Compulsory Heterosexuality: for women questioning their sexuality

This article is based on a text written by a variety of authors on the topic of compulsory heterosexuality, with an extra note of the editor of this blog on the validity of all sexualities and how they can change throughout your life. The full master document provides a very good overview of the most pressing questions regarding compulsory heterosexuality. (MM)

reading time: 15 min

What is Compulsory Heterosexuality? 

‘Compulsory’ in this context means ‘you have to, or you feel like you have to’. Compulsory heterosexuality is exactly what it sounds like: being and acting straight is something our culture tries to force on us.

What happens if you’re not attracted to men at all? When you’re trained from childhood to see romantic/sexual relationships with only men as life goals: how do you separate that from what you want?

Compulsory heterosexuality is the voice in your head that says “I must really be hetero” even when you’re in love with a woman. Compulsory heterosexuality is what forces lesbians to struggle through learning the difference between what you’ve been taught you want (being with men) and what you do want (being with women), which is why so many lesbians have dated men at some point.

Compulsory heterosexuality is very similar to heteronormativity: the assumption that straight is the default. We’re trained from birth to believe that we will find someone of the other binary gender to fall in love with, have sex with, and build a relationship with. In a million tiny ways we’re taught that only relationships with the other binary gender are valid. (And if you’re not one of the binary genders, this can be even more confusing.)

Compulsory heterosexuality is built into you from the moment you’re born into this time and place, and it takes a long time to dismantle it.

What if I’ve liked men before, or had warm feelings for a man?

You can identify as a lesbian if you’ve liked men in the past but no longer are attracted to men or no longer want to pursue relationships with them. Many lesbians have previously liked men at some point in their lives before coming to terms with their lesbian identity.

It can also be that you’ve had terrible experiences with men and now would like to no longer date them. In that way you’ve become a lesbian.

It’s okay to try on the lesbian identity and see how it fits you. Many lesbians were unsure of how they felt about men until they identified as lesbians. This helped them realize how much of what they felt for men was actually compulsory heterosexuality.

Lesbian doesn’t need to mean ‘only experiences attraction to women’. It can mean ‘only feels comfortable, only prefers, and only prioritizes women and relationships with them’. Many lesbians have found out this way that their previous attraction to men was in fact compulsory heterosexuality.

You can genuinely have warm, positive, strong feelings towards men and they can still be a sign of compulsory heterosexuality. Compulsory heterosexuality is the assumption that any feelings that you have towards a man must be attraction because society talks all the time about hetero love and attraction so when you feel something towards a man you think “oh, this must be what it’s like”.

Then as part of discovering your sexuality you try to find ways that you find men attractive. You think “I’m not attracted to physical appearance, only personalities” (and start defining yourself as a pansexual). Or “I only like feminine men”. Or you find ways to make yourself aroused by men by imagining them in all kinds of unusual scenarios until you hit one that appeals to you.

Then when you can’t follow through with this ‘attraction’ in real life scenarios; when you have a chance to have a romantic/sexual relationship with a man, you assume that it’s some broken part of you that’s stopping you, or some quirk of your personality, or a circumstance of your life: ‘I just have too high standards”, or “I only really like older men”, or “I have this obscure sexuality where I only like men until they actually like me back”.

Thus you explain away why you’re unable to find an attainable man in real life who you’re attracted to.

This is something that’s really difficult to recognise because in the process of figuring out your sexuality you question how you feel and you come back with “well, I definitely have (also) strong feelings for men” and assume you’re straight, bisexual or pansexual.*

But another important thing to question is: “have I correctly labelled and understood what this feeling is and am I certain that it’s actually attraction?”.

Society puts so much emphasis on the importance and intensity of heterosexual love and attraction that it’s important to actively remind yourself that it’s possible to love someone and have a deep interest in them without having romantic or sexual feelings towards them.

Signs of Being a Lesbian suffering from Compulsory Heterosexuality

You can find more lesbian checkpoint lists in the master document.

‘Attraction’ to men

  • Deciding which guys to be attracted to – not to date, but to be attracted to – based on how well they match a mental list of attractive qualities. You have a ‘list’ of impossible criteria in your head that a man must meet for you to be attracted to him, and if you ever meet someone who matches all the criteria you just add more impossible standards.
  • Liking the idea of being with a man, but any time a man makes a move you get incredibly uncomfortable.
  • Not liking the reality of men, only the idea of being with men.
  • Like getting attention from men and being validated in your attractiveness, but the moment it goes from attention to an interaction (i.e. from flirting to asking out), you start panicking.
  • You view sexual relationships with men as a chore, burden, or just something you must deal with.
  • Confusing a strong emotional connection/dependency with a man for romantic feelings
  • You get crushes on just about every guy you’re friendly with, because there’s really no difference between friendships and crushes to you
  • You feel like you could theoretically be attracted to men (you may even have fantasies about them), but in practice you never have any real feelings of love and attraction for them.
  • Choosing to be attracted to a guy: flipping your attraction on like a switch – that’s a common lesbian thing.
  • Having such high standards that literally no guy meets them.
  • You’re far more certain about being attracted to women than you are about being attracted to men
  • Only/mostly being into guys who are gender-non-conforming or feminine in some way.
  • You want to date/fall in love/get married/have kids/etc with a guy, but the guy you dream about is never specific and may as well be a cardboard cut-out.
  • All of your fantasies around men are always with faceless, nameless men; the more realistic the fantasy and the more details about the man you invent, the less excited and into the fantasy you become.
  • Only/mostly being attracted to unattainable, disinterested, or fictional guys or guys you never or rarely interact with. 
  • The men you like may be gay or in relationships as they are also unattainable (if they are in a relationship, you may even start to wonder if it’s actually the woman you have a crush on).
  • You lose all attraction or get extremely uncomfortable if there are any implications that they might like you back. You get deeply uncomfortable and losing all interest in these unattainable guys if they ever indicate they might reciprocate.
  • You mistake the desire for male approval as attraction. You don’t necessarily want a relationship with men, but you want men to want a relationship with you.
  • Reading your anxiety/discomfort/nervousness/combativeness around men as attraction to them. Confusing your anxiety around men for “butterflies”.
  • Reading a desire to be attractive to men as attraction to them.

Sex and Intimacy with men

  • Having sex not out of desire for the physical pleasure or emotional closeness but because you like feeling wanted.
  • Or, preferring to ‘be a tease’ to feel wanted but feeling like following through is a chore.
  • Having to be drunk or high to have sex with men.
  • The idea of kissing, cuddling, dating and/or having sex with men is really scary/anxiety inducing.
  • Your fantasies about men still somehow turn out to be a little gay. Maybe you’re penetrating him, you don’t have to look at his face/don’t want to look at his face, you want a threesome with another woman, he’s very feminine, etc.
  • Thinking because you don’t like/pursue sex with men you must be asexual.*
  • Your fantasies about men give you intense distress or anxiety. They could be intrusive thoughts, forms of self-harm, or otherwise.
  • Being around guys that are interested in me gives me intense anxiety.
  • Only being comfortable with sex with men if there’s an extreme power imbalance and your desires aren’t centred.
  • Using sex with men as a form of self-harm.
  • You don’t have much of an emotional reaction to kissing or being otherwise physical with a man, or you even dislike/hate it, or get otherwise uncomfortable with it.
  • Feeling numb or dissociating or crying during/after sex with men (even if you don’t understand that reaction and think you’re fine and crying for no reason).
  • Being bored with sex with men and not understanding what the big deal is that makes other women want it.*
  • Doing sex with men anyway out of obligation or a desire to be a good sport, or to do something nice for him.
  • Never/rarely having sexual fantasies about specific men, preferring to leave them as undetailed as possible or not thinking about men at all while fantasizing.
  • Having to make a concerted effort to fantasize about the guy you’re “attracted” to.

The ‘straight’ version of you

  • Thinking that all straight girls feel at least some attraction to women.
  • Thinking that your interest in seeing attractive women/scantily clad women/boobs is an artificial reaction caused by the objectification of women in media.
  • Thinking it’s objective and uncontested that almost all women are way more attractive than most men.
  • Being a really intense LGBT+ “ally” and getting weirdly emotional about homophobia but assuming you’re just a Really Good Ally and very empathetic.
  • Having like half your friend group from school turn out to be LGBT+.
  • Getting emotional or having a strong reaction you don’t understand to lesbian love stories etc.

*Note on the validity of all sexualities

The concept of compulsory heterosexuality is useful and very real. But it’s important to stress that people do define as bi/pansexual, or asexual, and that those sexualities are totally valid and not some form of ‘confused state’ in between straight and gay/lesbian.

Some common prejudices exist within gay/lesbian communities toward other sexual minorities like bi/pan and aces. It is wrong to misuse an important concept like compulsory heterosexuality to disregard the validity of someone else’s sexual identity.

  • Bi/pansexuals are aware of their attraction for respectively both and all genders; and should by no means be seen as ‘confused’ or ‘suffering from compulsory heterosexuality’.
  • Asexuals are aware of feeling freed from sexual attractions toward anyone; and should by no means be seen as ‘confused’, ‘traumatized’ or ‘suffering from compulsory heterosexuality, but actually being gay/lesbian’.

UNDIVIDED for KU Leuven

UNDIVIDED is a student-faculty diversity initiative at KU Leuven. For a more inclusive university. Contact us at UNDIVIDED@kuleuven.be or on our social media.

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