Compulsory Heterosexuality in Action

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Adrienne Rich’s essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, mostly because I’ve been talking to the student in my class from South Asia whose parents are trying desperately to marry her off. She came to my office yesterday and I ended up talking to her for more than an hour, missing the class I was supposed to be teaching, because she started using expressions like maybe I should just end it all when talking about her anger and frustration and rage at feeling so utterly helpless in her situation. When I asked her what she meant, she said she was thinking of just surrendering to her parents and doing what they want her to do, that maybe marriage–any marriage, to any man–was really the only way she would ever get out from under her parents’, but mostly her father’s, rule. Still, I thought it better to keep her talking than to leave her to go teach my class.

I don’t want to reveal too many details of her life, for obvious reasons, but I learned a lot more about her in this conversation than I had in the brief discussions we’d had before. She is the youngest child in her family and so finding a suitable husband is an important goal for her parents. Once they do so, they will have fulfilled one of their primary obligations as parents to their daughters and, in fact, my student is not entirely opposed to the idea of marrying a man her parents find for her. She just wants him to be someone she feels compatible with, someone in whom she can find something that attracts her; but the men they bring for her to meet, while they are well established and could take good care of her, in the way that “good care” is defined in her culture, they have all been, she says, not only boring, but really, really (to her taste) ugly. What she wants is the freedom to choose her own husband. She’s pretty clear that her first choice would be a man from the same culture and religion–though she’s not opposed to marrying outside the first group–but she wants him to have at least a little bit of the Americanized identity that she has. (Even there, though, her experience has not been good. She met a guy whom she thought fit the bill, but as soon as the started going out, he started wanting to check her Blackberry to see whom she was calling and who was calling her.)

Adding to the agony of her situation is how isolated she feels. I am the only person, according to her, to whom she has told her entire story–including the married boss she used to respect and who has recently started making passes at her–and she is surprised at herself that she has done so. She doesn’t have a whole lot of trust in Americans’ ability to comprehend much less empathize with her situation, having been burned a couple of times when she tried to talk to her friends, none of whom were able to wrap their heads around the cultural context in which she lives, even though she is living here in the States, and some of whom actually blamed her for not leaving, as if leaving one’s family, especially a family that might disown you for doing so, would ever be a simple thing. On top of that is the fact that telling anyone about her family’s private life violates a very strong cultural taboo that interprets such revelation as one of the worst kinds of disloyalty both because it sullies the family’s honor and reputation in the community and exposes the family to whatever use its enemies (in a social, not a military sense) might make of the information.

One of the reasons she trusts me is that I know something about Islam and about the kind of culture she comes from. (My wife’s culture is similar.) And so she is not worried that I will think she is weird or weak or “bringing it all on herself”–each of which is a reaction she has gotten from other “outsiders” she has tried to tell–and she recognizes that I respect her desire to find a solution that somehow harmonizes with her parents’ (and community’s) religious and cultural expectations, while allowing her the freedom she wants. (Whether or not that is possible, of course, is a whole other question.) And yet, of course, what she needs to do is talk to other people, to know that I not unique in this respect; and especially what she needs is to find a community of women from whom she can draw strength, who will help her to feel less alone in a way that I simply cannot do, because of both my gender and my age. (I am, after all, old enough to be her father.) So I have encouraged her, and I will encourage her again, to register for a women’s studies course; I have given her contact information for South Asian women’s organizations (and I know she has called at least one of them); I have told her about the student women’s group on campus; and I have, of course, told her she is welcome to keep coming to talk to me, but there really isn’t much else that I can (or should) do.

One of the themes she kept weaving through our conversation was that she was thinking of running away, but of doing so in a manner that would leave her parents thinking she was dead. This way, they would be able to mourn her and move on and not have to live with the constant worry for they would feel and the shame of having had a daughter they could not control. It didn’t matter how many times I gently suggested that there might be other ways of leaving that would at least leave open an avenue of return or a channel of communication–that other women in her situation have done it–she kept coming back to the idea that it was better for her parents to think she was dead than to have live with the knowledge and the shame that she was off somewhere, not properly married, living who knew what kind of decadent and depraved American life and so completely lost to them even if she were to show up right then on their doorstep.

It could not, I would not, argue with her anymore. I don’t know her parents and it’s not my place–and, anyway, I am not qualified–to give her advice. All I could think when she left, though, was that I had just witnessed a prime example of compulsory heterosexuality at work, and it really, really, really sucked.

Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.

This entry posted in Education, Feminism, sexism, etc. Bookmark the permalink. 

26 Responses to Compulsory Heterosexuality in Action

  1. 1
    EasilyEnthused says:

    Richard, thank you for helping that woman like that.

    As someone who is currently going through issues with my mother’s mental health, I understand an aspect of your student’s anxiety regarding reaching out for help (although her added complications related to gender, culture and religion make my problems seem minor in comparison.)

    I suppose there might be an aspect of “privilege” that people enjoy if they have supportive, helpful parents. If you grew up with good parents (and they were the only parents you knew) it can be really easy to tell people like your student “Why don’t you just disown them?” Sometimes people don’t realize how hard it can be to walk away from the people who raised you – even if they are abusive or damaging to your agency.

  2. 2
    Josef says:

    Parents who think they should be able to choose their children’s spouses/careers/education are evil beings who do not deserve children, and that’s what I would have told her. The same with potential significant others – if they think they should be able to monitor her phone calls, they’re not worth even talking to, let alone dating.

    It is clear that you did not think it right to make a value judgement about her culture, but the fact of the matter is that she is in part bringing her problems on herself by not refusing categorically to submit to the dictates of an inequitable tradition. Of course, this is not to diminish the fact that the majority of the blame rests with her parents, who inculcated her into their tradition and seek to enforce it on her even though she now has doubts about its value. A culture or tradition that reduces the agency and freedom of individuals in matters like this is not worthy of the respect you accord it because it violates fundamental human rights which transcend cultures.

  3. Josef,

    Where, even, to begin? Even leaving aside for the moment the fact that your response fails to account for the full range of my student’s emotional experience, much less her multicultural reality, making it a perfect illustration of the kinds of unhelpful responses that make her suspicious of talking to others about her situation, your blanket dismissal–at least this is my reading of your last sentence; if I am wrong, I am happy to be corrected–of any culture that does not value individualism over all else is offensive on its face.

  4. 4
    RonF says:

    It’s pretty clear from what Richard has said that telling this girl to completely reject her birth culture has in fact already been done – and it just simply isn’t going to happen. So repeating that is unlikely to actually help her. It doesn’t pass the “what works” test.

    I’ve been brought up as a highly individualistic person, but even I would have had a hard time rejecting my parents’ feelings (unfortunately, about 6 weeks ago that became a moot issue for me). I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that someone raised up in this culture can, or even should, be taught to reject their parents’ feelings. However, it seems unavoidable that she will encounter some conflict between what she wants to do and what her parents want her to do. She needs to come to grips with that, so that she can be happy without surrendering to the concept of passing from her father’s control to her husband’s control without ever being able to take primary responsibility for herself. Somehow she needs to prepare herself to explain both to herself and her parents where that conflict is, her regret that it’s occurring, and to reach an accommodation.

    I don’t know what she’s going to find in a “women’s studies” course, so I don’t know if that’s good advice. What she needs to find is a group of women from a similar culture who have faced the same issues and have found a way to accomodate this without totally alienating their families. Hopefully that’s what the South Asian women’s group will help her with.

  5. 5
    RonF says:

    Richard, I’ve taken a brief glance at that article you cite. I’m not sure why you chose to call this “Compulsive Heterosexuality in Action”. That article seems to be centered on women who are being expected to exist in society in culturally defined heterosexual roles vs. being able to exist in society as lesbians. While this situation fits the first part of that it seems to miss the second. This woman seems (from your description) heterosexually oriented, not homosexually oriented. So it’s not the same kind of conflict.

  6. 6
    james says:

    I certainly think it would be impolite and in some circumstances inappropriate and unhelpful to baldly state it to someone’s face, but what Josef says is absolutely right. Unlike some, I wouldn’t go so far as to say romantic love is a product of western culture. But we’re very lucky that we have tradition that places a very high value on romantic love and independence and people from other cultures are much less fortunate.

  7. 7
    james says:

    Reading that article just made me feel how dated it is, even though it’s only 30 years old. There certainly was a period when it was true and lesbianism was seen as a perversion (1920s to the 1980s maybe). But we’ve certainly moved away from that now.

  8. 8
    Yusifu says:

    There’s a lot more support for people dealing with issues of forced marriage here in the UK. Your student might be able to make connections with people from very similar backgrounds here, where the Pakistani/Indian/Bangladeshi communities are more concentrated and of longer standing. At the very least, some email contact might do a bit to ease her feelings of isolation. I just did a quick Google search of “forced marriage UK” (using rather than and found several potentially useful organizations, all clearly run by South Asians. Some might be a bit militant for her tastes, but I bet she could find friendly and appropriate ears somewhere.

  9. Thanks, Yusifu. I will pass this info along.

  10. Well, James, then I suppose it’s a good thing you don’t live in one of those cultures. I’d appreciate it, though, if from now on you’d keep your ethnocentric musings to yourself. They don’t contribute anything to the conversation.

  11. 11
    allburningup says:

    You don’t need to reject a whole culture to reject the parts of it that harm you. Refusing to accept culturally mandated mistreatment is not only helpful to you, it can perhaps also help change the culture if enough people do it. However, to change a culture (if that’s what you want to try) you do need to maintain contact with the people of that culture while simultaneously resisting harmful treatment from them as best you can. It’s difficult, painful, and sometimes dangerous. It’s certainly not the best choice for everyone. But it potentially has its rewards, not only in that you are trying to help others, but in that you may be able to avail yourself of the valuable things that this culture gives you, things which you may really need.

    Influencing a large culture is, obviously, a large task. Influencing the subculture of one particular family might be more manageable. It can be really hard to imagine yourself having the power to influence your parents, when your whole life it has been the other way. Sometimes it is possible, though. Dan Savage tells a story (video here, story starts at 2:54) about a son whose father broke both his arms and kicked him out of the house when he found out the son was gay. Fourteen years later the father apologized and wanted to reconcile. Physical assault and a 14-year separation before change happens is not exactly a happy story, but it just shows that change does happen. Sometimes.

  12. 12
    C. says:


    Note that that’s a Western family — not an Indian one. Indian families don’t work that way. It’s a hierarchy. Period. We also don’t view culture as an ala carte thing you can just excise from yourself at will. That’s a very Western concept.

    I’ve found that therapists are particularly fond of these notions. Not coincidentially, I think it’s why Indians (particularly FOB) usually find therapy to be pretty useless.

  13. 13
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    It seems like a failure to distinguish between “theoretically possible” and “realistically possible.”

    It’s theoretically possible to completely ignore your family and culture and upbringing and religion all at the same time, and to strike bravely off on your own, come what may. Which is to say that there is no ability to prove impossibility. And some folks actually do it–but the successful ones are pretty rare, I think.

    And of course it’s easy to think of it as less rare, because people who do SOME of those things are not uncommon, and people who do only ONE of those things are even more common.

    However, it’s not realistically possible for most people to do those things at the same time. It’s exponentially difficult. Which is to say that most folks don’t have the highly unusual combination of personal strengths and beliefs and circumstances which would permit them to do such a thing in a manner that has a reasonably acceptable (non-depressive, non-emotional-wreck, non-impoverishing, non-life-destroying, etc.) outcome.

    It’s probably not accurate to suggest that any particular culture makes it literally impossible. It is more accurate to suggest that certain cultures, by virtue of the cultures’ effect on circumstances and beliefs, make it much much more difficult.

  14. Ron:

    First of all, if I’ve read your comment above correctly, condolences.


    I’m not sure why you chose to call this “Compulsive Heterosexuality in Action”

    It has been a long time since I’ve read Rich’s piece and I don’t have time go back and read the whole thing through right now, but if I remember correctly this is the essay in which she articulates the concept of the lesbian continuum, by which she means a continuum of woman-identified relationships, from family connections to friendships to lovers, and she defines compulsory heterosexuality as that which moves women away from, out of, blocks them from participation in, that continuum. And even that feels to me like it unfairly simplifies what Rich is getting at in her piece.

    I don’t want to get into a semantic argument over the meaning of the word “lesbian” here because I think that will become a distraction from the question at hand–though I think that discussion is well worth having–so let me just say that I cited Rich’s article in this post because my student’s sexuality is not really the point here. The continuum Rich talks about is. In other words, whether my student is heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual or otherwise, the cultural apparatus that has been deployed from the moment of her birth to push her into heterosexual marriage, with everything that implies about gender roles, sexuality, motherhood, the kinds of relationships she is and is not allowed to have in addition to her marriage–all of that is moving her into a relational sphere which places her connections to men and not women–and not even herself–at the center. That is the machinery of compulsory heterosexuality (as Rich defined it; perhaps now we would call it heterosexism) at work in my student’s life.

    Edited for clarity.

  15. 15
    allburningup says:

    C, The woman in question is apparently westernized enough that she’s already considering cultural compromises that she can make. Western concepts aren’t useless to her. And you know, if Indian people could never be culturally different from their parents then neither I nor my recent ancestors would exist.

    But I hope my comment didn’t sound like I’m saying she should definitely make a certain choice. I just wanted to point out that for some people there could be a third option, besides rejecting your culture totally or else being crushed by it.

  16. 16
    Elusis says:

    Reading that article just made me feel how dated it is, even though it’s only 30 years old. There certainly was a period when it was true and lesbianism was seen as a perversion (1920s to the 1980s maybe). But we’ve certainly moved away from that now.

    Who’s we, you and the mouse in your pocket?

    If you think lesbians aren’t regarded as, at best, women who are making deliberately perverse choices, by a great many people living right here in the USA, then my condolences on your isolation and may I suggest that you get out a little more. I teach in an MA-level mental health program online, and have many southern and rural students, many of whom identify as “Bible-based Christians.” I assure you that this attitude is alive and well, even among those who think of themselves as compassionate and open-minded and who are to some degree willing to critically engage with their communities and cultures.

    Richard, I wonder if your community is such that there might be either a graduate training program in (counseling, marriage and family therapy, clinical social work, psychology, etc.) that has a strong multicultural focus, or individual therapists who are culturally competent with South Asian families? As you said, talking about family business is a strong taboo for your student but she shows signs of being willing to push the boundaries if she is with an accepting, knowledgeable person. I wonder if a therapist with a strong family orientation and sensitivity to (if not membership in) South Asian families might be helpful to her. I’m thinking about a couple of MFT colleagues who have written about individual, couple, and family therapy with South Asians and explored how therapy can be delivered in a way that’s culturally appropriate.

    Thanks for being such a good resource for this young woman. I hope she finds a balance she and her family can live with.

  17. Elusis:

    First, thanks for taking on James’ comment. I just didn’t have the energy for it.

    Regarding therapy, part of the problem is that she and I don’t live in the same place and since I teach at a community college, there is no such thing as a graduate program. I am kind of hoping that one of these organizations I keep telling her about will move her in that direction somehow, but I have no way of knowing and I’m really limited in terms of how much follow up I can do, in terms of time, and that I feel comfortable doing in terms of my role as her college professor.

  18. 18
    gin-and-whiskey says:


    Seems like this sort of scenario is almost tailor-made for the Internet: lack of local services + a problem which can’t be discussed openly.

    I haven’t any knowledge of the subject matter. But I’ve come to believe that almost anything can be found online these days, and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a good support network online. Somewhere.

    If you want to assist her, it might be enough just to help her find private space with an online connection and start to steer her towards the right groups.

  19. 19
    RonF says:

    Richard – yes, you did. Mom had been living in “assisted living” after Dad died for about 3 years, but last Mothers’ Day (of all days) it got to the point that she could no longer be sustained there and we put her into a nursing home. She declined shockingly fast after that and died in September at age 86. We knew it was coming but we had no idea it would be so fast. I was fighting a MRSA infection at the time and was already pretty low.

    We had a graveside service that my oldest brother and I wrote and conducted. Both my brothers and I and our wives had some stories to tell as well (my wife was 15 when she first got to know my Mom) and there was laughter enough as well as tears. Mom was cremated as Dad had been. Both their ashes were put into a cherrywood box and were interred. The stone had Dad’s name and birth and death dates on the right, Mom’s info on the left. In the middle are two intertwined rings with the date of their marriage on it. My oldest brother was struck by the realization that he is now the oldest member of the family. After the service we did what we always do at family gatherings – got together and played poker and drank whiskey and wine until all hours, talking about Mom and Dad.

  20. 20
    Ampersand says:

    Ron, I’m very sorry for your loss.

  21. 21
    Simple Truth says:

    RonF: Condolences and hugs.

    RJN: I’m glad you were able to be there for your student. It’s a tough road she’s on, and people like you make the difference between complete isolation and hope.

  22. 22
    Myca says:

    Aw, Jeez, Ron, that’s super difficult. I wish you and your family only the best.

  23. 23
    RonF says:

    Thanks, everyone. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it on here. It’s just kind of the way it happened. It’s been a difficult couple of months. Mom saw a lot in her day. Born and raised on a farm between WW I and WW II, she married Dad at the end of WW II, had 3 boys and two miscarriages, sang a strong and clear soprano in the church choir, was a Den Mother for all of us. She was determined that her sons would know how to cook, clean and sew “so you won’t have to get married just to be able to take care of yourself” and Dad didn’t say no. I still tell the kids in the Troop who show up with no uniform and claim it’s in the wash “Eleven years old is plenty old enough to wash your own clothes.” Not that she worried too much about us getting dirty. Two of us would carry the third one home with great regularity and she just patched us up (put 3 stitches in my scalp herself once) and sent us back out to have at it again. She had us growing vegetables on a 1/4 acre plot at our house and what we didn’t eat us boys sold to people driving by. Picture me as a 9-year-old sitting at a bench Dad built on the roadside selling green beans and squash and making change out of an open cash box – and no one worried that someone would whack me on the head and take the money, or me for that matter. In her day she was 5′ 10″ with shoulders like a linebacker and not shy about corporal punishment. I guess with 3 active sons that all grew 6′ 2″ or taller and a husband who was on the road in sales she had to take charge. Mom is where I got my love of reading and singing. The hymnal that she sang from in church in the ’50’s and ’60’s is now in the pew where I sing from on Sundays. I’m just starting to stop talking about her in the present tense. Anyway, thanks for the good thoughts.

  24. 24
    Elusis says:

    Ron – thanks for telling us about your mom. I’m sorry it’s been such a difficult time.

  25. 25
    RootedInBeing says:

    Good social work skills. Some people don’t have an ounce of cultural competence (like good ol’ Josef above), and although I would say Islam has nothing to do with this very cultural aspect of the girl’s life – being that her family is Muslim I am sure it is used as a religious issue.

    If she presents herself as heterosexual, how is it compulsory heterosexuality at work? Was it because you did not ask her if she identifies as LGBTQ? Or are you speaking more in regards to the parents, where marrying a girl off means every daughter is assumed heterosexual?

    Anyways, excellent post!

  26. RootedInBeing:

    and although I would say Islam has nothing to do with this very cultural aspect of the girl’s life – being that her family is Muslim I am sure it is used as a religious issue.

    This is always such a tricky question thing for me because it assumes that there is some pure form of Islam that exists separately from the cultural context in which it is practiced, and I just find that argument a difficult one to accept. I agree that this woman would almost certainly be facing the same kinds of pressures no matter what her religion was, since the pressures do not necessarily originate in any given religious tradition, but for her, in her particular circumstance–which, of course, is also the circumstance for the women in her community–these pressures are (she experiences them as) Muslim pressures. I mean (to talk, for a moment, about the religious group I know most about), when Jewish women in certain orthodox communities are subject to analogous kinds of pressure, it is not simply a cultural phenomenon separate from Jewish tradition; it is the weight of a particular strand of Jewish tradition, embedded in and embedding a cultural practice that did not originate in Judaism, that is being brought down upon them.

    I also recognize, of course, the danger that saying what I have just said can easily be co-opted by Islamophobic or antisemitic rhetoric, but I just think it’s counterproductive to suggest that any religious tradition exists as completely separable from the cultural context in which it is practiced.

    If she presents herself as heterosexual, how is it compulsory heterosexuality at work?

    See my comment above at #14.