980, it seems as if “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” had Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) in mind during the process in which it was being written. Celie is made an example of by nearly all of Gough’s points by several of the men of the novel. One heterosexual male in particular, Alphonso, the man who she believes to be her father “force[s] [his] [male sexuality] upon [her],” “den[ies] [her of her own sexuality],” “command[s] or exploit[s] [her] labor to control [her] produce,” “control[s] or rob[s] [her of her] children,” “cramp[s] [her] creativeness,” and “withhold[s] from [her the] large areas of the society’s knowledge and cultural attainments” all by keeping her prisoner in his home, perpetually raping her, and forcefully removing the children they conceive. Her submission to heterosexuality continues when she becomes an “object in male transaction” when Alphonso trades her to Mr.____. Yet, her luck changes when she encounters Shug Avery, Mr.____’s mistress who comes to live with him. As Rich proposes the two share “a rich inner life” as their bonding leads the two to begin “sleeping[ing] like sisters, me and Shug” (126). However, Celie’s relationship with Shug transcends a “desired genital sexual experience with another woman.”  Shug, who is “practical[ly] and political[ly] independent on her own” appropriately gives Celie such “support” by informing her to stand up to Mr.____’s attacks, as the two end up “bond[ing] against the male tyran[t]” that is Mr.____. Being insulted in the most heterosexually driven manner possible: “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman…you nothing at all” (168), Celie fully encompasses Rich’s argument. She demonstrates the strides of practical and political support of the lesbian continuum and her liberation from heterosexuality as declares her and Shug’s departure from Mr.____’s heterosexually-dominated oppressive home: “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly…But I’m here” (169).

 

Adrienne Rich makes a strong case for the lesbian as the ultimate marginalization within feminist culture in her essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” She writes of a “male power” that not only “deny women [their own] sexuality,” but also “…force [male sexuality] upon them.” (291) This is a system so rigid that it makes for a society where deviant sexuality is nearly impossible to conceive of.  Rich seeks to expand the term “lesbian”  into a word that includes any woman who have at any time engaged in “primary intensity among women” and asserts this group to be one that “bonds [sic] against male tyranny.” (292) In doing this, Rich removes the lesbian from the GLBTQ community, and reappropriates them as representative of the female struggle, albeit on a sexual extreme. This reappropriation is made, however, at the expense of the male homosexual; further, in defending this decision, Rich engages in the very of stereotyping of homosexual men that she loathes being done to women who act outside the compulsory frame.

In order to strengthen the association between lesbians and women at large, Rich describes what she calls “a lesbian continuum, we can see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify as lesbians or not.” (293) Rich is adamant in her assertion that lesbianism need not describe the kind of physical/emotional/sexual relationship as the ones seen in the society of compulsory heterosexuality. One can include themselves within the lesbian continuum whether one seeks to live the life of a Beguine, “who ‘practiced Christian virtue on their own, dressed and living simply and not associating with men'” or even simply if one remembers “the impudent, intimate girl friendships of eight or nine year olds.” (293)

Women like Emily Dickinson and Zora Neale Hurston, according to Rich, lived outside of the world of compulsory heterosexuality and instead within the lesbian continuum:

Dickinson never married, and had tenuous intellectual friendships with men, lived self-convented in her genteel father’s house in Amherst, and wrote a lifetime of passionate letters to her sister-in-law Sue Gilbert and…her friend Kate Scott Anthon. Hurston married twice but soon left each husband…her survival relationships were all with women, beginning with her mother. Both of these women in their vastly different circumstances were marriage resisters, committed to their own work and self-hood…Both were drawn to men of intellectual quality; for both women provided the ongoing fascination and sustenance of life.”
Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (Rich, 293)

By being “committed to their…self-hood,” Dickinson and Hurston eschewed one of the principles of male power, and refused “to cramp their creativeness” for the sake of living within the frame of compulsory heterosexuality. (293, 291) These women, who didn’t (to our knowledge) engage in openly homosexual behavior, instead represented those women who shared an aforementioned “primary intensity” and passed in and out of the lesbian continuum as a result.

These women, Rich asserts, are considered to be (among other things), “emotionally and sensually deprived,” and as creative women, “the work…is undervalued, or seen as the bitter fruit of ‘penis envy’ or the sublimation of repressed eroticism or the meaningless rant of a ‘man-hater.’ (293) Rich is calling upon all women, regardless of sexual identity, to rise up against these stereotypes, for they subjugate all women for their gender as much (and according to Rich, if not more) than they subjugate lesbians for their sexuality. In this sense, lesbianism for Rich is a symptom of greater discrimination, one that can only be overcome with the help of all women.

Immediately before this “rich” text is a passage that, in analyzing anachronistically, serves to first separate the bonds between lesbians as members of the “gay” community so that what comes after can cement the bonds between lesbians and women at large. Rich, however, breaks the bonds of sexuality unconvincingly. She claims that because lesbians are tethered to gay men, they are “deprived of a political existence through ‘inclusion as the female versions of male homosexuality.” (292) Without going further, this statement provokes many questions. For one, is Rich implying that lesbians are denied the rights they deserve because of their connection to male homosexuals? Or are lesbians perhaps pushed to the background while male homosexuality is given comparatively greater political freedom?

Rich seems to be implying a little of both:

“…there are differences: women’s lack of economic and cultural privilege relative to men; qualitative differences in female and male relationships – for example, the patterns of anonymous sex among male homosexuals, and the pronounced ageism in male homosexual standards of sexual attractiveness.”
Rich, 292

What Rich fails to articulate (purposefully or not) is the great dichotomy inherent in the very pairing of “male” and “homosexual.” While men may have more economic freedom on paper, there were many decades (certainly at the time Rich penned this essay) that men could not claim such high paying jobs were they to openly admit their homosexuality. This secrecy extends to Rich’s point about level of anonymous sex, beyond it being a well-worn argument by the religious right against the immorality of homosexuality in both sexes.

Lesbianism may be “a profoundly female experience,” but Rich doesn’t admit an important reality: gays and lesbians are marginalized for the same reason, that being their divergence from heterosexuality (compulsory or otherwise). The fact that women are subjugated regardless of sexuality does not make her plight any more important, or the plight of male homosexuals any less relevant. (292)