The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Reading ‘Heterophobia’: Adrienne Rich and ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality’

Posted on | April 26, 2014 | 16 Comments

“[T]he failure to examine heterosexuality as an institution is like failing to admit that the economic system called capitalism or the caste system of racism is maintained by a variety of forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness. . . .
“Lesbians have historically been deprived of a political existence through ‘inclusion’ as female versions of male homosexuality. To equate lesbian existence with male homosexuality because each is stigmatized is to deny and erase female reality once again. To separate those women stigmatized as ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’ from the complex continuum of female resistance to enslavement, and attach them to a male pattern, is to falsify our history.”

Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980)

In recent weeks, I have been re-reading Daphne Patai’s 1998 book Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, because it offers valuable insights into the ideology many readers first encountered in the ridiculous expression, “PIV is always rape, OK?”

Demonizing male sexuality, feminists have made hostility to heterosexual intercourse (PIV = penis in vagina) a persistent theme of their rhetoric for many years. When conservatives took notice of Radical Wind’s anti-PIV rant in January, many may have assumed that this was a new idea from the kook fringe of feminism, but it’s not. As I pointed out last year (“Taking Feminism Seriously”), Marxism and lesbianism are the twin pillars of feminist ideology, and have been since the 1960s. Most people don’t realize this, because feminism operates by a sort of duality: It has an exoteric rhetoric — a public discourse about “rights” and “equality” offered in mainstream venues — and an esoteric ideology, taught in advanced Women’s Studies classes and discussed in academic journals, where committed feminists are speaking to each other.

Daphne Patai, originally a literature professor, spent 10 years teaching Women’s Studies at the University of Massachusetts in the 1980s and ’90s, an experience that led to her 1994 book Professing Feminism (co-authored with Noretta Koertge). Her direct experience with academic feminism and extensive familiarity with feminist ideology informs Heterophobia, in which Professor Patai addresses the arguments and tactics of what she calls the Sexual Harassment Industry. Professor Patai’s experience enabled her to perceive how courts, legislators and academic theorists had incorporated into their discourse about sexual harassment many radical ideas that originated with feminist ideologues like Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly and Catharine McKinnon.

Professor Patai  begins Chapter 6 of Heterophobia thus:

Something very strange happened toward the end of the twentieth century. Heterosexuality went from being the norm to being on the defensive. By calling this phenomenon “heterophobia,” I am not speaking abstractly. Rather, I am referring to a distinct current within feminism over the past thirty years [i.e., since the late 1960s, as Professor Patai wrote this in 1998], a current that has been “theorized” explicitly by feminist scholars and agitators alike as they attack men and heterosexuality.

Here, then, Professor Patai begins to deconstruct feminism’s esoteric ideology, exposing it in plain sight for critical examination.

‘Classes Taught by Doctrinaire Feminists’

It is remarkable that feminism’s fundamental hostility toward heterosexuality was never really a secret, at least among those who bothered to pay attention to its development from the late 1960s onward as a phenomenon of the radical New Left (see “Re-Reading Susan Brownmiller”) into a coherent ideology propagated in university Women’s Studies programs. But just as no one paid much attention to latter-day New Left disciple Barack Obama until he emerged as the Democrat nominee for president in 2008, few have bothered to examine the core beliefs of feminism’s esoteric ideology, which have gained further influence since Professor Patai examined them in 1998.

Continuing in Chapter 6 of Heterophobia (pp. 133-134 of the hardback edition), Professor Patai discusses how “the antiheterosexual tenor of much feminist discourse” plays a role “in alienating ‘ordinary’ women from feminism.” She talks about the explicitly anti-male message “being conveyed in women’s studies classes taught by doctrinaire feminists eager to teach their students all about ‘compulsory heterosexuality,’ as Adrienne Rich famously put it.”

Those who are not students of feminism may be puzzled by Professor Patai’s description of Adrienne Rich’s phrase as “famous.” And this reaction — “Who the hell is Adrienne Rich?” — serves to demonstrate the yawning gulf between public awareness of feminism and the esoteric doctrine taught in Women’s Studies programs.

Anticipating this puzzled reaction, Professor Patai includes a lengthy endnote, which we find on pp. 234-235 of Heterophobia:

Adrience Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5, no. 4 (Summer 1980): 631-60. Rich’s essay is a key document that has had an enormous impact over the past two decades. It has been widely anthologized and is regularly taught in women’s studies courses. In her recent work, [University of California Berkeley Professor] Judith Butler refers to the presumably indisputable reality of compulsory heterosexuality without even citing Rich, so well known has the phrase become. . . .

Thus, in less than 20 years, the anti-heterosexual theme of Rich’s radical essay had become so deeply embedded in the feminist theory taught at universities that its “indisputable reality” was simply taken for granted by a leading Women’s Studies scholar.

Left: Adrienne Rich in 1980. Right: Judith Butler in 2013.

“If you consider sexual desire and romantic love between men and women to be natural and healthy, you are not a feminist. . . . There is nothing natural about sex, according to feminist ideology, no biological urge that causes women to be attracted to men.”
Robert Stacy McCain, April 10

‘Suppressed Lesbian … Since Adolescence’

You can read Rich’s influential 1980 essay online, where University of Georgia Law Professor Dawn Bennett-Alexander calls it “a major intellectual force in the general feminist reorientation to sexual matters in recent years.” A brief excerpt:

The bias of compulsory heterosexuality, through which lesbian experience is perceived on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent, or simply rendered invisible, could be illustrated from many other texts than the two just preceding. The assumption made by [Alice] Rossi, that women are “innately sexually oriented” toward men, or by [Doris] Lessing, that the lesbian choice is simply an acting-out of bitterness toward men, are by no means theirs alone; they are widely current in literature and in the social sciences.
I am concerned here with two other matters as well: first, how and why women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, tribe, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and disguise; and second, the virtual or total neglect of lesbian existence in a wide range of writings, including feminist scholarship. . . .
Any theory or cultural/political creation that treats lesbian existence as a marginal or less “natural” phenomenon, as mere “sexual preference,” or as the mirror image of either heterosexual or male homosexual relations is profoundly weakened thereby, whatever its other contributions. Feminist theory can no longer afford merely to voice a toleration of “lesbianism” as an “alternative life-style,” or make token allusion to lesbians. A feminist critique of compulsory heterosexual orientation for women is long overdue. . . .

Readers may wish to examine Adrienne Rich’s biography, because she was by no means a marginal “fringe” figure in feminist history. The daughter of a renowned Johns Hopkins University medical professor, Rich graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951 and two years later married a Harvard economics professor with whom she had three sons. Rich gained acclaim for her poetry and in the 1960s taught at Swarthmore College, Columbia University and City College of New York. She became involved in radical politics and in 1970 separated from her husband, who then committed suicide at age 46. By the mid-1970s, Rich was living openly as a lesbian, subsequently explaining: “The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.” She later taught at Brandeis University, Bryn Mawr College, Rutgers University, Scripps College, San Jose State University, Stanford University and Cornell University.

If Rich’s “feminist critique of compulsory heterosexual orientation for women” was, as Professor Patai says, “widely anthologized and . . . regularly taught in women’s studies courses” in the 1990s, how much further has acceptance of this doctrine progressed since then?

Far enough that a state university in Spartanburg, South Carolina, hosted a performance of  Leigh Hendrix’s one-woman show, “How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less,” as part of a campus feminist conference. Far enough that celebrity feminist Lena Dunham feels obligated to publicly lament her heterosexuality as a “huge disappointment.” Far enough that a progressive sex educator finds her university Women’s Sexuality course denounced as “heteronormative,” and realizes that many of her students “have never thought about sex in terms of biology or reproduction.”

Readers who have followed developments in the Culture War in recent decades must ask themselves: “What’s next?”




16 Responses to “Reading ‘Heterophobia’: Adrienne Rich and ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality’”

  1. Mm
    April 26th, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

    You don’t have to have a religious bone in your body to understand that, from a scientific perspective, this is complete and utter crap. There would be no procreation, no survival of the species, no humans but for the default archetype of sexual attraction, I.e., heterosexuality.

  2. RS
    April 26th, 2014 @ 8:18 pm

    I read these things, and I’m reminded of the marching band member who insisted that he was the only one in step. Such is the state of academe, today. Either you admit you have severe emotional problems, or you create an entire discipline dedicated to showing that everyone else is abnormal. Great gig, if you can get it.

  3. Stogie Chomper
    April 26th, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    Feminism is a collection of ugly, man-hating lesbians who are insane. Only in a university could such a sick ideology be feted and celebrated, where evil ideas are always preferred to the normal and the healthy.

  4. Stogie Chomper
    April 26th, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

    Excellent analogy.

  5. Mm
    April 26th, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

    Every once in a while, the mask slips. See, e.g., Stokely Carmichael:… “The only position for women in the SNCC is prone.”

  6. boinkie
    April 26th, 2014 @ 9:07 pm

    so these guys (eh, gals?) are honored at universities, but Ali Hirsi is banned?

  7. Kirby McCain
    April 26th, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

    Subversive ideology which is rejected by most women.

  8. Taxpayer1234
    April 26th, 2014 @ 9:16 pm

    Profs. Patai and Koertge are the rare feminists who never abandoned reason and logic in their work. I used to work for Dr. Koertge back in the mid-80s. One of the most brilliant philosophers of science out there. I wish I had met Dr. Patai.

  9. scarymatt
    April 26th, 2014 @ 9:45 pm

    Yeah, but you’re the one who hates science.

    I cannot comprehend how a person can say such things in earnest. I can only assume they are either mentally ill or have an ulterior motive. Neither excludes the other, of course.

  10. ...
    April 26th, 2014 @ 10:15 pm

    I will assume that this is mere “agitprop”*, if I may use that term, and nothing more.

    *in communist semantics, “dialectical materialist”.

  11. Rex
    April 26th, 2014 @ 10:48 pm

    Don’t forget, Pablo Freire’s critical, liberatory pedagogy (highly influential within academia) as conceived in Education as, coherently systematized in Extension or Communication and carried out through Pedagogy of the Oppressed into his later works, is grounded in a thoroughly Marxist, or dialectical materialist, theory of knowledge. Explicating this “Freirian” dialectical materialist epistemology might provide an increased understanding of contemporary academia’s liberatory pedagogy as a whole because it is difficult to grasp it without understanding its Marxism.

  12. Ruy Diaz
    April 26th, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

    Mark Steyn had the right of it:
    When it comes to solving a squabble involving the internal contradictions of the Rainbow coalition, ISLAM TRUMPS EVERYTHING.

  13. DeadMessenger
    April 27th, 2014 @ 1:55 am

    If we’re taking a head count, I have to point out that I am a scientist and mathematician, am completely earnest, not mentally ill, and would have to agree with Mm that this is, in fact, unscientific and complete and utter crap.

  14. JeffS
    April 27th, 2014 @ 9:56 am

    “/sarc” is our friend…..

  15. DeadMessenger
    April 27th, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

    Oh. Sorry.

  16. ogunsiron
    April 30th, 2014 @ 3:25 am

    but embraced by enough influential people positioned in the right places to cause damage to the lives of countless many.