What has gender got to do with sex? Language,
heterosexuality and heteronormativity
In her essay 'Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence' (1980), Adrienne Rich pointed out that heterosexuality and lesbianism are not just 'different but equal' choices women can make; one of them – heterosexuality – is 'compulsory', the other – lesbianism – forbidden. 'Normal' development for women is equated with movement through a set of life stages defined largely in terms of heterosexuality (dating, one or more serious 'steady' relationships, marriage or cohabitation, having and bringing up children). This trajectory is not simply left to happen 'naturally', even though it is always portrayed as a natural phenomenon. Rather it is aggressively promoted in every part of the culture. The other side of that coin is the persecution of women who refuse compulsory heterosexuality, especially if they show a positive preference for sexual and emotional relationships with other women. 'Lesbian existence', Rich notes, is a precarious and risky business; and she documents the point with many historical and contemporary examples of women being oppressed because they chose other women, rather than men, as their lovers and most cherished companions.
RADICAL FEMINIST ANALYSIS
The idea of heterosexuality as a norm rather than simply one option among others is still part of feminist thinking, and is also current among queer theorists and activists.1 But in the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s and early 1980s, that idea was connected to a particular set of arguments about the relationship of sexuality to gender. According to those arguments, compulsory heterosexuality is not just bad because it denies individual women, and indeed individual men, the freedom to define and express their own sexual preferences. Rather, heterosexuality is a political institution, and the 'compulsory' status of heterosexuality has a key political
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Publication information: Book title: Language and Sexuality. Contributors: Deborah Cameron - Author, Don Kulick - Author. Publisher: Cambridge University Press. Place of publication: Cambridge, England. Publication year: 2003. Page number: 44.
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