Feminists conceived the term compulsory heterosexuality to signify the institutional pressures on women to be heterosexual, thereby ensuring men’s rights of physical, economic, and emotional access. The term compulsory heterosexuality was first used at the 1976 Brussels International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women to draw attention to the worldwide persecution of lesbians.
Adrienne Rich more fully conceptualized “compulsory heterosexuality” in arguing that, despite qualitative differences in women’s experiences across cultures and history, women’s heterosexuality is not simply an issue of sexual “preference” or “orientation” but an ideology maintained by force that convinces women of the inevitability of marriage and sexual orientation toward men, even when unsatisfying or oppressive. Rich further argued that a wide range of legal, political, religious, social, economic, and physical barriers prohibit women from determining the forms that sexuality will take in their lives. Some customs that enforce women’s heterosexuality are easily recognizable: chastity belts, clitoridectomies, foot binding, veils, rape, child marriage, arranged marriages, and pornography. However, other practices, such as taboos against homosexuality and the historical erasure of lesbian existence, obscure alternatives for same-sex bonding. Further, pervasive social, economic, legal, and educational inequalities ensure women’s dependence upon men for survival.
Since Rich’s work was published, queer theorists have demonstrated that compulsory heterosexuality also negatively affects healthy development of gay men and boys. Almost from birth, families teach not only acceptable gendered conduct, dress, and character traits, but disdain for cross-gendered behaviors. Compulsory heterosexuality is reinforced and expanded by religious institutions, peer groups, and the media, where heterosexual love is often presented as the only viable option and the value of nonheterosexual relationships may be omitted entirely, denounced, or denigrated.
Some school personnel, especially in religious schools, may educate for compulsory heterosexuality through the curriculum proper. More often, especially in public schools, teachers, administrators, counselors, and staff educate for compulsory heterosexuality through the hidden curriculum. Without ever openly denigrating nonheterosexuals, teachers of young children often encourage children to play in “gender appropriate” games and role-plays, reinforcing the notion that only certain ways of play or acting are socially acceptable. In fact, studies show that the worst verbal assault one can make against a young boy is to call him a girl.
When derogatory epithets surface among older children or youth, many school personnel refuse to challenge the language, intent, and misconceptions that are being wielded against gay and lesbian persons and identities. Researchers have documented that adolescents believe that being called “gay” or “lesbian” is the worst insult that can be leveled against them. Teachers’ silence about lesbian and gay identity in fact speaks very loudly. Whether because of ignorance, design, or benign neglect, feminists and other scholars assert, these factors all contribute to a hidden curriculum of compulsory heterosexuality where every child is presumed heterosexual until proven otherwise and those children who are homosexual are labeled “defective.”
- Birden, S. (2005). Rethinking sexual identity in education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Rich, A. (1986). Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. In Blood, bread, and poetry (pp. 23–75). New York: W. W. Norton.
- Russell, D. E. H., & Van de Ven, N. (Eds.). (1976). Crimes against women: Proceedings of the International Tribunal. East Palo Alto, CA: Frog in the Well.
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