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Popularized by Rich (1981), compulsory hetero-sexuality is the cultural assumption that both males and females are biologically predisposed to heterosexuality. The assumption that biology excludes a naturalized explanation of homosexuality limits humans to only heterosexual attraction. Therefore, the operation of compulsory hetero-sexuality usually involves the hegemonic manner in which heterosexuality is reified and naturalized, while homosexuality is considered the product of either psychological dysfunction or personal deviant choice. From this understanding homosexuality is deviant because it is thought to go against supposed natural inclinations. Hegemonic understandings of heterosexuality have often been supported by the misconception that other animals are also exclusively heterosexual, even though Bagemihl (1999) has shown homosexuality, as temporary sexual behavior and as a form of long-term relationship coupling, exists widely throughout the animal kingdom.
One result of the naturalization of heterosexuality and stigmatization of homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism manifests itself in cultural and institutional inequality for non-heterosexuals. The institutionalization of heterosexuality can be found at all levels of western societies, in which power and privilege are usually dispersed unevenly to the benefit of heterosexuals. Restricting civil marriage to heterosexuals, for example, provides that group of people with significant insurance, taxation, and many other economic and social privileges that are denied to gay and lesbian couples.
Rich goes on to argue that validation of heterosexuals at the expense of non-heterosexuals influences the reproduction of male privilege in a patriarchal society by both political means and social violence. She contends that in a society in which men control most aspects of women’s institutional lives, including their right to birth control, abortion, and occupational equality, women are essentially bound to a binary system of oppression. Should they choose not to participate in heterosexual family structure, they are stigmatized and further denied social and institutional support. Rich asserts that the naturalization of heterosexuality is so hegemonic that even feminists have failed to account for the overwhelming effects it has on oppressing women.
In recent years, much of the discussion of compulsory heterosexuality has shifted to the examination of heterosexism, which assumes that heterosexuality is and ought to remain culturally and institutionally privileged. Although heterosexism is thought to operate with less overt homophobia than compulsory heterosexuality as well as with more covert mechanisms, some have suggested that prejudice toward those other than heterosexuals increasingly reflects ambivalence: a combination of both positive and negative attitudes and behaviors. Ambivalence, of course, normally does little to change the status quo, thereby slowing the progress that gays and lesbians make toward full civil and cultural equality.
- Bagemihl, B. (1999) Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. St. Martin’s Press, New York.
- Rich, A. C. (1981) Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Only Women Press, London.