Are You Straight Or Is It Just ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality’?

Illustrated by Lily Fulop.
A part of figuring out who you are and what your sexuality is is taking steps to unlearn certain truths from your life. Discovering, or coming to terms with, a part of your identity often means saying goodbye to other parts of yourself.
This intimate process is widely felt in queer communities, and TikTok is proof. In recent times, TikTokers have learnt about the phrase ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ or ‘comphet’ for short, the latter hashtag currently holding 112 million views.
“[There’s] this understanding that within Western culture, we're raised within a heteronormative society [that] assumes that everyone around us is heterosexual or cisgender, until proven otherwise,” Minus18 Workshop Presenter Tessa Caramia previously told Refinery29 Australia.

What Is Compulsory Heterosexuality?

‘Compulsory heterosexuality’ refers to how a patriarchal, heteronormative society socially conditions women to view interactions and connections with men as romantic or sexual.
“Compulsory heterosexuality is what forces lesbians to struggle through learning the difference between what you’ve been taught you want (being with men) and what you do want (being with women),” reads the popular “Am I a lesbian?” masterdoc created by Tumblr users. 
The term was popularised by feminist poet and writer Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. A close cousin of heteronormativity, it’s a set of ideals that views heterosexuality as a system that’s enforced. 

Heterosexuality may not be a "preference" at all but something that has had to be imposed, managed, organised, propagandised, and maintained by force.

Adrienne Rich
“The assumption that "most women are innately heterosexual" stands as a theoretical and political stumbling block for many women. It remains a tenable assumption… partly because to acknowledge that for women heterosexuality may not be a 'preference' at all but something that has had to be imposed, managed, organised, propagandised, and maintained by force, is an immense step to take if you consider yourself freely and 'innately' heterosexual,” Rich wrote. 

What Are The Signs Of Compulsory Heterosexuality?

With almost half a million views, TikTok user @femmefetti created a video that shares some of the common signs of compulsory heterosexuality. These include liking a man until they like you back, only liking fictional men and celebrities, and not enjoying engaging in sexual acts with men.
Another TikTok user detailed things she thought were ‘normal’ before coming out as a lesbian, such as closing their eyes during sex, being strictly attracted to feminine-looking men and picking men to date based on how attractive they were to other women.
“Am I attracted to men or do I just want them to be attracted to me? Could I see a man fulfilling all of my emotional and physical needs? [Is it] butterflies or anxiety?” another user asks.
According to the lesbian masterdoc, the main areas where compulsory heterosexuality come into play are in forced attraction to men, sex that’s devoid of pleasure or emotional closeness, and a complicated interest in women.
Of course, each person’s experience will vary from the next: if you experience these signs, it doesn’t automatically mean that your sexuality is one way or another.

Is This Theory Biphobic?

While this phenomenon has allowed women who had initially believed they were straight to feel more comfortable in their LGBTQIA+ identity, it has also paved the way for many bisexual and pansexual people to come to terms with the fact that they’re lesbian.
Because compulsory heterosexuality and internalised biphobia are so heavily intertwined, it can be hard to differentiate the two. There's a history of biphobia in the queer community, with many people still not validating the sexual orientation for what it is, instead insisting that it's a stepping stone or mask for one's gay or lesbian identity.
Messaging around #comphet has led to people dissecting bisexual characters on screen too. "im really gonna need people to stop claiming that a bi character (who has clearly had healthy relationships with men) is actually just going through comphet and is a lesbian instead," reads one Tweet.
While the notion of #comphet has opened the eyes of many, it's important to do so without falling into the trap of bi erasure.
Wherever you sit on the sexuality spectrum, it's worth considering how compulsory heterosexuality affects you. What Rich said four decades ago still stands — straightness might just be a system that's imposed upon us. For queer people, coming out often means interrogating certain beliefs held about yourself. And maybe this is an opportunity for straight people to do the same.
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from Relationships