On compulsory heterosexuality and lesbophobia in modern feminism

Hi, I’m Veronica. I’m a third year majoring in History and Gender and Sexuality Studies.

In feminist circles today, rhetoric that seeks to distance the movement from “man-hating, hairy-legged angry lesbians” is not uncommon. However, these attempts have not necessarily decreased associations of “bra-burning misandrists” and feminism from the popular imagination. In fact, many pop culture icons reject the label because they say it is too controversial: claiming, like Madonna, that instead they are “humanists” or, like Taylor Swift, that she is not a feminist because she believes that women can achieve anything, regardless of gender. However, if feminism seeks to critique traditional gender roles and bring about a liberation from patriarchal demands and structures, it is ridiculous to assume that feminists are bent on reproducing some kind of “battle of the sexes” or that these goals are necessarily compatible with misandry (hatred of men by women). Moreover, comments like Madonna’s and Taylor Swift’s ignore huge gender disparities regarding women’s presence in various fields; they elect to ignore gender issues in favor of avoiding statements that may offend men. Furthermore, comments which reproduce homophobia or shame women for not shaving their legs or wearing makeup are deeply problematic in that they exclude women from a movement that most feminists agree is for the liberation and gender equality of all women.

As a feminist and a lesbian, I do sympathize with Adrienne Rich’s frustrations concerning homophobia in feminist circles (which clearly is still an issue today), specifically regarding her contemporaries’ claims that women are “‘innately sexually oriented’ toward men” or that the “lesbian choice is simply an acting-out of bitterness towards men” (632). In the United States, sexual orientation is decreasingly understood as a personal choice and claims that everyone is born with heterosexual inclinations has been widely discredited. (So while feminists today may not necessarily make these claims specifically, lesbophobia has not disappeared.) However, Rich’s critique that it is a problem that “heterosexuality is presumed as a ‘sexual preference’ of ‘most women’ is much less concerning as I see it as a simple reality. Heteronormativity, insofar as it excludes or stigmatizes a variety of gender expression and sexual orientations, is a problem and I do agree that heterosexual unions, insofar as they stigmatize other same-sex consensual unions, are deeply problematic. The torture and social exclusion of women who did not marry men, coercive or forced female prostitution, concepts of virginity, violence and rape against women, among other phenomena are very serious concerns which lend credence to claims that there has been a very long history of patriarchal social structures. Furthermore, because these patriarchal systems are buoyed by strict, traditional gender roles, limiting gender expression does oppress particular social groups and is necessarily suspect. That being said, it is simply true that most people believe that their sexual orientation is heterosexual and they may feel most comfortable living as cisgender “masculine” men and “feminine” women. So while I am not opposed to examinations of heterosexuality as a political institution and while I do believe that a type of compulsory heterosexuality has severely limited people’s opportunities to live freely, I don’t think there is a problem with assumptions that heterosexuality is the sexual preference of most women, even as it is not for all women (633).

In class on Tuesday, we discussed concepts of consent in Gayle Rubin’s Thinking Sex, and Adrienne Rich’s piece directly addresses these issues. She argues that “the absence of choice” or consent in heterosexual relationships is “the great unacknowledged reality,” suggesting that differences of power between men and women make it impossible for females to truly make free and informed decisions about their sexuality (659). While I am skeptical of movements among feminists today which claim that makeup, sex work, and other matters are empowering to women (because I am wary of their roots in patriarchy and misogyny), I fear that thinkers such as Adrienne Rich take their arguments too far, in suggesting that institutions such as heterosexuality are necessarily disempowering to women.

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One thought on “On compulsory heterosexuality and lesbophobia in modern feminism

  1. Pingback: The Sexual Orientation Conspiracy: Maintaining A Heterosexual Identity in Smith. | leya2976

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