Rape and “Compulsive Heterosexuality”

21:26 Mon 18 Jan 2010. Updated: 14:14 25 Jan 2010
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This post at Yes Means Yes! is an excellent overview of how the profoundly unhealthy culture of American high schools socializes boys to have negative and domineering attitudes towards women. The post is a review of Dude, You’re a Fag, an academic study of student ethnography and behavior at a Northern California high school. While the degree to which the behavior in the school is typical can be debated, it certainly seems to me that it’s certainly not a total aberration. I think a key paragraph is this one:

[Male sexual aggression in this context] has little to do with sexual orientation or desire and everything to do with a gender performance that positions the boys in relation to other boys.

I don’t think this is all that controversial, but I do think it’s important.

Milder forms of this persist throughout contemporary Western culture; the common perception that a heterosexual guy who lacks female sex partners is a “loser” is directly related to the same conception of masculinity. The assignment of status on the basis of advertised sexual partners is a major driver of this behavior. More interesting to me right now are two tangents not explored in the article; the first is the question of what kind of environment leads to this kind of cultural setup. Not all high schools are the same, but more than that, I don’t believe for a moment that this culture is somehow “natural” and that teenagers left to their own devices would inevitably end up with it.

Apart from the larger cultural factors (messages from television, other media, and so on) which clearly contribute, the organization of a school very likely contributes also—specifically, I strongly suspect that the importance of social status to individuals increases as their degree of autonomy decreases. At the same time, the impact of this is not to produce greater individuality—more likely to produce problems for administrators—but rather an enforced conformity. Enforcement of this particular kind of conformity flows fairly directly into homophobia and “slut-shaming”, with attendant ill effects.

The other tangent that occurs to me is outwards towards society as a whole, and specifically towards marriage—I’m reminded of a scene from Scorsese’s The Departed, in which Captain Ellerby (played by Alec Baldwin) tells Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon): “Marriage is an important part of getting ahead. It lets people know you’re not a homo. A married guy seems more stable. People see the ring, they think ‘at least somebody can stand the son of a bitch.’ Ladies see the ring, they know immediately that you must have some cash, and your cock must work.” The message here seems consistent: a (very) public relationship with a woman establishes male in terms of status, and is therefore important for all kinds of reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with desire for, attraction to, love for, or even liking, that woman. The line about stability is also telling, as what Ellerby means by stability can more or less be swapped out for “conformity”.

“Compulsive heterosexuality” is the term applied by Pascoe to this kind of gender policing, and it makes sense, although perhaps not as much sense as “compulsory heterosexuality”, but that latter phrase is somewhat overloaded due to the contents of the essay in which Adrienne Rich coined it. “Compulsive” still works, however, given that many people are not necessarily going to understand the ways in which their own drives may have been shaped by cultural conditioning.

Just to be clear, this isn’t an attack on heterosexuality, heterosexual relationships, long-term relationships, or marriage—it’s an attack on participating in any of those things for reasons other than being into your partner(s) or being into the sex qua sex.

3 Responses to “Rape and “Compulsive Heterosexuality””

  1. Helen Says:

    Hmmm. I think the American high school is a very particular toxic environment with its own self-perpetuating culture, from what I have heard – gender prescriptions and compulsory heterosexuality are the norm in Irish and British schools too, but I have a feeling the culture is not as universally toxic. What do you think?

    As for Rich, every word of that essay makes perfect sense to me. But then, I’m just a bolshy lez ;-)

  2. Tadhg Says:

    I agree that the culture is more toxic in the US, but there are plenty of commonalities, and my own interests draw me to the commonalities in conformity, status judgment/scarcity, and denial of autonomy.

    Without getting too into the Rich essay, which I haven’t read all of, I’ll say that it seems like a necessary critique but I’m deeply wary of anything either putting forward universal prescriptions or suggesting universal biological (or otherwise “innate”) drivers for behavior, and those appear to be significant aspects of the essay. (I’m also not too big a fan of McKinnon.)

  3. Graham Says:

    I love that term compulsive heterosexuality.

    It reminds me of someone, somewhere once exclaiming: “fucking heterosexuals – they’re always at it!”

    All kidding aside, they clearly need to be rounded up and re-educated. Heterosexuals. After all “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” don’t really exist, do they?! While we’re waiting for the entire world to realise it’s bisexual, lets start spelling the terms in slightly different but vaguely annoying ways without explanation. Like, “hehterosexuality” and “honesexuality” or something? Remember you have to mispell them repeatedly and consistently or people will just think it’s a typo.


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