Essay by Adrienne Rich
"Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" is a 1980 essay by Adrienne Rich, published in her 1986 book Blood, Bread, and Poetry.
Rich argues that heterosexuality is a violent political institution making way for the "male right of physical, economical, and emotional access" to women. She urges women to direct their energies towards other women rather than men, and portrays lesbianism as an extension of feminism. Rich challenges the notion of women's dependence on men as social and economic supports, as well as for adult sexuality and psychological completion. She calls for what she describes as a greater understanding of lesbian experience, and believes that once such an understanding is obtained, these boundaries will be widened and women will be able to experience the "erotic" in female terms.
In order to gain this physical, economical, and emotional access for women, Rich lays out a framework developed by Kathleen Gough (both a social anthropologist and feminist) that lists “eight characteristics of male power in archaic and contemporary societies”. Along with the framework given, Rich sets to define the term lesbianism by giving two separate definitions for the term. Lesbian existence, she suggests, is “both the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continuing creation of the meaning of that existence. The other, lesbian continuum, refers to the overall “range - through each woman’s life and throughout history - of woman-identified experiences, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman” . Below are the characteristics in which male power has demonstrated the suppression of female sexuality.
1. To deny women their own sexuality: destruction of sexuality displayed throughout history in sacred documents.
2. Forcing male sexuality upon women: rape, incest, torture, a constant message that men are better, and superior in society to women.
3. Exploiting their labor to control production: women have no control over choice of children, abortion, birth control and furthermore, no access to knowledge of such things.
4. Control over their children: lesbian mothers seen as unfit for motherhood, malpractice in society and the courts to further benefit the man.
5. Confinement: women unable to choice their own wardrobe (feminine dress seen as the only way), full economic dependence on the man, limited life in general.
6. Male transactions: women given away by fathers as gifts or hostesses by the husband for their own benefit, pimping women out.
7. Cramp women’s creativeness: male seen as more assimilated in society (they can participate more, culturally more important.
8. Men withholding attainment of knowledge: “Great Silence” (never speaking about lesbian existence in history), discrimination against women professionals.