Why Lesbians Don’t Realise They’re Lesbians

If you follow the blog you’ll know that I only discovered I was a lesbian in 2020 at the grand old age of twenty-five and it got me thinking “how did I not realise until now that I was a lesbian?”

What is compulsory heterosexuality?

On the face of it it’s pretty simple; “When somebody experiences “attraction” to the opposite gender because that expectation has been pushed on them by the patriarchal society” (urban dictionary). I want to take this moment to say that compulsory heterosexuality is specific to women (including non-binary) and cannot be experienced by men, purely because heterosexuality is fundamentally based on the male belief that they freely have right of access to women (if you’re a man reading this, don’t bother telling me “not all men” I’m speaking about the collective not the individual). If you delve further into the topic you’ll see that it is actually incredibly complex and varies across race and culture. I can only really give you insight based off limited research, personal experience and experiences of those around me.

Media

Perhaps the biggest issue is lack of representation of women like women media. Growing up I can’t recall a single moment where I saw a lesbian couple positively displayed in film or TV. Instead we’re taught that lesbian is a dirty word, that all lesbians are big, terrifying women, who’ll try and molest you any chance they get. Maybe a touch melodramatic but you get the point. The sad thing is growing up I was around a lesbian couple and thought nothing of it, all I saw was two women, happy with their lives. But as I aged and reached high school, the narrative around being lesbian changed, people freely used it as an insult and a dirty word. Lesbians were thought to be weird loner girls, who didn’t wash and would stare at you while you got changed for P.E (hi Americans, this means gym class). The only representation I ever remember seeing were muscled, butch women in their mid forties with shaved heads who looked permanently mad at the world, now no disrespect to this group of women but as a teenager it’s not exactly what you’re looking for, is it? So ok, there was a lack of representation, so what? If you’re a lesbian you just know you’re a lesbian, right?

Wrong. This is why compulsory heterosexuality is a very woman specific problem; studies suggest that for gay men a significant proportion of them experience definite same-sex attraction during young adolescence whereas the proportion of women who experience it at this age is much lower. A high number of women don’t actually realise they have experienced genuine same-sex attraction until early adulthood. Clearly, this isn’t the case for everyone and I know many people who have known since early teenage years that they were lesbian. However, if I look at my own friend group we were all in our twenties before we fully discovered our sexuality. But why does it take women longer to come to this realisation?

Media is flooded with heterosexual romances where the woman’s main goal is to give up her whole life just to be with a man. We’ve all seen it, that one film or TV couple where you think “why is she putting up with this basic, no income having, can’t even wash his own arse properly, ugly man?” Ok, so maybe you haven’t all had that one specific thought but you get what I’m saying. Women settle. We have been taught right from childhood to settle, we’re taught that getting and keeping a man is the ultimate achievement. We’ll be read bedtime stories of the gallant prince who swoops in and saves the poor wee dainty princess from whichever peril she finds herself in, then we’ll get older and we’ll watch TV shows where women give up careers to be with men (Rachel from “Friends”, I’m looking at you. Ross wasn’t worth it), then we have the romantic comedies where the girl goes after the heartbreaker only to realise they don’t deserve her and that it’s her “I’m a nice guy” best friend that she should be with. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that last plot line but maybe she could realise that actually she’s too good for both of them and just live a happy life as an independent gal. Preferably, she’d realise that she’s actually been in love with her girl best friend the whole time but I don’t want to upset the heteros too much, you know how sensitive they get.

So there you have our first reason why women take longer to discover their sexuality; a combination of lack of representation and an expectation that women’s lives revolve around being with a man.

Sex and Intimacy

I’ll let you into a wee personal insight here; I spent eight years of my life having sex with men and I cannot recall one single time where I enjoyed myself. You would think this would be clue enough to the fact I wasn’t straight but the truth is I didn’t expect to enjoy sex. My friends and I would bond over our disappointing sex stories; we’d tell each other “well most men are just bad at it”. Statistically this is correct, I introduce you to the orgasm gap which is essentially where studies have found that, within heterosexual relations, 95% of men climax every time compared with only 65% of women. For those of you who might argue (quite stupidly) “but it’s harder to make a woman climax” I point you to the same study which found that within lesbian relations 86% of women said they climaxed every time. So if statistics tell you to expect sex to be bad, media tells you to expect it and your own conversations with other straight women confirm that sex with men, in general, is unsatisfying, how do you ever realise that the problem is actually attraction? I have an answer for this through my own experience which is the feeling of “let’s just get this over with” and the general “this just feels wrong” instinct. I asked people to share their experiences of compulsory heterosexuality with me and received a lot of interesting feedback in regards to sex with men;

“…it’s the way that after [sex] I’d have this horrible feeling in my stomach, like I’d just done something I shouldn’t have”

“My boyfriend would say sorry for getting there too quick but I was so happy that it didn’t last any longer”

“I didn’t mind sex [with men] too much but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it or sought it out…when it did happen I’d usually picture women to make it more pleasurable”

The premise of compulsory heterosexuality surrounds a man’s control and ownership of a woman. You can argue this if you want but it’s well documented and researched. Sex is a prime example; sex education focuses solely on reproduction and male pleasure because male pleasure is needed for their climax which ultimately gives us women those babies we so desperately crave (insert eye roll emoji here). Girls aren’t taught that sex should be pleasurable for them too, we’re taught that innocence is of the utmost importance; that our virginity is a precious flower to be preserved. Granted that is a rather out dated concept in a lot of countries but the point regarding female sexual pleasure still stands. I think it is also a fair statement to say that in society you can easily see male entitlement towards women’s bodies. If you look at male opinions on porn you’ll quickly find that many think it ridiculous that any man would pay to see a women’s body but the same men will fully engage with free porn. Porn also shows us that women, when viewed in a sexual manner, are seen as a commodity. Generally speaking, porn is created for the male gaze, even so called “lesbian porn” is made with men being the target audience, which I think is evidence enough that within society women are taught that sex is something which they do for men, with male pleasure at the centre of it all, thereby reinforcing the idea that women’s sexual pleasure is less important. This ultimately instils the notion within women that sex just isn’t that enjoyable.

So there we have reason number two; the expectation that for women their pleasure is of little to no consequence and unsatisfying sex is to be expected, thus leading to less women questioning why they don’t enjoy sex with men.

Every woman’s a little bit gay

I’m sure at some point you’ve heard someone say “I think every woman is a little bit gay” this generally comes about from women having “girl-crushes” or having a strong admiration for certain female celebrities, athletes, influencers and so forth. Generally speaking women are more affectionate than men, we don’t mind sharing a bed at sleepovers and spooning our friends while we watch films together, we don’t mind holding hands or hugging each other in public, we’re just more affectionate. This creates the idea that all women view other women as attractive and that it’s not sexual attraction just genuine admiration, that the desire to want to be intimate is normal because look how intimate women are with their friends. Due to women being sexualised in almost every form of media we become almost numb to it, this narrative that women are there to be sexualised creeps in and you don’t question your attraction to them because the idea that everyone finds women attractive, that women are there to be looked at and admired becomes ingrained within you.

So finally we have reason number three; the expectation that women are just intimate beings and that everyone regardless of gender finds women attractive, thus leading to a blurred line between what is platonic attraction and what is something more.

If you combine the fact we are taught to seek out male validation with the fact that women are portrayed as objects of desire it’s easy to see why so many of us can’t differentiate between platonic attraction and sexual attraction. There are of course several more factors that come into play but after speaking with lesbians from all over the world (thank you book club and twitter) it’s become apparent that in today’s society these appear to be the most common factors experienced by all. As much as not discovering your sexuality until your twenties sucks, I will say that I’m now the happiest I’ve ever been (global pandemic aside) and that all the confusion and questioning was worth it to get to this point of self acceptance.

61 thoughts on “Why Lesbians Don’t Realise They’re Lesbians

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  1. I can’t say this is a topic I’d ever really thought about before, I guess that’s because the conversation is often about gay men and how most of them always kind of knew or always did know, dominating the conversation

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was absolutely fascinating, and I’d be intrigued to follow up and read Rich’s book. In sitcoms, gay or lesbian relationships do always seem to be side characters, or basic stereotypes for comedic purposes (Brooklyn 99 is one show that springs to mind that presents diversity, but not for diversity’s sake, the characters are actually characters and not defined by this). As you say, part of the problem is men dominating the conversation. Thanks for being a strong voice shedding light on this topic!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This post was very interesting! It’s the first time that I read about compulsory heterosexuality and I am glad I learned about it! As you said sex, as well as sex education, are revolving on men’s pleasure so there’s never a different view on it. I am glad you’re speaking out about this! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  4. Heteronormative relationships are definitely represented more. There are improvements made (maybe only anecdotal) as I see more and more LGBTQ+ relationships and families being included in advertising but they are still a sort of sidenote. My sister always knew she was gay, she came out when she was 18 years old (about 27 years ago) so for her it wasn’t the same as your experience but I can absolutely see why for some lesbians it can be a slower realization. I’m so glad you came to this point in your life as knowing ourselves is pretty much key to everything — wishing you all the best!

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    1. There’s definitely more representation now than before which is good to see! Oh for sure some people definitely know but sadly it’s not the experience for all of us! I never really understood why I didn’t just know so it was good when I started learning about comp het! Thank you!

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  5. Wow! This is s very well written post. I’m glad you found yourself, and age really doesnt matter. Just the fact that you found yourself is something many still havent accomplished. This was very interesting especially finding the percentage rates of orgasms are higher in same sex relations. I didn’t doubt it, but I didn’t know it, either.

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    1. Thank you! It was definitely a difficult journey but one I’m really I made! I knew there was a difference percentage wise but was quite shocked at how big the difference was tbh!

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  6. Compulsory heterosexuality isn’t something I’ve ever really thought about before. Thank you for writing such an interesting and thought provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post! I can definitely see how the media pushes people growing up to only see heterosexual relationships and therefore it could mean it takes a while for people to realise what they’re interested in! I think growing up watching TV there wasn’t really anything that included lesbian couples, and if there was, like you said it would be something so stereotypical. This is a great post, thank you for sharing. x

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m happy to see someone posting about this. I feel like we need a broader spectrum of representation in media, and I hope we reach that point soon. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is all soooo interesting. Especially that we settle and have lower standards for ourselves (not all of us of course, but statitically). I was thinking about the concept of girl crushes as I was reading this and I think another element of that is women tend to be more open about speaking about other women being attractive in general. Whether that comes from a jealous or insecure ‘I wish I looked like that’ to a genuine compliment in the way we talk about women on the red carpet etc. I’ve never really known men have the same appearance based conversations about other men in the way we do about other women. If you can all openly talk about how good someone looks you might not realise you’re viewing it in a different way. I imagine that could add to the confusion subconsciously if you haven’t quite figured yourself out yet x

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh for sure, obviously things like this never apply to everyone! Oh yes, I didn’t really think about it like that tbh but that’s a good point. I think we definitely are more open to talking about other women being attractive whereas I guess men generally don’t. But yeah I think it does play into the confusion cause then there’s a lot of “oh but all my friends talk about the women they find attractive too”

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I love that gay and bi women are being portrayed much more frequently and positively in the media nowadays (have you seen the new She-Ra cartoon? It’s gorgeous! And it’s showing a wide range of sexual orientations and gender identities to kids, so hopefully some kids out there will see it and think, “oh, that’s me!” if they recognise themselves there!) But I agree that in the past, we were hugely underrepresented and misrepresented in the media.

    Thank you for introducing me to the concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” – it’s not something I’d heard of before, but it does make sense! I feel like a lot of lesbian identity has been distorted by conversations and media created by straight men, who love so-called “lipstick lesbians” (hate that phrase!) and “porn lesbians” but act as though actual lesbians just getting on with their lives and relationships is somehow strange or wrong. Maybe they don’t like feeling left out of the equation…*shrugs*

    I am bi and I’ve dated both men and women. But I took a long time to realise that I was truly attracted to women and it wasn’t just “girl crush” territory. And I think that’s because of a lot of the reasons you mentioned above – especially the media and the “every woman’s a little bit gay” concept.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you so much for reading and commenting! I haven’t watched it yet but a friend did recommend it to me the other day! I’m honestly so glad that representation is improving, it’s nice to see people you identify with on the tv and in film!

      It was a fairly new concept to me and when I researched it it was huge so trying to narrow it down was definitely hard! Ugh yes, I hate that term too! My biggest pet hate the now is men thinking that me being a lesbian is “hot” that one really irks me!

      It is difficult to differentiate I think, I’m very jealous of people who just know! But it’s nice to hear someone else was the same with struggling!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Wow, I really enjoyed reading this! Great to hear that found your true self and this is the happiness you’ve been. I really like that you added your story and you went through all those stereotypes. The part about “every woman is little gay” resonated with me because I’ve always noticed that women were just more affectionate and wasn’t afraid to show it more than men. Fantastic post 😊👍🏽!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Always nice hearing people have enjoyed reading it! I think that bit definitely resonates with a lot of people, women are generally just more affectionate ☺️

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  12. Thank you for sharing your experience. I really enjoyed reading your story and found it very interesting. I know someone else who only recently realized her true sexual orientation and her approach to sharing her journey has been very sweet, enlightening, and focused on growth & personal development. I had not heard of compulsory heterosexuality, but it makes sense. Thank you for broadening my horizons!

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  13. I noticed that media depict lesbians differently than how it really is in real life. It can take some time to realize your preference. I do agree for women, it is easier for us to have girl crushes and everything. Thanks for sharing insights about this!

    Nancy ✨ mdrnminimalists.com

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  14. This was such a detailed, and insightful post. I’m so glad that I read it. I never label myself as straight, gay, bisexual as I believed you will fall in love with the right person at the right time, regardless of their sex. My mum fell in love with a woman in her thirties after being married, with two children. Anything can happen!

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    1. Oh thank you so much! I’m doing my next post on labels actually! I think defining your sexuality can be so hard and complex tbh but it always makes me happy seeing people figuring it out better!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. These are such great points and really well articulated! I hadn’t considered how lesbians are portrayed in media before, but all of your points are so true. Would definitely like to see a wider, more accurate representation. x

    Liked by 1 person

  16. 👏🏽This is an awesome read. I feel like I fell victim to being brainwashed to “settle “. I will make sure my daughters won’t fall into this trap. I never realized what the television shows were doing until this read.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This was such an interesting read. I think the media is heading in the right direction but there is still a long way to go to bridge that gap. I also thought your point about not enjoying sex with men was really interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I am 54, & remember having crushes on girls at school but never acting on them because I knew they were kinda ‘wrong’. So I spent a lot of years having sex with men (& some lovely boyfriends I admit), but then at 50 I started focusing more on women… and I haven’t looked back! I don’t think I’m a lesbian (but of course bi), but my last 5 girlfriends have all identified as lesbians, so maybe I am… or maybe I now no longer care?? Thanks for a great and thought-provoking read 🙏🏼🌈🙏🏼 G

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I’m glad you were able to be yourself after all these years! 🙌🏻 Tbh picking a label can be confusing and end of the day you don’t need one, as long as you’re doing you and being happy! That’s what matters 🙌🏻 glad you enjoyed the read!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. I loved this post! Thank you for writing it. I just posted about realizing I was queer when I was 30 (I’ve got 5 more years of ignorance on you!), and your third point in particular really spoke to me. I had “friend crushes” on women my whole life, and it wasn’t until I had a friendship crush on a lesbian that I thought to wonder if it was just a crush! I was so socialized to think of warm, loving feelings toward women as totally natural. Compulsory heterosexuality is powerful!

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