Describe Adrienne Rich's critical argument in her essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."
Essentially, Rich argues that heterosexuality in women in a political construct that men use in order to further control and subjugate women. Rather than it being the default norm of sexuality, heterosexuality is a tool by which women are made to feel inferior to men because of the inherent mechanisms of male-to-female sexual intercourse and the reproductive element.
While she does acknowledge that some women are naturally heterosexual, Rich argues that many women are also forced into heterosexual relationships in order to create safety and obtain social power. In addition, the cultural and social messages women receive from a young age condition them to favor heterosexuality.
Rich also attempts to expand the definition of lesbianism beyond female sexuality. Rich posits that lesbianism is an emotional and psychological connection among women and that even platonic female friendships fall along a lesbian continuum. She notes that most women exercise some form of lesbianism whether that...
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In the essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” Rich argues that heterosexuality is the assumed default of a patriarchal society. Rich goes on to explain that heterosexuality is not "natural" nor essential to human instinct but that anybody who differs from what is perceived to be the norm is automatically considered deviant.
Rich attributes this to the erasure of lesbian existence, especially from scholarly literature and history. She defines this as a "bias of compulsory heterosexuality, through which lesbian experience is perceived on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent or simply rendered invisible."
This bias can be seen in many forms of society but most predominantly with historians who are often the victim of their own ideological importance, political opinions, and prejudice. Therefore, lesbian rhetoric and identities within fiction and non-fiction can become obsolete and archaic.
Accordingly, it is this personal prejudice that results in preconceived ideas that distort a historian’s vision which can then result in a lack of meaningful and accurate narrative of their chosen subject. John Wrathall writes,
"scholars in [the history of sexuality] … have to contend with the problem of silences: silences created by the censorship of archival and educational institutions, silences created by historians’ refusal to acknowledge the sexualities of individuals they study, and silences created by authors of the documents historians use to reconstruct the past."
Consequently, lesbians have been routinely written out of their own stories, discounted in favor of a more heteronormative persona. Rich states that this removal not only marginalizes the lesbian identity but also erases the reality of the world and instead conforms to a more plausible heteronormative framework.
"the destruction of records and memorabilia and letters documenting the realities of lesbian existence must be taken very seriously as a means of keeping heterosexuality compulsory for women, since what has been kept from our knowledge is joy, sensuality, courage, and community, as well as guilt, self-betrayal, and pain."
For instance, as Rich suggests, lesbian history is a sequence of gaping holes and half-written stories mostly collected by lesbian themselves. Lesbian existence has lacked the heterosexual linear narrative of what is perceived to be a conventional and traditional history.
Rich also encourages readers to steer their ideas of lesbianism away from the innate impression of female sexuality. Instead, Rich offers an alternative view of lesbianism in that it is a political institution that any woman can simply "join", whether it is platonic or not. Rich refers to this as a "lesbian continuum" in that all women have the potential to secure a lesbian identity and that this would also be the only way to challenge a patriarchal society.
However, this idea is also somewhat problematic in that this could also render lesbianism as invisible, with a focus more on power rather than desire. This would then weaken the image of lesbianism as just a political statement rather than an innate sexual orientation. Sheila Jeffreys claims that by diminishing and discrediting female sexual desire, you are removing an integral part of lesbian history and sexual identity.
"In this context Adrienne Rich’s idea of the lesbian continuum is problematic; her argument that all women’s friendships with women are some shade or gradation of lesbianism inevitably confuses attempts to analyze lesbian oppression. Women who simply have ‘best friends’ who are women share neither lesbian oppression nor lesbian experience."
The removal of lesbian existence throughout history is rarely taken seriously politically, socially, nor academically. Although Rich's argument does contain some problematic areas, it is still an important contribution to lesbian identity, both historically and politically and offers those who identify as lesbian or queer a form of existence.