I often get life realizations while watching videos on TikTok. Most of the time, I either feel attacked or seen by the subject of the video or by the tone of the creator. However, on rare occasions, I feel understood. These TikToks in particular cause me to think deeper beyond scrolling through the app.

For example, the videos I found on TikTok discussing “compulsory heterosexuality” not only validated my bisexuality but also caused me to rethink binary ideas around sexuality I internalized from childhood. Namely, when I was younger, I molded myself into a person who was more appealing towards men.

I did this because I thought seeking male approval and attention was what was expected of me as a “straight” woman. In turn, I frequently entered romantic relationships with men, falsely believing they were my only option. Looking back, I was clearly lying to myself for years, which greatly damaged my self-esteem. And it seems many other women had similar experiences.

On one hand, it’s comforting to know I wasn’t alone in navigating this conflict. But I find it disheartening so many others felt pressured to prove they were heterosexual when they weren’t.

Though, because of the revelations I got from these TikTok videos, I felt inspired. So much so, I wanted to further research “compulsory heterosexuality,” and discover where it came from. Turns out, the phrase was coined in 1980 by Adrienne Rich in her book titled,  Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.

In the piece, Rich argues the idea of heterosexuality within a white supremacist, patriarchal society serves as a social and political institution, specifically imposed on women to make us subordinate to men. Rich critiques the use of heterosexuality as a means for control and rejects the false perception that men have a right to the physical, economic, and emotional access of women. 

To make more sense of how compulsory heterosexuality affects your daily life, here are some of the characteristics of the phenomenon:

  1. To deny women their own sexuality: the destruction of sexuality displayed throughout history in sacred documents.
  2. Forcing male sexuality upon women: rape, incest, torture, a constant message that men are better, and superior in society to women.
  3. Exploiting their labor to control production: women have no control over the choice of children, abortion, birth control, and no access to knowledge of such things.
  4. Control over their children: lesbian mothers are seen as unfit for motherhood, malpractice in society and the courts to further benefit the man.
  5. Confinement: women unable to choose their own wardrobe (feminine dress seen as the only way), full economic dependence on the man, limited life in general.
  6. Male transactions: women given away by fathers as gifts or hostesses by the husband for their own benefit, pimping women out.
  7. Cramp women’s creativeness: males are seen as more assimilated in society (they can participate more, culturally more important).
  8. Men withholding attainment of knowledge: “Great Silence” (never speaking about lesbian existence in history), discrimination against women professionals.

Ultimately, the influence of patriarchy penetrates so deeply into our society that being heterosexual is seen as a default. Because of this, however, compulsory heterosexuality is extremely damaging to queer youth because it propagates being heterosexual as the norm.

This also means positive representation in media matters, as it can be queer children’s first exposure to understanding their identity. Unfortunately, LGBTQIA+ representation in media often rings hollow or is nonexistent altogether; what’s more, children and young adults are all too often exposed to downright harmful stereotypes.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, in an act of censorship by Hollywood elites, the Hays Code was implemented to help avoid scandals. In turn, movies had to uphold certain standards of “respectability” for the film to be seen, particularly by white and conservative audiences.

Any queer-coded character(s) had to be portrayed as evil or weak and had to die by the end of the movie to show good Catholic values always prevail. Decades later, the Hays Code is no longer in effect; however, the negative impact of the guidelines remains in the public’s subconscious. 

As someone who was raised Catholic, I was often exposed to hateful rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQIA+ community. It took a lot of time to realize how wrong these views were and the effect preconceived ideas and oppressive systems had on me and continue to have on others.

Unlearning things you were taught while you were younger will always be difficult. We put a lot of trust in the media we intake, our parents, our peers, our education system, and our life experiences to shape how we should navigate the world. And although it might be hard to acknowledge things you were taught about sexuality were false, short-sighted, or narrow-minded. It’s an even better feeling to realize you can grow and become more knowledgeable on the infinite spectrum of sexuality that doesn’t solely revolve around cis-men.

So, we must combat our comfort zones and be proactive in our learning. In this case, we must collectively stop assuming heteronormativity as the only way to exist. We have progressed from viewing women as property to us gaining our rightful autonomy and being independent of men. We can continue striving for equity and equality for all women and queer folks by subverting compulsory heterosexuality.

We now know, not everyone will be or is straight, so we shouldn’t pigeonhole LGBTQIA+ youth or create environments wherein we portray queerness as abnormal. 

I’m glad TikTok has become a safe space for different people to talk about topics that would otherwise go unnoticed or be considered inappropriate by other forms of media. Ultimately, learning from other’s personal stories helps make the world feel less small and filled with so many more options and opportunities.

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  • Theresa Personna

    Theresa has a deep love for sustainability, animation, and women empowerment. When Theresa isn't writing, she's always ready to rant about Avatar: The Last Airbender or Donald Glover to anyone willing to listen.