Reading time: 20min
Author: Evelien Feys
This essay was written in response to this post about ‘comphet’.
‘Comphet’ is a contraction of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. In contemporary (mostly online) discourse, it refers to the idea that heterosexuality is so self-evident and expected that lesbians can be convinced that they are actually into men. These women are deluded by the societal norms that they have internalised. There is an infamous ‘Am I a Lesbian Masterdoc’ that circulates on the Internet and tends to be posted in response to people questioning their sexuality, specifically when women express doubts about being attracted to men. This document has surely been helpful to some people in understanding their sexual attraction.
However, ‘comphet’ has problems. The concept, and this ‘Masterdoc’ in particular, have been criticised by notably non-monosexual (as in attracted to people of more than one gender) queer women for imposing the label of lesbian on a set of experiences that are more universal than that. Another thing that really struck me personally is that it has become quite divorced from its history. Most people who use the term do not know the concept that ‘comphet’ refers to.
So, in this essay I am going to examine what The Discourse™ is all about. First, I am going to discuss the origins of compulsory heterosexuality, and how its current use both contradicts and is a continuation of that history. Then I will argue how comphet and its position in contemporary queer discourse show that this discourse is governed by problematic ideas of sexuality.
Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence
The concept of compulsory heterosexuality was developed by Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980/2003). Here, she critiques both the way in which the bonds between women – as comrades, lovers, partners, co-workers – are invalidated, destroyed and made hidden by male power, and the neglect of lesbian existence in feminist literature at the time. Central to the essay is her questioning of the “choice” of heterosexuality: if the position of women in a patriarchal system makes it compulsory for them to be in relationships with men, is there even such a thing as being freely heterosexual? In order to combat this system, she proposes the lesbian continuum: she opens up lesbianism to all bonds between women – it is more about freedom from men (who she equates with the patriarchy) than about sexual behaviour. These lesbian relationships inherently contest the patriarchal system, since this system sustains itself by destroying solidarity between women. Rich thus propagates a form of lesbian separatism, the idea that women can only be free if they are free from men.
There is a lot to critique about the concept of compulsory heterosexuality. If you are interested, Seidman (2009) gives an overview of critiques, reformulations and elaborations that have been articulated since the 1980s. One of those critiques is that the gender structuralism that underpins lesbian feminism is an incorrect assumption:
In short, critics of compulsory heterosexuality theorize a gender order reproduced by psychic and social structures that act with the force of the unconscious – that is, beyond deliberation and intention. This condition of gender structuralism is intended to expose the power of compulsory heterosexuality, thus revealing the agentic-like power of social structure against a culture legitimated by the celebration of individual agency.
As sociologically and politically compelling as this perspective is, it suffers from what I call a normative translation problem. Lesbian feminists and gay liberationists mistakenly assumed that a condition of compulsory heterosexuality successfully translates a normative gender code into a behavioral social reality. (Seidman, 2009, p. 21-22)
An alternative to gender structuralism was proposed by poststructural feminists during the 1990s, who argued in favour of the agency of people to negotiate and disrupt norms of gender and sexuality. Gender norms do not neatly translate into reality: people fail to meet them or intentionally play with them, which influences people’s individual experiences of gender, and actually change the gender norms themselves. Here, the gender order is less fixed, and these norms are generally not conceptualised as ‘men doing this to women’. This shift needs to be understood in the changing socio-economic context: Rich’s positioning of men and the institutions run by men as the oppressors, is caused by the fact that this was at that time the reality for those (white, middle class) women. When women start to occupy these oppressing positions, it is more difficult to situate the problem solely with men.
Heteronormativity vs compulsory heterosexuality
Instead of compulsory heterosexuality, ‘heteronormativity’ is a more common term used in the poststructural realm of thinking. Here, heterosexuality normalises itself by producing homosexuality, not by repressing a pre-existing homosexuality. For the nerds: this means a shift from the institutional and authority towards a discursive understanding of sexuality (#Foucault). According to critics, this view neglects the institutional aspect of power, but I do think it is important to understand that all sexual identities are constructed, and that all of those identities, not just the heterosexual one, have normalising effects.
An example. Ironically, Rich produces the same thing she critiques in her essay. According to her, the incorporation of lesbian existence into the feminist theories would fundamentally change their understanding of sexuality. The incorporation of lesbian existence would have made the theories better, but feminism at the time failed to do that. Then she proceeds to do the exact same thing with bisexual+, transgender and non-binary existences. So, in this case the identity of lesbian has a normalising effect on gender and sexuality: the idea of lesbianism as the alternative to compulsory heterosexuality, is based on and reinforces the binaries of both gender and sexuality.
Today, some homosexualities have been included into sexual normativity – this is what Lisa Duggan called ‘homonormativity’. One could argue that thinking of heterosexuality as compulsory is no longer possible today, since the socio-economic obligation for women to marry a man is no longer the case.
So, when the Lesbian Masterdoc says that compulsory heterosexuality is very similar to heteronormativity, it does not really acknowledge or specify the difference between them. The contemporary concept of comphet is based on two assumptions: heterosexuality is the norm, and it makes lesbians think that they are into men. That last assumption is not congruent with heteronormativity: heteronormativity means that being heterosexual, and therefore also either a man or a woman, is the norm. Here, lesbianism (or homosexuality) is not the solution and can even reproduce certain norms, such as those of the gender binary.
Another discrepancy I want to point out, is that ‘compulsory’ and ‘normative’ are not the same thing. One of the critiques on Rich is that she denies women’s agency in the heterosexual choice, and that this has problematic implications for consent. What is really the difference between this rhetoric and claims that sex between a man and a woman is de facto rape, since the compulsory nature of heterosexual relationships makes it impossible for women to consent to sex with men (Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, 1981)? Moreover, if choosing a lesbian existence (sexually or not) is an attack on the patriarchal system, not doing so means actively contributing to it. Rich’s argument is inconsistent: women are either stuck in their unfulfilled compulsory heterosexual relationship with a man, or in wondrously unproblematic relationships with other women. Because it is not as if there are power imbalances between women and women are also capable of the violence that Rich conveniently only situates in the hands of men.
Comphet and sexual identity
The ‘Are You a Lesbian Masterdoc’ is aimed at questioning women and lists a plethora of ‘signs’ that you might be a lesbian. You can read it for yourself if you want. Basically, it is a lot of: are you attracted to men? But really? Like are you really really sure? Society conditions us to believe that! So are you still sure now? If you are attracted to men, you have to ask if that attraction is really attraction and not not real attraction! Here are about 100 (very universally experienced) signs that you actually might be a lesbian. So what about now?
It reassures you that you can still be a lesbian, even though you X, Y and Z, and simultaneously gatekeeps the identity. A few examples of signs that you might be a lesbian:
If you think you feel attraction towards men but don’t want to date or be with them and instead want to date and be with women, then you CAN be a lesbian. Lesbian doesn’t need to mean “only experiences attraction to women”, it can mean “only feels comfortable, only prefers, and only prioritizes women & relationships with them”. Many lesbians have found out this way that their “attraction” to men was in fact compulsory heterosexuality.
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” or “i only like feminine men” … when you can’t follow through with this … you assume that’s it’s some broken part of you that’s stopping you, or some quirk of your personality, or a circumstance of your life (”i have high standards” or “i only like older men” or “i have some incredibly obscure made-up sexuality where i only like men until they like me back”).
It’s a “now” identity – it matters how you feel now! you’re not interested in men, so you can ID as lesbian regardless of how you’ve felt in the past. if you ID as lesbian now, and then meet a man and fall for him, it would be wrong to call yourself a lesbian but having a relationship with a man in the past doesn’t mean you can’t be a lesbian now.
You’re only attracted to fictional men, celebrities, or man that are completely unattainable (i.e. your teacher, gay men, men in established relationships). Basically, you only like men if it’s impossible for them to like you back – very common.
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.
[N]one of your girl friend’s partners are ever good enough for them, and you take it very personally, and you don’t feel the same way about the men you’re friends with.
Especially the endless listing of signs of lesbianism – the TL;DR has 71 bullet points – has very little to do with compulsory heterosexuality. For context: this document was written as a Tumblr post by a 19-year-old, questioning and then bisexual-identifying woman. It does read a lot like radical feminism, and uses some of its analyses, albeit misrepresented and in very simplified way (and without references, obviously).
So, what is the problem?
My first issue with the contemporary ‘comphet’ is that it has been entirely divorced from its original meaning, and there has been no new critical framework developed to support its current use. Divorced from history means divorced from context. This matters because of the vast difference between our current societal context and the context in which compulsory heterosexuality was originally coined. It used to be a power analysis, now it is an individualised psychological concept – similarly to the evolution of sexual identity from pathology to individualised psychological concept.
Rich’s essay is sometimes referenced to give ‘comphet’ legitimacy. This is quite ironic. Supporters of the comphet concept tend to think of lesbianism as an intrinsic, essential truth. They tend to be very strong gatekeepers of the word ‘lesbian’ – I will expand on this later – and attack everyone who tries to question the hard borders of lesbianism, which is something that Rich does in her essay. Rich politicises sexuality. For her, lesbianism is not a matter of psychological reality, but a political choice to live your life a certain way. This might seem like a petty point to make, but these inconsistencies are characterising for The Discourse in general.
What comphet does, is draw a line between lesbian experiences and the experiences of literally everyone else. It creates a new norm by labelling these experiences as a lesbian thing, It exceptionalises lesbianism, similarly to the way compulsory heterosexuality exceptionalises heterosexuality as uniquely problematic and lesbianism as uniquely unproblematic.
The specificity of lesbianism
This is part of a larger project, currently very popular in online spaces, that aims to draw strict boundaries between different sexual identities. The walls between the letters of our beloved acronym are straight and high, as if we all have our strictly separate cultures. People who combine different labels are guilty of the highest offence, in particular the label ‘lesbian’ is being vigorously gatekept – the label ‘gay’ seems to be much more porous. Bisexual women may not refer to themselves as lesbian (and according to some ‘gay’ is also off limits) because it would make men believe that lesbians are into them.
First, not all bisexual women date men. People use this label in very different ways, which is completely fine. Second, the men that use this as an excuse to harass lesbians will find some other excuse if this one is not available. It is also striking that this argument basically says: “I do not want to be mistaken for bi or straight because then men will harass me.” This shows that they either do know that sexual identity does not matter in this context, or that they believe they should be excused from harassment because of their sexual identity. I will let you decide which one is worse. Rich’s essay suggests something similar when giving accounts of sexual violence against lesbians: being forced into sex with a man is worse for lesbians than for other women.
The label ‘bi lesbian’ has caused a particular amount of upset. It is supposedly a recent Tumblr invention in order to attack lesbians. However, if you are interested, I would suggest you read up on the bi lesbians of the 70s, 80s and 90s (Miller, 1973; Ferguson, 1981; Kaahumanu, 1986; Ochs, 1987; Queen, 1992; Rust, 1995) – they truly loved Tumblr, I must tell you… Sarcasm aside, people combining labels and or simply not caring about them has been happening for a very long time. For bi lesbians, this identity is often very much linked to the political choice of lesbianism – such as the one in Rich’s essay.
Romantic or sexual experience is not the only ground on which this battle is fought. Cultural products and their components are being partitioned into ownership by one particular sexual identity as well. For example, there is this film with two female characters who fall in love. Sexual identity is never specified – it is also a period piece. Calling this film or these characters ‘queer’ instead of ‘lesbian’ is unacceptable, a form of discursive violence even. Furthermore ‘queer’ is a slur, they say.
Slurs are also being gatekept (because apparently there are no real problems). Only lesbians are allowed to say ‘dyke’ – by the way, there is a less strict version of this belief where only queer women can say dyke and queer men say fag(got). And by saying, I do mean pronouncing or typing. The problem is that sexuality is not race and thinking of these words as analogous to the N-word is completely baseless. Second, I would argue that there is a difference between saying a word, calling someone a word, and yelling it from a passing car. Third, their argument that dyke is a word that is used against lesbians specifically for their “lack of attraction to men” is not correct. It is the only word I have ever been called, and my attraction in men is very existent. (I know I am supposed to make some joke here about hating my attraction to men, but I think this is a really problematic trend that bi/pan women have to buy into to be ‘good bi-/pansexuals’ in order to be accepted into lesbian spaces.)
Another example is a certain subset of Lesbian Twitter going after Roxane Gay for identifying as butch in a New York Times interview on butch identity. As Gay is bisexual – yes, very funny etc. – this is completely unacceptable to them because butch is a – you guessed it – “lesbian-only” identifier. Gay also used the phrase “I said I was a stone butch in my 20s when I was a lesbian” (my emphasis) in a response, which enraged them even further since they find anything but essentialism entirely unacceptable.
Non-essentialism supposedly supports the claim that lesbians can be converted to heterosexuality by the right man (or his genitals). Here, I have to repeat myself and argue that men who do this will find some other excuse if this one is not available. Also, ‘butch’ is supposedly a lesbian-only word, but the term originated in the 1950s, when ‘bisexual’ was still a pathologised medical term, as was ‘transsexual’, while ‘transgender’ was not yet born. Consequently, ‘lesbian’ included a different set of people than it does now. Furthermore, ‘butch’ has been a part of male and trans queer culture for several decades as well – as in ‘butch queen’ and ‘femme queen’ in the 1980s and 1990s ball culture.
Why do people do this?
‘Comphet’ fits perfectly into this theme: exceptionalising experiences that can apply to literally everyone as specifically lesbian, then accusing everyone challenging that of being lesbophobic. The real reason why the ‘lesbian not queer’-lesbians hate the word queer, is not because it is a slur, but because it allows lesbians to be grouped in with other queer women.
Lesbian culture is bi culture and trans culture, and vice versa. We and our words, our identities, our cultural products have always been entangled. Separating them is a construct. The defence against criticism ‘but this document is meant for lesbians only’ is not valid, since it is again based in this essential difference between the experience of lesbians and that of other queer women. If you make generalising statements about sexuality, you cannot exclude the criticisms of people who oppose your claims on the basis of self-identification. Then you are just hiding behind identity because you do not have any arguments. You cannot accuse people of invalidating you, or even perpetuating violence against you, simply because they do not use a label in the exact same way that you do. This is sexual identity at its worst: a stick for the respectable queers – or rather not-queers – to beat the other queers with for not fitting into neat little boxes, for “giving us a bad name”. When I said that these walls that are being constructed between the letters are “straight”, I was not only referring to the literal sense. Why would we, of all people, weaponise dictionary definitions against each other, while this has historically been a site of such violence against us?
The answer is power. Gatekeeping grants these people the power through the respectability of being a clear – and in this case monosexual – sexual category and through the victim status of being exceptionally oppressed. By exceptionalising their experiences and oppression they can claim certain things, like spaces and resources, and exclude those who only fit categories that are less proper, or no category at all. Their victim status of being the most oppressed – both by sexism and lesbophobia – can be weaponised in a rhetoric in which they claim that it impossible for them to oppress others, as they are the most oppressed. If it sounds to you like this is particularly fertile ground for bi- and transphobia – which both tend to be present if lesbians are TERFs – you are correct. It is also a characteristic of certain white feminisms (Phipps, 2021).
I think that the reason why bi/pan/queer women tend to dislike this document, is because compulsory heterosexuality accounts for the heterosexual norm, but not for the monosexual norm, nor for the cisgender norm. It seems as if attraction towards men is the only sexual norm, which is obviously not the case. Moreover, all these signs of comphet can be relatable to literally everyone. As a queer male friend of mine said after reading it: “I’m starting to think that I’m suffering from comphet.” You could change the word ‘lesbian’ in this document for ‘bisexual’ or I would argue even ‘heterosexual’, it would make just as much sense as it does now. If anything, it proves that there are no universal differences between these categories that work for every person. Which is exactly why some lesbians are so defensive of this document: the critique threatens the stability of their own identity.
It seems to me that conceptualising sexuality in this rigid way is very problematic, and bombarding questioning people with this document even worse. So, please, be critical of essentialising discourses that try to divide queer people and their experiences into non-existent, neatly separated categories. It only benefits the heteropatriarchal system we are all up against.
PS: I should probably add #notalllesbians, but there is a biphobia (and transphobia) problem in this community, particularly online, which goes back decades, and it needs to be addressed.
PPS: When I started writing this essay, I genuinely thought that I for once had an original idea. However, I have since come across the YouTuber verilybitchie, who has several videos with critical discussions of comphet, which I think are very complementary to this post. So definitely check those out if you are interested.
Ferguson, A. (1981). Patriarchy, Sexual Identity, and the Sexual Revolution. Signs, 7(1), 158-172.
Kaahumanu, L. (1985, December – 1986, January). Bisexuality & Discrimination. BBWN, 3(6), 6. (Reprinted from the 1985 Gay Pride March magazine, San Francisco).
Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group (1981). Love your enemy?: The debate between heterosexual feminism and political lesbianism. Onlywomen Press.
Miller, T. (1973, August). Bisexuality. Lavender Woman, 2(5), 17-18.
Queen, C. A. (1992). Strangers at Home: Bisexuals in the queer movement. Out/Look, 4(16), 25-37.
Ochs, R. (1987, April-May). Bi of the Month: Betty Aubut. Bi Women, 5(2), 1-3.
Phipps, A. (2021). White tears, white rage: Victimhood and (as) violence in mainstream feminism. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 1-13.
Rich, A. C. (2003). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980). Journal of Women’s History, 15(3), 11-48. (Original work published in 1980).
Rust, P. C. (1995). Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics: Sex, Loyalty, and Revolution. New York; London: NYU Press.
Seidman, S. (2009). Critique of Compulsory Heterosexuality. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 6(1), 18-28.