Compulsory Heterosexuality: the War on Lesbians

Trigger Warning: Rape

Photo by Pierre Nel

“Compulsory heterosexuality:” the idea, proposed by Adrienne Rich in 1980, that society requires women to hold heterosexual lives, and that is primarily enforced through violence against women. Contemporary society is less discriminatory toward LGBT+ persons than 1980s America, but queer women are still marginalized, alternately brushed off and attacked.

Lesbianism is culturally treated as if it does not exist. Porn featuring lesbians, but targeted toward men, fetishizes the sexual unavailability of gay women. Search “lesbians” on Google and the second and fourth results are porn. Lesbianism and bi- pan- and polysexuality are often brushed off as “just a phase” or “experimenting.” Asexuality is treated as a disease or grab for attention. This heteronormative culture is demeaning and hurtful, but not dangerous, right?

Photo by Greg L.

Wrong. Some current cultures–including American subcultures–force or coerce adolescents and adults into heterosexual arranged marriages. A few days ago, a Hong Kong billionaire put out a $65m award for the first man to marry his daughter—in response to her marriage to another woman. Then there’s the violence of “corrective rape.”

“Corrective” rape is the rape of lesbians by men, with the alleged intention of “curing” them of their lesbianism and thus making them sexually available to men. It is a result of a culture that denies the legitimacy of lesbianism and refuses to protect queer women from hate crimes. South Africa, where gay women are afraid to walk the streets and are harassed by police, has recently come under international scrutiny for its institutionalized violence against gay women. And South Africa is not the only country with “corrective” rape. Gay women are raped in Kenya and India. They are raped in the United States.

American lesbians live in a society that refuses to protect them. When they are raped, their attackers are unlikely to be arrested, let alone convicted. This past February, a bill to finally extend protection against domestic violence to same-sex relationships passed the Senate Judiciary Committee—after being voted against by every Republican.

And how does the internet impact compulsory heterosexuality? As seems to be the usual, the web empowers both the oppressing institution and the factions that combat it. Porn fetishizes lesbians, propagating the idea that gay women exist to satisfy male sexuality and denying the legitimacy of lesbian relationships. Blogs, forums, and other web 2.0 sites provide spaces for the safe discussion of sexual orientation, and give rise to empowerment movements like Hollaback and Project Unbreakable. The internet spreads media that eroticizes violence against women, but also helps people unite to fight against it.

Contemporary society recognizes the existence of non-heterosexual women more than the society of 1980s America, but feminists have a lot of work left before gay women are safe.


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