Adrienne Rich – Equating Heterosexuality and Motherhood

[Hi, this is Alice – 4th year biology major.]

I agree with Rich’s claim that heterosexuality, like gender and sexuality, needs to be made historical and thus an analytic category  (p637 “I am suggesting that heterosexuality, like motherhood, needs to be recognized and studied as a political institution…”), but I disagree with the extent that she accuses compulsory heterosexuality as perpetrator for male domination.

Setting aside my suspicion with her binary of perpetrator (male) and victim (female), I need to first examine how she builds up the concept of compulsory heterosexuality in order to question the foundation of her claims (and ultimately the binary). First, her most problematic assumption is that “women are the earliest sources of emotional caring and physical nurture for both female and male children…”, from with her next claim follows: that societal forces have wrenched “women’s emotional and erotic energies away from themselves and other women and from woman-identified values (p637).” Thus, women (we) are enslaved by compulsory heterosexuality, having been redirected from the mother-child relationship into a forced male-female relationship.

While she acknowledges that “mothering-by-women” isn’t sufficient for lesbian existence, she also builds the argument that “mothering-by-men” won’t alter male dominance, and thus won’t alter compulsory heterosexuality. This fundamental argument that compulsory heterosexuality has blinded women’s ‘natural’ yearnings for other women springing from the ‘original’ mother-child relationship is troubling because she herself has established motherhood as ahistorical (she agrees with Cavin that “the original deep adult bonding is that of woman for woman (p647)”) and is now attempting to comparing heterosexuality (historical concept) to motherhood (fixed, ahistorical concept)  – with her denying any ability for men to be part of a father-child relationship equivalent to that of the mother-child relationship (motherhood as a “profoundly female experience” p650).

Her argument thus depends on the idealized, ahistorical, heteronormative nuclear family. This dependance weakens her argument against compulsory heterosexuality by taking for granted the mother-child relationship as popularized by the nuclear family (and implying that this relationship is caused in part by power imbalance between men and women). It’s a vicious circle of theorizing compulsory heterosexuality as stemming from an unchangeable fount of mother-child affection.

In conclusion, to return to my suspicions with her terminology, Rich’s binary of male perpetrator/sexual predator vs. female victim/sexual prey stems from her attempting to draw out a historical heterosexuality from an ahistorical conceptual framework for mother-child relationships. However, because history cannot be derived from ahistory (I assume this), the binary of heterosexuality comes under fire for being too presumptuous and weakens her argument of women being enslaved by men through compulsive heterosexuality.

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