Compulsory heterosexuality, shortened to “comphet,” is the belief that everyone is naturally heterosexual, and that deviation from heterosexual attraction behavior, well, isn’t good.
Even though society has been generally more accepting of queerness, lots of people still struggle with navigating compulsory heterosexuality. So, this article aims to help.
NOTE: While this article focuses on women of sapphic experience, it’s not meant to exclude men/non-women. Anyone of any gender can feel the brunt of comphet. For the sake of length, the language will reflect the sapphic context in which Rich coined compulsory heterosexuality. Feel free to swap genders and pronouns to whatever matches your vibe.
What is Compulsory Heterosexuality?
The author and poet Adrienne Rich coined “compulsory heterosexuality” in the 1980s to push back against the then widely held belief that women are innately sexually and romantically attracted to men.
Much has changed since Rich coined compulsory heterosexuality. For example, we can generally believe that women are capable of attraction to non-men, and that such queer attraction is normal.
However, heterosexuality is still pretty much seen as the default for everyone. Since it is seen as the default, heterosexuality bleeds into everything from pop culture, how we should dress, how we should behave, and who we should love. Queerness, then, is straying from the designated (re: the socially accepted) path.
Everyday examples of compulsory heterosexuality include:
- Baby clothes such as “ladies man” or “sorry boys, daddy says no dating.” (Yes, some weird company printed this on a newborn sweater.)
- Asking toddlers or elementary school-aged children if they have a boyfriend/girlfriend.
- The pressure to take someone of an opposite gender to prom, as a wedding plus one, or other formal event.
- Grandparents asking you when you’ll get a boyfriend/girlfriend.
- The guy always gets the girl in movies, television shows, or books.
In all of these examples, the expectation is clear: you have your prescribed gender (boy/girl) and you’re going to date someone of the opposite gender. This conditioning starts in childhood, so of course it will take some time to break out of this mindset.
Signs You’re Experiencing Compulsory Heterosexuality
One of the best materials I’ve seen to determine if you’re experiencing compulsory heterosexuality is the lesbian master document, or the master doc.
It’s a compilation of a bunch of questions, scenarios, and musings from queer people on the internet. It poses numerous thought-provoking yes-or-no statements such as, “I do not like the reality of men, only the idea of being with men.”
These statements can help you get to the root of whether you actually like men or whether social conditioning has led you to believe that you are attracted to men when you actually don’t.
However, the masterdoc is very long at nearly 7,000 words. It can also be somewhat repetitive, so I have abridged and paraphrased it with what I feel are the most important questions to ask yourself concerning compulsory heterosexuality below: