Adrienne Rich, 2003. “Foreword and afterword to: Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980)”, Journal of Women’s History – Volume 15, Number 3, Autumn 2003, pp. 11-48
Ripubblicando il suo testo nel 2003 (Adrienne Cecile Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980)”, Journal of Women’s History – Volume 15, Number 3, Autumn 2003, pp. 11-48), Rich vi ha aggiunto le seguenti introduzione e postfazione:
Foreword I want to say a little about the way “Compulsory Heterosexuality” was originally conceived and the context in which we are now living. It was written in part to challenge the erasure of lesbian existence from so much of scholarly feminist literature, an erasure which I felt (and feel) to be not just anti-lesbian, but anti-feminist in its consequences, and to distort the experience of heterosexual women as well. It was not written to widen divisions but to encourage heterosexual feminists to examine heterosexuality as a political institution which disempowers women—and to change it. I also hoped that other lesbians would feel the depth and breadth of woman identification and woman bonding that has run like a continuous though stifled theme through the heterosexual experience, and that this would become increasingly a politically activating impulse, not simply a validation of personal lives. I wanted the essay to suggest new kinds of criticism, to incite new questions in classrooms and academic journals, and to sketch, at least, some bridge over the gap between lesbian and feminist. I wanted, at the very least, for feminists to find it less possible to read, write, or teach from a perspective of unexamined heterocentricity. Within the three years since I wrote “Compulsory Heterosexuality”— with this energy of hope and desire—the pressures to conform in a society increasingly conservative in mood have become more intense. The New Right’s messages to women have been, precisely, that we are the emotional and sexual property of men, and that the autonomy and equality of women threaten the family, religion, and state. The institutions by which women have traditionally been controlled—patriarchal motherhood, economic exploitation, the nuclear family, compulsory heterosexuality—are being strengthened by legislation, religious fiat, media imagery, and efforts at censorship. In a worsening economy, the single mother trying to support her children confronts the feminization of poverty which Joyce Miller of the National Coalition of Labor Union Women has named one of the major issues of the 1980s. The lesbian, unless in disguise, faces discrimination in hiring and harassment and violence in the street. Even within feminist-inspired institutions such as battered-women’s shelters and Women’s Studies programs, open lesbians are fired and others warned to stay in the closet. The retreat into sameness—assimilation for those who can manage it—is the most passive and debilitating of responses to politi-cal repression, economic insecurity, and a renewed open season on difference.
I want to note that documentation of male violence against women— within the home especially—has been accumulating rapidly in this period (see pages 30–31, note 9). At the same time, in the realm of literature which depicts woman bonding and woman identification as essential for female survival, a steady stream of writing and criticism has been coming from women of color in general and lesbians of color in particular—the latter group being even more profoundly erased in academic feminist scholarship by the double bias of racism and homophobia.1 There has recently been an intensified debate on female sexuality among feminists and lesbians, with lines often furiously and bitterly drawn, with sadomasochism and pornography as key words which are variously defined according to who is talking. The depth of women’s rage and fear regarding sexuality and its relation to power and pain is real, even when the dialogue sounds simplistic, self-righteous, or like parallel monologues. Because of all these developments, there are parts of this essay that I would word differently, qualify, or expand if I were writing it today. But I continue to think that heterosexual feminists will draw political strength for change from taking a critical stance toward the ideology which demands heterosexuality, and that lesbians cannot assume that we are un-touched by that ideology and the institutions founded upon it. There is nothing about such a critique that requires us to think of ourselves as victims, as having been brainwashed or totally powerless. Coercion and compulsion are among the conditions in which women have learned to recognize our strength. Resistance is a major theme in this essay and in the study of women’s lives, if we know what we are looking for.
Afterword In 1980, Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson, three Marxist-feminist activists and scholars, sent out a call for papers for an anthology on the politics of sexuality. Having just finished writing “Compulsory Heterosexuality” for Signs, I sent them that manuscript and asked them to consider it. Their anthology, Powers of Desire was published by the Monthly Review Press New Feminist Library in 1983 and included my paper. During the intervening period, the four of us were in correspondence, but I was able to take only limited advantage of this dialogue due to ill health and resulting surgery. With their permission, I reprint here excerpts from that correspondence as a way of indicating that my essay should be read as one contribution to a long exploration in progress, not as my own “last word” on sexual politics. I also refer interested readers to Powers of Desire itself.
Dear Adrienne, . . . In one of our first letters, we told you that we were finding parameters of left-wing/feminist sexual discourse to be far broader than we imagined. Since then, we have perceived what we believe to be a crisis in the feminist movement about sex, an intensifying debate (although not always an explicit one), and a questioning of assumptions once taken for granted. While we fear the link between sex and violence, as do Women Against Pornography, we wish we better understood its sources in our-selves as well as in men. In the Reagan era, we can hardly afford to romanticize any old norm of a virtuous and moral sexuality. In your piece, you are asking the question, what would women choose in a world where patriarchy and capitalism did not rule? We agree with you that heterosexuality is an institution created between these grind stones, but we don’t conclude, therefore, that it is entirely a male creation. You only allow for female historical agency insofar as women exist on the lesbian continuum while we would argue that women’s history, like men’s history, is created out of a dialectic of necessity and choice. All three of us (hence one lesbian, two heterosexual women) had questions about your use of the term “false consciousness” for women’s heterosexuality. In general, we think the false-consciousness model can blind us to the necessities and desires that comprise the lives of the oppressed. It can also lead to the too easy denial of others’ experience when that experience is different from our own. We posit, rather, a complex social model in which all erotic life is a continuum, one which therefore includes relations with men. Which brings us to this metaphor of the continuum. We know you are a poet, not an historian, and we look forward to reading your metaphors all our lives—and standing straighter as feminists, as women, for having read them. But the metaphor of the lesbian continuum is open to all kinds of misunderstandings, and these sometimes have odd political effects. For example, Sharon reports that at a recent meeting around the abortion-rights struggle, the notion of continuum arose in the discussion several times and underwent divisive transformation. Overall, the notion that two ways of being existed on the same continuum was interpreted to mean that those two ways were the same. The sense of range and gradation that your description evokes disappeared. Lesbianism and female friendship became exactly the same thing. Similarly, heterosexuality and rape became the same. In one of several versions the continuum that evolved, a slope was added, like so:
Lesbianism Sex with men, no penetration Sex with men, penetration Rape
This sloped continuum brought its proponents to the following conclusion: An appropriate, workable abortion-rights strategy is to inform all women that heterosexual penetration is rape, whatever their subjective experience to the contrary. All women will immediately recognize the truth of this and opt for the alternative of nonpenetration. The abortion-right struggle will thus be simplified into a struggle against coercive sex and its consequences (since no enlightened woman would voluntary undergo penetration unless her object was procreation—a peculiarly Catholic-sounding view.) The proponents of this strategy were young women who have worked hard in the abortion-rights movement for the past two or more years. They are inexperienced but they are dedicated. For this reason, we take their reading of your work seriously. We don’t think, however, that it comes solely, or even at all, from the work itself. As likely a source is the tendency to dichotomize that has plagued the women’s movement. The source of that tendency is harder to trace. In that regard, the hints in “Compulsory” about the double life of women intrigue us. You define the double life as “the apparent acquiescence to an institution founded on male interest and prerogative.” But that definition doesn’t really explain your other references—to, for instance, the “intense mixture” of love and anger in lesbian relationships and to the peril of romanticizing what it means “to love and act against the grain.” We think these comments raise extremely important issues for feminists right now; the problem of division and anger among us needs airing and analysis. Is this, by any chance, the theme of a piece you have in the works? . . . We would still love it if we could have a meeting with you in the next few months. Any chance? . . . Greetings and support from us—in all your undertakings. We send love, Sharon, Chris, and Ann New York City April 19, 1981
Dear Ann, Chris, and Sharon, . . . It’s good to be back in touch with you, you who have been so unfailingly patient, generous, and persistent. Above all, it’s important to me that you know that ill health, not a withdrawal because of political differences, delayed my writing back to you. . . . “False consciousness” can, I agree, be used as a term of dismissal for any thinking we don’t like or adhere to. But, as I try to illustrate in some detail, there is a real, identifiable system of heterosexual propaganda, of defining women as existing for the sexual use of men, which goes beyond “sex role” or “gender” stereotyping or “sexist imagery” to include a vast number of verbal and nonverbal messages. And this I call “control of consciousness.” The possibility of a woman who does not exist sexually for men—the lesbian possibility—is buried, erased, occluded, distorted, misnamed, and driven underground. The feminist books—Chodorow, Dinnerstein, Ehrenreich and English, and others—which I discuss at the beginning of my essay contribute to this invalidation and erasure, and as such are part of the problem. My essay is founded on the belief that we all think from within the limits of certain solipsisms—usually linked with privilege, racial, cultural, and economic as well as sexual—which present themselves as “the universal,” “the way things are,” “all women,” etc., etc. I wrote it equally out of the belief that in becoming conscious of our solipsisms we have certain kinds of choices, that we can and must re-educate ourselves. I never have maintained that heterosexual feminists are walking about in a state of “brainwashed” false consciousness. Nor have such phrases as “sleeping with the enemy” seemed to me either profound or useful. Homophobia is too diffuse a term and does not go very far in helping us identify and talk about the sexual solipsism of heterosexual feminism. In this paper I was trying to ask heterosexual feminists to examine their experience of heterosexuality critically and antagonistically, to critique the institution of which they are a part, to struggle with the norm and its implications for women’s freedom, to become more open to the considerable resources offered by the lesbian-feminist perspective, to refuse to settle for the personal privilege and solution of individual “good relationship” within the institution of heterosexuality. As regards “female historical agency,” I wanted, precisely, to suggest that the victim model is insufficient; that there is a history of female agency and choice which has actually challenged aspects of male supremacy; that, like male supremacy, these can be found in many different cultures. . . . It’s not that I think all female agency has been solely and avowedly lesbian. But by erasing lesbian existence from female history, from theory, from literary criticism . . . from feminist approaches to economic structure, ideas about “the family,” etc., an enormous amount of female agency is kept unavailable, hence unusable. I wanted to demonstrate that the kind of obliteration continues to be acceptable in seriously regarded feminist texts. What surprised me in the responses to my essay, including your notes, is how almost every aspect of it has been considered, except this— to me—central one. I was taking a position which was neither lesbian/ separatist in the sense of dismissing heterosexual women nor a “gay civil rights” plea for . . . openness to lesbianism as an “option” or an “alternate life style.” I was urging that lesbian existence has been an unrecognized and unaffirmed claiming by women of their sexuality, thus a pattern of resistance, thus also a kind of borderline position from which to analyze and challenge the relationship of heterosexuality to male supremacy. And that lesbian existence, when recognized, demands a conscious restructuring of feminist analysis and criticism, not just a token reference or two. I certainly agree with you that the term lesbian continuum can be misused. It was, in the example you report of the abortion-rights meeting, though I would think anyone who had read my work from Of Woman Born onward would know that my position on abortion and sterilization abuse is more complicated than that. My own problem with the phrase is that it can be, is, used by women who have not yet begun to examine the privileges and solipsisms of heterosexuality, as a safe way to describe their felt connections with women, without having to share in the risks and threats of lesbian existence. What I had thought to delineate rather complexly as a continuum has begun to sound more like “life-style shopping.” Lesbian continuum—the phrase—came from a desire to allow for the great-est possible variation of female-identified experience, while paying a different kind of respect to lesbian existence—the traces and knowledge of women who have made their primary erotic and emotional choices for women. If I were writing the paper today, I would still want to make this distinction, but would put more caveats around lesbian continuum. I fully agree with you that Smith-Rosenberg’s “female world” is not a social ideal, enclosed as it is within prescriptive middle-class heterosexuality and marriage. My own essay could have been stronger had it drawn on more of the literature by Black women toward which Toni Morrison’s Sula inevitably pointed me. In reading a great deal more of Black women’s fiction I began to perceive a different set of valences from those found in white women’s fiction for the most part: a different quest for the woman hero, a different relationship both to sexuality with men and to female loyalty and bond-ing. . . . You comment briefly on your reactions to some of the radical-feminist works I cited in my first footnote.67 I am myself critical of some of them even as I found them vitally useful. What most of them share is a taking seriously of misogyny—of organized, institutionalized, normalized hostility and violence against women. I feel no “hierarchy of oppressions” is needed in order for us to take misogyny as seriously as we take racism, anti-Semitism, imperialism. To take misogyny seriously needn’t mean that we perceive women merely as victims, without responsibilities or choices; it does mean recognizing the “necessity” in that “dialectic of necessity and choice”—identifying, describing, refusing to turn aside our eyes. I think that some of the apparent reductiveness, or even obsessiveness, of some white radical-feminist theory derives from racial and/or class solipsism, but also from the immense effort of trying to render women hating visible amid so much denial. . . . Finally, as to poetry and history: I want both in my life; I need to see through both. If metaphor can be misconstrued, history can also lead to misconstrual when it obliterates acts of resistance or rebellion, wipes out transformational models, or sentimentalizes power relationships. I know you know this. I believe we are all trying to think and write out of our best consciences, our most open consciousness. I expect that quality in this book which you are editing, and look forward with anticipation to the thinking—and the actions—toward which it may take us. In sisterhood, Adrienne Montague, Massachusetts November 1981