On resistance to compulsory heterosexuality

This article is a merging and rewrite of two blog posts, originally published on 4/10/2006 and 5/12/2006.

Part I

One unspoken assumption that runs through almost all discussions of rape and sexual assault is the belief that men care that sexual abuse hurts women, or they would care if they only knew. But almost daily, it seems, I see a graphic news story of sexual abuse, and I realize, there’s a whole segment of the male population out there that doesn’t give a shit. When a 30-year-old man forces his penis into the mouth of a child, it’s not a “misunderstanding,” it’s not “he said, she said.” When males purposely drug the drink of a 16-year-old woman and violate her in every way possible with penises and objects while she’s passed out, and make a video of it, it’s because she is not human to them. She’s an object to be used, like the microwave oven they used to cook their dinner, and if she’s damaged in the process, well, it doesn’t matter to them, because there are plenty more where she came from.

At that point I get to thinking how, for more than 30 years now* , feminists have been talking about the fallout of male violence that we live with. For more than 30 years we’ve been detailing the abuse that men have heaped upon us, in every fashion they’ve been able to imagine. More recently, we’ve been locating oppressions and decontextualizing sexualities and situating ourselves within our positionalities, and you know what? The stories keep coming.

None of this is women’s fault, but it seems to me we’ve managed to identify damn few alternatives. Men ought to change, clearly. Their behavior is inhuman and unjust and unacceptable. Rape, battering, war, capitalist exploitation–they should stop doing all of this immediately.

But it doesn’t seem to me that we’re getting very far by saying, “Stop raping us! Stop it! I mean it! Stop raping us!” We know that most women and children are abused by men they know, but we still befriend males, we still drink with them, we still let our teenagers date them, we still leave our toddlers alone with them. Anytime any feminist suggests letting young women know the real odds, to give them a chance to learn from other women’s experience when making decisions about their own safety, she gets jumped all over by just about everyone, from MRAs and libfems screeching #NotAllMen to radical feminists accusing her of blaming women for being raped.

Of course men’s violence isn’t our fault, of course they should change, of course we deserve autonomy without sacrificing our safety — but has the sex class man shown any indication that they’re going to change anytime soon?

I’ve never been the kind of person to sit around and wait for other people to do what I want them to, particularly after I learned, at a fairly tender age, the new-agey sounding but no less true adage that the only person one can change is oneself.

I still see a lot of feminists writing and talking and acting as if we really can’t get on without the men. I understand perfectly well that they want the men; that lots of women, lots of feminists, enjoy social and sexual relationships with men despite the dangers attendant on those relationships. I also understand perfectly well that women who can attach themselves to a man, whether by finding one who’s halfway decent or by learning to somehow live with varying degrees of sexism and abuse, often do better materially for themselves and their children than they would have on their own. That’s not an accident–that’s part of how male supremacy makes individual women dependent on individual men.

And yet–how to account for those of us who are managing to muddle through, somehow, without men’s money or their penises?

Which brings me back to the historical arguments for lesbian-feminism/separatism.

Lots of feminists say that lesbianism or separatism is a personal solution. Despite the fact that 1970s lesbian feminism characterized the search for the “exceptional man” as a personal solution, lesbianism has in fact been co-opted in the last 30 years by patriarchy and the queer movement. Those lesbians who haven’t jumped on the GLBTQXYZ alphabet-soup-of-diversity bandwagon, identifying their interests with gay men and transsexuals, have crowded baaa-ing into the “we’re just like the straights!” corral, rather than exploring how lesbianism could be more revolutionary than a genital imperative or an alternative to a sexist heterosexual relationship. So yes, I guess lesbianism would look like a personal solution to you if your relationship is just like a het marriage minus the penis, or if you’re with women because lesbian sex is just so darned hawt. But oh, back in the day, there were some women who didn’t think about it that way. There were some women who thought about the fact that patriarchy is built upon the usurpation and direction of women’s emotional energy, sexuality, and labor into the support of men’s interests; they stood back and scratched their heads and said, “Hey, what would happen if we, being women, directed our emotional energy, sexuality and labor to the support of women’s interests?”

And, sadly, that question is just as relevant in 2006 as it was in 1976. There’s been lots of ranting, misinterpretation, and permutation on all sides, not the least result of which is the defanging of lesbian-feminism by the “gay rights” movement. There is a lot of objection to the idea that “any woman can be a lesbian,” which is somewhat understandable given how lesbians and woman-only organizing have come under attack from MRAs and the transgender movement.

I don’t think that all women ought to have sexual relationships with women; frankly, I’m pretty freakin’ tired of the “pro-sex” expectation that all women should be having all kinds of sex all the time. The truth is, some women don’t want to have sex, and whether that’s a result of trauma and abuse, illness, exhaustion, mistreatment, or something else, you’d think in a climate as hopped up on the idea of choice as this one is, the choice of celibacy would be as legitimate as any other.

Nevertheless, there are lots of ways of prioritizing relationships with women, without involving sexuality. As just one example, what about creating a cooperative arrangement with another woman or women –neighbors? roommates? — to live more cheaply and have help with household chores and childcare, as well as companionship? Why don’t more women do this? It’s a question I, as a childless lesbian-feminist, cannot answer, but I sure think straight feminists ought to be doing more to encourage their sisters to take care of themselves and each other in these ways.

With that said, I will also opine that the belief that sexual orientation is innate and inborn is a big patriarchal lie. Patriarchy’s convinced many women that the only alternatives to an unsatisfying heterosexual relationship are a worse one, or being “alone.” It’s patriarchy that tells us that sisters doin’ it for themselves is nothing but a joke or a male fantasy. If sexual proclivity is inborn and unchanging, how do we account for the hundreds or thousands of women who came out as lesbians after entering the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s? How do we explain the fact that women leave heterosexual marriages for other women every day, well into the new millenium?

The term “political lesbian” never meant a woman who slept with women even though she didn’t want to (though lots of people who aren’t political lesbians keep accusing us of that); it meant a woman who was raised to believe she should be with men but who then realized she could choose to grow her love and sexual attraction for women in the fertile ground of her political committment to feminism. So while I don’t think for a minute that every woman ought to be relating sexually to other women, I think if more of us put our relationships with women first and set ourselves to creating economically and socially viable communities with women, a great number of us would be surprised at the loving attractions and desires that might start to surface.

Fairly frequently I run across throw-away references to “how great would it be if we could live on the women’s island/country/planet!” I’ve spent time on women’s land and among the many reasons those communities struggle is the fact that most of the women who dream about it, stop with dreaming. The little groups struggling in twos or threes or sixes to create a place that’s about, by, and for women, are able to accomplish as much as little groups of two or three or six marginalized people have accomplished throughout history–not too freakin’ much or just barely enough, depending on whether it’s a cup-half-full or half-empty kind of day. So, my feminist sisters, from where I sit it looks like a lot of you want the crops without plowing up the ground. In the same way that women have been deceived by the promises of liberal/reform feminism, believing that, for example, advancement in a traditional career and traditional motherhood aren’t mutually exclusive, a lot of women know what horror shows most men are in intimate relationships, and yet they still aren’t willing to abandon the futility of the heterosexual romantic dream and actively seek other ways to meet those needs.

Some feminists seem to think men will stop raping and battering and killing just because we ask them to, as though it’s simply a misunderstanding that keeps patriarchy on its feet. Some want the lovely pink cinderella fantasy to be real, rather than seeing it for patriarchal brainwashing. Some of us don’t want to understand that men are not going to hand over their privilege, that the transformation of happy heterosexuality into something real and egalitarian won’t begin until women refuse to participate in the institution as it currently exists. Think about it: Did labor unions say to workers, “Well, we know that some of you have really good jobs with employers who only exploit you a little, and you have a great relationship with your boss, so you all keep on working. The rest of us will go on strike to try to get better wages for everybody.” Of course not. They knew that some workers’ positive experiences or fair treatment didn’t negate the analysis that the system is exploitive and only collective action in the form of refusal to participate by all will change it.

I’m not a reform feminist, so I’ll be the one to break the bad news: Under current conditions, you can’t have both. You can’t have the McMansion in the suburbs and 2.5 kids and a golden retriever and a white picket fence and a minivan and a safe feminist world, because the amerikan dream of suburban bliss is built upon the subjugation and victimization of women all over the world. Among the very earliest insights of the second wave of feminism was the fact that the nuclear family is a major mechanism of women’s oppression. Men have access to women and children there, away from everyone else’s eyes, and they have proven over and over ad nauseum that they will not stop using their precious privacy to degrade and abuse “their” women and children in any way they desire.

If we really want that safe feminist world, women are going to have to let go of desires for male approval and male love and start to build something with other women–not because rape is our fault or because justice is our responsibility but because men like raping women and they like hitting women and they like controlling women and they’re not going to stop until they have to. All that rhetoric about “giving up heterosexual privilege” wasn’t about being politically correct or cool or cutting edge; it was about the recognition that justice can’t exist within the system that created the injustice in the first place.

But wait, you say, all this is assuming that women are in these relationships of their own free will. What about poor women? What about women internationally? What about incest? And I say to you, imagine if we feminists with, to paraphrase Andrea Dworkin**, a little slack in our leashes, joined forces to give ourselves and each other a real alternative. What kind of refuges could we create for ourselves and women who don’t have the little bit of privilege western capitalism has granted some women here in the US? What kind of communities could we create where little girls could grow up away from the males who prey on them? Where women running from traffickers, from violent husbands, from the street could find a place to stay? Where men couldn’t rape women because men would not be there? Of course we’d probably never be perfectly safe, but how much are you willing to risk for the chance? Is the opportunity for sexual and economic safety and autonomy for women and girls worth as much as your dream of the perfect man? Is it worth more than a minivan? Is it worth as much as a three-bedroom colonial? Is it worth more than running water and central heating? Really, what’s it worth to you?

Don’t think I’m saying it will be easy. Men will probably freak out if they see lots of “their” women (not just those throwaway hairy fat dyke freaks) actually making real attempts at solidarity; look how much just the ideas of feminism put forward on blogs and internet bulletin boards scare the shit out of them. So they’re going to put up a fuss. But I believe we can make a start, because I’ve seen it done by just a few women who are willing to dedicate the bulk of their time, energy and resources to it, and who are willing to give up a lot of the comforts and conveniences most of us think we can’t live without. I know I can’t do it by myself, and I’m as scared as any of you. But I just keep thinking, what if there were 10 or 50 or 1000 of us and we were holding out our hands to each other and saying, “I’m scared, but I’m ready to make other women my priority so that we can start to build the world we want, together.” What if?

Part II

The above received strong reactions and some thoughtful responses from a few of my sister bloggers. But the thing that struck me the most about all the responses, thoughtful or not, was the way that my critique of heterosexism was interpreted by almost everyone as a kind of all-or-nothing demand. Most of the comments I read interpreted “prioritizing relationships with women” and “building things with other women” to mean ending relationships with men and/or children. And if you read what I wrote, I didn’t say anything like that. When I first read the comments I was really surprised, but then I realized it shouldn’t come as that much of a shock, because that’s what heteropatriarchy as an institution is–a denial of other possibilities. Heterosexuality is defined as a particular structure with particular parameters in this culture to the degree that ways of doing it differently are almost unthinkable.

So I see that I need to ask you all explicitly, in the most open, respectful, loving, feminist-sisterly way possible, to really try to think about what male-female intimate relationships (aka “heterosexuality”) might look like in an egalitarian world. I don’t know that it’s really my place to have those visions, since I don’t choose to relate sexually or emotionally to men. Nevertheless, I want to ask you all, why does “prioritizing relationships with women” translate in your minds into abandoning your relationships with men? Why do you think that the only way of doing it differently from the way it’s been laid out for you is not doing it at all? I mean, seriously, who benefits when you think that? These are not rhetorical questions; male supremacy maintains itself by training women’s minds to work in this way, by limiting the possibilities we are able to conceive for our lives. To think that relating sexually and emotionally to men, or raising children, requires, as I wrote, “the McMansion in the suburbs and 2.5 kids and a golden retriever and a white picket fence and a minivan” is not only heterosexist and classist, it’s ahistorical and ethnocentric to boot. Do you really think all cultures and all historical periods saw heterosexual relationships organized the way they are in 21st century Western culture? Who says that you can’t love your husband just as much even if you don’t live with him? Or if you only live with him part-time? For those of you who have “good” men, why do you assume that your good man is not capable of part-time or full-time parenting? For those of you who wouldn’t entrust your children’s father with the care of a houseplant, what about that idea of shared parenting with other women?

Do you see where I’m going with this? Take one alternate possibility. You’re developing your feminist autonomy off in the company of other women five days a week. On Friday night, you visit your husband at his place. He’s cooked a lovely dinner; the two of you enjoy it, then you go to the bedroom for sex. The two of you enjoy that, and after some prolonged cuddling and deep intimate pillow talk, you say, “Oh, darling, that was just wonderful. I’ll see you next week.” You get up, get dressed, and head back to your feminist commune for the weekend of political meetings and actions, working in the garden, rehabbing the newest living quarters, and organizing the community business, without worrying about his socks on the floor or the dirty dinner dishes. You’ve got enough to think about getting things straightened out in the commune. In other words, you get loving, quality time with your husband–the parts of your relationship that you enjoy and that you come to as a free woman. He does not get your labor, your money, or a lifetime of your undivided attention. Shocking, I know.

Men who are really in support of women’s autonomy and freedom will be okay with this. They may miss you, they may resent it, they probably will have to work really hard at overcoming the sense of entitlement that tells them you should be in the bed whenever they want you, you should at least be doing the dishes when he had the decency to cook–but truly revolutionary men will ultimately support women in overcoming our oppression by working together. They will understand that their discomfort is the measure of how much they’ve benefited from sexism in the past.

And here’s the ugly part that scares us all–the “other” men will pitch fits large and small. Regardless of what women might think prioritizing women’s interests means, men know that it means their lives get harder. They know this. And deep down we know they know it, and we’re afraid of what they’ll do. We don’t want to scratch that “good” man and expose the screeching misogynist underneath, particularly since open spots in feminist communes are currently pretty few and far between. But I do think it’s that awareness, and that fear, that leads otherwise brilliant and expansive feminist minds down the narrow alley of “I can’t prioritize women because I’m not leaving my husband.”

Trust me. I don’t want you to leave your husband if you don’t want to. The last thing I want at my feminist commune is a bunch of disgruntled sexually frustrated straight women who don’t really want to be there. But it does make me sad to realize how many of you have swallowed patriarchy’s blueprint for intimate relationships. Creating radical feminist change requires questioning everything and trying to envision how it might be different if we were free. I think this is a useful exercise even if some of our visions require changes we’ll never live to see. Eschewing relationships with men does not make me immune to this process, believe me. We all participate in capitalist patriarchy for survival; it’s the only game in town. But we can continue to identify the narrow alleys down which our imaginations have been shunted and take down the walls brick by brick together, until dawn breaks over Marblehead as some new bit of the horizon comes into view, and suddenly, well, lots of things become possible that weren’t a year or a month or a day or just a minute before.

And that sense of possibility, my dear sisters, is what I wish for us all.


*Referring here to the so-called “second wave” of feminism in the US, which is not to ignore the fact that various movements of women internationally and throughout history have been detailing the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of men. back

**”Everything that didn’t happen to you — I apply this to myself as part of the way that I survive — everything that didn’t happen to you is a little slack in your leash. You weren’t raped when you were three, or you weren’t raped when you were 10. Or you weren’t battered, or you weren’t in prostitution, whatever it is that you managed to miss is the measure of your freedom. And the measure of your strength.” back


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