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Sex & Love Breaking through compulsory heterosexuality for a better romantic life

Feb. 24, 2021
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Maybe you've devoured the infamous "Am I a Lesbian? Masterdoc.” Maybe you've been too afraid to even open it and discover whether or not your attraction to men is genuine or compulsory. Maybe you’ve never even heard of it. Whatever your feelings (or lack thereof), this 31-page PDF was written by Angeli Luz as “a personal exploration tool,” though it draws from the experiences of many lesbians across Tumblr—some of whom are credited on the final page of the document—as well as members of r/comphet and r/actuallesbians. The “Masterdoc” has received both praise and criticism within the queer community, and it’s been circulated widely. It’s difficult to know quite how many people have read this PDF, but judging by the original Tumblr post's 32,000 likes, it is clear the “Masterdoc” has had a wide reach.

I knew long before opening the PDF that for my own sake, I needed to stop dating and hooking up with men, and make the active choice to be a lesbian. Controversial, I know.

I can’t guarantee that I’ll be a lesbian forever, but that wasn’t my main reason for deciding to identify as a lesbian again. (“Again” because, like many people, I’ve gone back and forth between identifying as a lesbian or as bisexual over the years). This choice to re-identify as a lesbian was about reclaiming ownership of my body and my desires—that’s the whole point of the “Masterdoc.” We are all socialized to engage in heterosexual behaviors—that’s why they’re compulsory—but for those of us who grow up socialized as women, the coercion of heterosexuality is far more insidious and demanding. The term “compulsory heterosexuality” was initially coined by the late poet Adrienne Rich in 1980 to describe how the lesbian identity “has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise” in favor of choosing to live a heterosexual life. It has since been adopted and therefore expanded on by other queer identities, but remains a cornerstone of the lesbian experience and can be seen referred to on many lesbian forums as “comphet.” The “Masterdoc” makes use of this general awareness of compulsory heterosexuality and breaks it down into the different ways in which this societal pressure presents itself in our lives.

Like many people, I felt that the “Masterdoc” had shaken me by the shoulders and sternly said to me, “Stop. Look at your romantic track record. Think about what it felt like to date men. Do you actually like men, or have you gotten so good at pretending you do that you’ve even convinced yourself?”

I am not a woman, but I look like what society expects a woman to look like, and I was raised to be a woman. As I was growing up, I was told by many, many people that I didn’t know what I was talking about or what I was feeling. The first time I admitted to my friends that I thought I might be bisexual, I was immediately met with, “No, you’re definitely a lesbian.” So, of course, I believed them. A little while later, when I was fifteen, I told my mom I was a lesbian, and she said, “How can you know that? You’ve had crushes on boys before.”

The sneaky thing about this is that I hadn’t actually had crushes on boys. Ever. The very first bullet point in the section, entitled “‘Attraction’ to Men,” reads, “Deciding which guys to be attracted to—not to date, but to be attracted to.” Later on in this section, this same sentiment regarding attraction is described as “flipping your attraction on like a switch.” We’re told attraction is supposed to be inherent, but for many sapphics (or feminine people who are attracted to feminine people) like myself or @gabiereyn on TikTok, there is a very thin line of distinction between the answers to the question, “do I find men attractive or am I attracted to men?” I still struggle with this question and often find myself falling back into old habits, listening to other people’s assessment of my sexual orientation over my own gut.

But why do we choose to believe that other people know more about us than ourselves? Why do we go along with dating and sleeping with men if that’s not what we actually want to do? How do we stop doing this to ourselves? And what if we think we still kind of like men?

Truthfully, I don’t have the answers. What I do know is that the core of this struggle is a search for agency. Femmes, and especially sapphics, are repeatedly told that we don’t know what we want—and whether it’s implicitly or explicitly stated, that men are the “correct” thing to want. In the 1998 book Male in the Head: Young People, Heterosexuality, and Power, research revealed that many young women feel the dominating presence of masculinity in their intimate encounters, whether or not a man is there at all—meaning that the expectation or understanding of what men want or find attractive is still in the back of their minds, even if they aren’t trying to please a man. This “hegemonic ideal of heterosexual masculinity which submits them to the surveillance of the ‘male gaze’” permeates society and invades the internal self, preventing femmes from any respite.

This “hegemonic ideal” was a binding force in my life (as well as many of the lesbians whose experiences were compiled for the “Masterdoc”), coercing me to live my life for the sake of others’ approval in favor of listening to my gut. When we prioritize the male gaze and compulsory heterosexuality, we end up internalizing the absence of disapproval in place of approval. These looming concerns over not meeting expectations impact numerous aspects of our intimate relationships. If we listen to the lure of possible approval, we end up ignoring what actually feels right—and in doing so we cause our own anguish.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to breaking the stranglehold of your own compulsory heterosexuality. We owe it to ourselves to try, though—to wake up every day and work to unlearn these pressures to “be” and “perform” in certain ways. I constantly find myself compelled to be a chivalrous, masculine presence in my romantic ventures with women, even though I know this isn’t a persona I can keep up. This inclination is a personal manifestation of what feminist scholars call the “male in the head”; “he” needs there to be a masculine presence in my relationships in order for them to be valid. 

As sapphics, we should also be responsible for helping other sapphics move beyond their compulsory heterosexuality. When we reject our own compulsory hetersexuality and praise or encourage other sapphics to do the same, we reinforce the work they are doing in their own lives to reject this coercive force and regain their sexual agency. Removing the male gaze from sapphic spaces is a communal effort, as well as a gesture of love and respect.

Unlearning the rigid expectations of compulsory heterosexuality isn’t easy, and every one of us has a different amalgamation of its features to contend with. But unlearning them is excruciatingly necessary. In order to be fully present and enjoy our most intimate moments, we need to be acting on our own desires, and not the desires of a “male in the head.”

Illustration by Brittany England for Greatist.