Rich, Adrienne

Assigned: Rich, Adrienne. From “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1515-34). Also read the editors’ introduction (1513-15).

From “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980/1986)

Foreword (1983)

1. On 1515-17 (“I want to say a little…”), how does Adrienne Rich describe her main goals in writing the essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1515-16)? What entrenched notions about gender and gender relations does she say she will challenge? How does she also describe the environment in which the piece was written—namely, the early 1980s in the United States, with its newly emboldened conservative political and religious agenda? (1516) What does she suggest is happening in feminist discourse during the same time period? (1516-17)

Section I

2. On 1517-18 (“‘Biologically men have only one’…”), how does Rich analyze the two quotations with which she begins this section—one by Alice Rossi and another by Doris Lessing? In what way do both quotations, in Rich’s view, betray what she calls “[t]he bias of compulsory heterosexuality…” (1517)? What two additional issues does she introduce at this point? Why, according to Rich, is it not sufficient for feminist theorists simply to “voice a toleration of ‘lesbianism’” (1518), and what must they do instead?

Section II

3. On 1518-20 (“If women are the earliest…”), what fundamental questions about the role of women in human societies does Rich pose at the beginning of this section? What does she apparently think about the contemporary claim that if men took on more parenting responsibilities, gender relations would improve? (1518) By way of responding to her own questions and to this claim, Rich borrows Kathleen Gough’s “eight characteristics of male power in archaic and contemporary societies” (1518 bottom). Read all of these characteristics along with the elaboration of them by Rich, and add your own comments to at least two of them. (1519-20)

4. On 1520-21 (“These are some of the methods…”), what does Rich infer from the list of “[c]haracteristics of male power” that she borrows from author Kathleen Gough? What does the “cluster of forces” (1521 top) seem most concerned to stamp out or crush when it comes to female community? In Rich’s view, how does pornography assist in the achievement of the male power agenda? What image of women and gender relations does she believe prevails in pornography? In particular, how is lesbian sexuality represented to a primarily male audience? Finally, in Rich’s view, what is the overall effect of pornography on “the range of behavior considered acceptable from men in heterosexual intercourse”(1521)?

5. On 1521-22 (“In her brilliant study Sexual…”), Rich examines Catharine A. MacKinnon’s 1979 study Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination. According to Rich, what significant insights does MacKinnon add to the familiar idea that capitalism discriminates against women in the workplace? In what sense, according to MacKinnon, are women forced to “market sexual attractiveness to men” (1522) in order to hold down a job? What role are women compelled to take up if they want to remain employed?

6. On 1522-23 (“MacKinnon raises radical questions as…”), Rich offers an analysis of Catharine A. MacKinnon’s exploration of common understandings of “sexual harassment, rape, and ordinary heterosexual intercourse” (1522). What is the basis of MacKinnon’s critique of Susan Brownmiller on the distinction between rape and ordinary intercourse? Why does MacKinnon reject the idea that rape should be considered an act of pure violence and removed altogether from the realm of sexuality—in her view, what analytic opportunity is thereby lost with respect to so-called ordinary intercourse and consent? (1522-23) Finally, while it is often said that men simply fear women’s power “to smother and devour them” (1523) or fear their allegedly insatiable sexual appetite, what does Rich apparently believe is the real source of male anxiety about women?

7. On 1523-25 (“The means of assuring male…”), Rich discusses the work of Kathleen Barry, who covers what Rich refers to as the “extensive and appalling evidence for the existence, on a very large scale, of international female slavery…” (1523). How does Barry extend this research to include not only this directly barbaric practice but also a number of other “enforced conditions” (1523) in which women are subjected to men? Ultimately, what is Barry’s definition of “female sexual slavery…” (1524)? According to Barry, as cited by Rich, how have male-dominated societies managed to make many sorts of sexual abuse and mistreatment of women nearly invisible, and how can people dedicated to justice and fairness effectively oppose this state of affairs? (1524) In what way, according to Barry and Rich, is “the ideology of heterosexual romance” (1525) a powerful tool in the service of oppression against women?

8. On 1525-26 (“We still need to ask why…”), what does the term “male identification” (1525) mean as Rich uses it? How does what Kathleen Barry, as cited by Rich, refers to as the “arrested sexual development” of adolescent males provide an answer to the question Rich poses; namely, why does “male identification […] exist even among lifelong sexual lesbians” (1525)? According to Rich and her source Kathleen Barry, how is this immature sexual stage among males perpetuated and turned into a powerful way to control women and subordinate them to adult men? (1525-26)

9. On 1526-27 (“Susan Cavin, in a rich and…”), what is author Susan Cavin’s hypothesis, as cited by Rich, about the manner in which patriarchy becomes possible? (1526) Why does Rich find this hypothesis plausible and even compelling? (1526-27) On what grounds does Rich question the idea that “most women are innately heterosexual…” (1527)? If heterosexuality is not innate or a matter of widespread “preference,” what, then, according to Rich, accounts for the fact that most women lead heterosexual lives?

Section III

10. On 1528-29 (“I have chosen to use the…”), how does Rich define the terms “lesbian existence” and “lesbian continuum” (1528)? Why does she use these terms instead of “lesbianism”? How do her preferred terms go beyond reference to “the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life” (1528)? Why does Rich refrain from “romanticizing” lesbian existence—what are some of the problems that have long confronted women who lead this kind of existence? Finally, why, in Rich’s view, is it a mistake simply to “equate lesbian existence with male homosexuality…” (1528)?

11. On 1529-31 (“As the term lesbian has been…”), how does Rich discuss the erotic dimension of lesbian existence? In her view, how should this term be understood in a way that takes it beyond sexuality per se? (1529) Similarly, how does the term “lesbian continuum” (1529) extend beyond women who define themselves as strictly lesbian? What new understanding of female history and female relationships do such extended definitions make possible? (1529-30) According to Rich, if one understands that “heterosexual ‘preference’ has actually been imposed on women” (1530) rather than being natural, what interpretation of lives such as those led by Emily Dickinson or Zora Neale Hurston becomes possible? In addition, in what sense is it possible with such expanded definitions to recognize and acknowledge the rebellions women have been engaging in for millennia against the tyranny of men? (1530-31)

Section IV

12. On 1531-33 (“Woman identification is a source…”), how does Rich describe the “incalculable loss to the power of all women” that stems from “[t]he lie of compulsory female heterosexuality…” (1531)? What are the “layers” of this lie, as Rich identifies them? (1531-32) Why does Rich prefer the work of Charlotte Brontë over that of Colette with respect to describing female relationships? (1532-33) Finally, what would be required, according to Rich, for “lesbian existence” (1533) to gain a truly “feminist political content”?

13. On 1533-34 (“The work that lies ahead, of…”), what program of investigation and research does Rich lay out for future feminist studies? What kind of further understanding of the “lesbian continuum” (1533) will be required, along with reflection on the “double life” that women (whether they self-describe as heterosexual or lesbian) are forced to lead? How does Rich respond to the question so often posed as to whether heterosexual relationships in general should be outright condemned? How does she reframe this question in what she considers a more productive manner? In the end, what prescription does Rich offer for overcoming “the power men everywhere wield over women, power which has become a model for every other form of exploitation and illegitimate control” (1534)?

14. General question: In our selection from “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich seems to agree with feminists who condemn pornography as the tool of an already powerful and oppressive male ideology, a way of normalizing violent and even sadistic attitudes towards females and female sexuality. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this view? Perhaps few of us doubt that a great deal of pornographic material does, indeed, represent women in the way Rich and some other feminists say it does. How much, if any, difference would it make if some percentage of explicit film, video, and print material did not fit that very negative description? Given the general state of affairs regarding gender relations, can one in good conscience defend such material as productive of anything good? Explain your view.

15. General question: It has been more than three decades since Adrienne Rich wrote “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” To what extent do you think progress has been made with regard to the problems she analyzes in her essay? For example, is it any less true today, in your opinion, that women both inside and beyond the workplace are still regarded as “sexualized” and subservient to men on that basis? Is what Rich calls “compulsory heterosexuality” (meaning the very structure of American society, the web of assumptions, demands, and expectations that govern people’s lived experience) any less overbearing and stifling than it used to be? What evidence can you point to in support of your view?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake