The phrase "compulsory heterosexuality" originally referred to the assumption by male-dominated society that the only normal sexual relationship is between a man and a woman.
Compulsory means required or obligatory; heterosexuality refers to sexual activity between members of opposite sexes.
Adrienne Rich’s Essay
Adrienne Rich popularized the phrase "compulsory heterosexuality" in her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” In the essay, she argued from a specifically lesbian feminist point of view that heterosexuality is not innate in human beings. Nor is it the only normal sexuality, she said. She further asserted that women can benefit more from relationships with other women than from relationships with men.
Adrienne Rich is a prominent feminist poet and writer who came out as a lesbian in 1976.
Blame the Patriarchy
Adrienne Rich argued that patriarchal, male-dominated society insists on compulsory heterosexuality because men benefit from male-female relationships. Society romanticizes the heterosexual relationship. Therefore, she argues, men perpetuate the myth that any other relationships are somehow deviant.
Different Feminist Viewpoints
Adrienne Rich wrote in “Compulsory Heterosexuality…” that since humans’ first bond is with the mother, both males and females have a bond or connection with women. Other feminist theorists disagreed with Adrienne Rich’s argument that all women have a natural attraction to women.
During the 1970s, lesbian feminists were occasionally shunned by other members of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Adrienne Rich argued that it was necessary to be vocal about lesbianism to break the taboo and reject the compulsory heterosexuality that society forced upon women.
Since the 1970s disagreement in the feminist movement, lesbian and other homosexual relationships have become more openly accepted in much of United States society. Some feminist and GLBT scholars continue to examine the term "compulsory heterosexuality" as they explore the biases of a society that prefers heterosexual relationships.