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.
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.