Perpetuating compulsory heterosexuality

March 5, 2024

Image by Moondance from Pixabay

Nikki Gray explores ‘comphet’ ideology and its effect on queer women

Compulsory heterosexuality, often shortened to ‘comphet’: what does it mean?

The term was coined by Adrienne Rich, a prominent feminist poet and writer, in 1980.

Like many other complex subjects, comphet means something different to everyone. According to Wikipedia, comphet is defined as “the theory that heterosexuality is assumed and enforced upon people by a patriarchal heteronormative society”. While our experiences of the world may vary, social norms can transcend barriers shaped by our unique life experiences.

When you’re raised in a world dominated by patriarchal (and capitalist) ideals, we are forced and indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking.

It’s undeniable that we are taught from an early age to assume that the people around us are attracted to the opposite sex – this concept is known as heteronormativity. We spend all our years internalising this idea and it becomes ingrained in how we view our identities and sexual orientation – whether we like it or not.

Woman are taught that we require men; that masculinity is an integral part of our survival

It’s typical for adults to assume their children are straight and then raise them in a way that mirrors that. Unfortunately, when an individual turns out not to be straight, they must cope with all the things they’ve been expected to embody. This often leads to unnecessary anxiety, pain and confusion. This is where compulsive heterosexuality, or comphet, has negative consequences.

However, more significant than the label itself is how it manifests, particularly in women. I’m sure we are all aware of our old friend, the patriarchy, who I mentioned earlier, right? Where women have always been taught that we require men; that masculinity is an integral part of our survival which we can’t emulate for ourselves.

Even in recent years, traditional gender roles have reinforced the idea that women require men for protection, provision and completion. This perpetuates the notion of compulsory heterosexuality and its impact on queer women.

While queer men also contend with societal expectations, queer women face additional challenges due to their assigned female status at birth (AFSB) and the societal perception of women as having less power and identity than men.

It’s incredibly difficult to get rid of the internal expectation, as a woman, that we need to be with and rely on a man – even when we feel attraction toward people other than men. For queer men, although they have similar issues, they haven’t been subjected to the idea that they require a woman to be whole or to be loved.

This leads me to the conclusion that our patriarchal society, with its presumption that everyone is straight and belief that heterosexuality is a superior expression of sexuality, results in an inflated feeling of compulsory heterosexuality in women.

Comphet can lead to inner conflict and anxiety about expressing authentic sexual orientation

To test this theory out I did a short survey amongst my queer friends, asking them questions about their sexual and gender identity and about the effects of comphet.

Out of the 21 females who participated, everyone said they experienced its effects, ranging in frequency from “sometimes” to “always”.

When asked when, if ever, they feel the effects of compulsory heterosexuality ideology, three said “always”, seven said “often”, ten said “sometimes” and one said “hardly ever”.

Although comphet has been defined and codified by feminist theorists, it affects everyone differently as our experiences are shaped by our backgrounds e.g. class, race, sexuality and gender identity. With this in mind I asked my friends, who were already aware of the term, to give an organic, personal meaning.

I found that definitions fell into three categories:

  • 80% acknowledged that society is heteronormative
  • 60% implied comphet led to the feeling that they must be or inherently are straight
  • Over 33% expressed that comphet has led to false feelings of attraction to the opposite sex

Comphet doesn’t only result in emotional whiplash, the pressure often leads to inner conflict and anxiety, as queer individuals navigate expressing their authentic sexual orientation in a heteronormative society.

We live in a time where we are lucky enough to begin to see queer acceptance and that is wonderful, but we cannot reset society, with its patriarchal ideologies. They may always be ingrained in us. Remember that you do not owe society another heterosexual relationship – you owe it to yourself to live in a way that makes you happy!


Nikki a student at Woodhouse College. She is studying English language, Politics, and Geography. Nikki loves journalism and writing and she is happy to be working with Exposure.

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