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Heterosexuality as a Standard

Adrienne Rich’s analysis of heterosexuality reveals its compulsory nature: In the present day, men enforce heterosexuality on women by means of various social and cultural leverages. Although Rich is convinced that women are more victimized by the imposed heterosexuality, its standardization affects both sexes; therefore, society should stop considering heterosexuality as a norm.

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In the article “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” Adrienne Rich questions the innate heterosexuality of women. She is convinced that heterosexuality is imposed upon women by men in order to control them sexually. Rich (1996) stresses the complete disregard of lesbian existence in writings and points out that even feminist research and theory “contribute to lesbian invisibility and marginality” (p. 135). In her study, Rich (1996) suggests the notions of lesbian existence and lesbian continuum to denote both “the fact of the historical presence of lesbians” and “a range of woman-identified experience,” from a sexual experience with another woman to the various types of social bonding (p. 135). In addition to that, Rich (1996) insists on the discrimination between male and female homosexuality, defining the lesbian experience as being a “profoundly female experience” because of the existing differences in male and female reality, as “women’s lack of economic and cultural privilege relative to men” (p. 136).

Rich was greatly influenced by the scientific works of such feminist researchers as British anthropologist Kathleen Gough, American activist Catharine McKinnon, and American sociologist Kathleen Barry. These authors study the role of women in modern society and the issues of sexual harassment and human sex trafficking. Rich develops her concepts of lesbian existence and lesbian continuum on the basis of their works, giving significant consideration to other writings of such feminist authors as H. R. Hayes, W. Lederer, and D. Dinnerstein. At the same time, Rich argues with American sociologist A. S. Rossi and British novelist D. Lessing, who also devoted much of their work to the theme of feminism and lesbianism. The extensive review of the feminist research and theory works and the introduction of the new concepts of the lesbian existence and lesbian continuum speak of the conceptual framework employed by Adrienne Rich in her study.

Rich was not the only researcher who noted that lesbianism was neglected in many writings. Thus, Diana Fuss (2013) stresses that many scientists tend to “implicitly code homosexual as male” and “situate lesbianism as a footnote to gay male history,” while Rich erects “lesbian identity on the rejection and repression of the male homosexual economy” (p. 110). However, as opposed to Rich, Fuss (2013) does not differentiate between gay or lesbian, combining two gender perspectives of homosexuality in one category, pointing out that society perceives homosexuality as a “threat to public safety” (p. 113).

Just as Rich (1996) suggests that the society traditionally opposes “natural” heterosexuality to “pathological” lesbianism (p. 137), Chris Brickel (2006) develops this idea and claims that “heterosexuality depends for its own definition upon its derogated other: homosexuality” (p. 426). Nevertheless, Pantea Farvid (2015) states that historically, heterosexuality was not a standard, and it was “Sigmund Freud who popularized the idea that heterosexuality was biologically determined” (p. 94). However, Farvid (2015) points out that Freud also expressed the idea that “sexuality developed in stages and that both heterosexuality and homosexuality could be the outcome of such development” (p. 94). That leads to the conclusion that the standardization of heterosexuality is a pure chance circumstance, yet since it has become the norm, society employs various means to impose heterosexuality upon its members, and Rich is convinced that women are more liable to this enforcement.

Rich (1996) states that “the ideology of heterosexual romance” is instilled into the minds of women from childhood through “fairy tales, television, films, advertising popular songs, and wedding pageantry” (p. 134). Indeed, these can be considered as an effective means of persuasion that heterosexuality is the only type of sexuality that is appropriate in society. Moreover, the practice of homophobia is also a tool that helps to construct heterosexual identity (Dean, 2011, p. 686).

Betsy Lucal (2008) suggests that society should get rid of the belief that “males and females, women and men, and heterosexuals and homosexuals are the opposites” (p. 532). According to Lucal (2008), people’s refusal to see beyond the traditional categories, which she calls “boxes and boundaries,” helps “to construct and maintain inequalities” (p. 533). Thus, society should eliminate the existing stereotypes concerning the norms of sexuality and cease to impose heterosexuality upon its members as a common standard.

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The analysis of several readings on heterosexuality has shown that the problem of enforcement of heterosexuality as a standard does not affect only the female sex. However, the intentional neglect of lesbianism seems to be the real issue, as well as the common belief that female homosexuality is the same phenomenon as male homosexuality. Society should get rid of the traditional classification of sex and genders and stop considering heterosexuality as a common standard.


Brickell, C. (2006). Sexology, the homo/hetero binary, and the complexities of male sexual history. Sexualities, 9(4), 423-447.

Dean, J. J. (2011). The cultural construction of heterosexual identities. Sociology Compass, 5(8), 679-687.

Farvid, P. (2015). Heterosexuality. In C. Richards & M. J. Barker (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of the psychology of sexuality and gender (pp. 92-108). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fuss, D. (2013). Essentially speaking: Feminism, nature and difference. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lucal, B. (2008). Building boxes and policing boundaries: (De)constructing intersexuality, transgender and bisexuality. Sociology Compass, 2(2), 519-536.

Rich, A. (1996). Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. In S. Jackson & S. Scott (Eds.), Feminism and sexuality: A reader (pp. 130-141). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

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