Adrienne Rich – “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”

[Hi, I’m Mara, a second year Public Policy major!]

I found Adrienne Rich’s article slightly conflicting. While I felt her argument was clear and well formatted, and I enjoyed her detailed explanation of a system of oppression, it seemed as though she was arguing that all women in heterosexual relationships are being oppressed by the system.

Rich references many other texts in her attempt to show the origins of the system. In one such example, Rich refers to the characteristics of male power as defined in Kathleen Gough’s essay “The Origin of the Family” to support the notion that women are forced into heterosexuality by a male dominated system (638 – 640). After summarizing each characteristic, Rich asserts that their existence proves how strongly women would prefer homosexuality if the system was different: “Looking at the schema, what surely impresses itself is the fact that we are confronting not a simple maintenance of inequality and property possession, but a pervasive cluster of forces, ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness, which suggests that an enormous potential counterforce is having to be restrained” (640). This argument mirrors the rational Rich is attempting to argue against; claiming that an enormously powerful force, women’s tendency towards homosexuality, exists in most women makes homosexuality seem almost subconsciously compulsory.

Rich only devotes a few sentences towards the end of her work to examining an essential question of her claims about heterosexual relationships, the question of whether all heterosexual relationships must be condemned and resisted. Though explaining her thoughts on this question would strengthen her argument, Rich passes the topic by claiming it is the wrong question to ask. Rich ignores the question and continues to her point: “…the absence of choice remains the great unacknowledged reality, and in the absence of choice, women will remain dependent upon the chance or luck of particular relationships and will have no collective power to determine the meaning and place of sexuality in their lives” (659). Though the absence of choice, whatever the cause, is most certainly problematic, I feel Rich is arguing for the wrong goal. Rather than wanting women to have a “collective power to determine the meaning and place of sexuality in their lives”, which Rich believes would be manifested in most women choosing homosexuality, each individual man and woman should have that power. Rich is attempting to fight one institutional system with another, rather than considering an alternative that focuses on the individual.

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