Either you are a flaming lesbian who used to have a huge poster of Jacob from Twilight in her bedroom, or you know one. But if sexuality is innate, why do so many queer people have heterosexual ‘crushes’ and even relationships? The answer is comphet.
Comphet, pronounced “comp-het”, is a contraction of compulsory heterosexuality. The phrase was coined by feminist essayist and poet Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”. Rich argued that heterosexuality is not a natural state of being but rather a political system of oppression propped up by the patriarchy to uphold the “male right of physical, economical, and emotional access” to women. Basically, misogyny, patriarchy and heterosexuality are all wrapped up in one male-centric package. In heterosexual relationships, the power dynamic of an inferior woman and a dominant man helps to emulate and uphold the same power dynamics in wider society. Translation: heterosexuality is very beneficial to men.
The concept of compulsory heterosexuality began here as a political theory in the radical lesbian movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s. The modern contraction comphet has taken on a different but related meaning. It doesn’t have a dictionary definition, nor even a satisfying urban dictionary definition but I’ll define it as this: comphet refers to the pattern of queer people, especially women, being socially conditioned by our heteronormative society to engage in straight behaviours.
Comphet has mostly been studied in terms of lesbianism, and this is because women are much more likely to suffer from it. Comphet and the patriarchy go hand in hand. For their whole lives, women are defined by their relationships with men. They are expected to please men by looking and acting feminine, teen magazines teach girls how to get boys to like them, women’s magazines teach them how to please a man in bed. The end goal and highest achievement for a woman is to get married to a nice man, and start a family. Why do so many little girls dream about their wedding day? It’s not of their own volition that’s for sure. So with the whole world directing women onto one path, the path of heterosexuality, it can be difficult to separate how you truly feel from learned behaviour.
The discussion of comphet in (mostly online) queer circles focuses on the effects of a heteronormative society on queer-identifying people—mostly women. I first discovered it on TikTok, from a lovely lesbian named Ellie, known as @babeoftheuniverse. In her initial video, she talks about elements of comphet she resonates with and there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction.
From the comments on Ellie’s videos, I heard people mention a mysterious ‘Lesbian Masterdoc’, so I decided to dig a little deeper.
As it turns out, the Lesbian Masterdoc isn’t as mysterious as it sounds – it’s a google doc that floats around on the internet within queer circles. It provides a much more detailed explantation of comphet and also provides a very comprehensive bullet point list of the ways comphet can manifest. In fact it answers the age old Jacob from Twilight issue, stating a common instance of comphet as being “Only/mostly being attracted to unattainable, disinterested, or fictional guys or guys you never or rarely interact with. (Such as teachers, married or older men, and men that live far away)”. The answer then is that rather than genuine attraction, comphet causes queer people to assign feelings of desire toward whomever they feel they should – in this instance, whoever all the other young girls are idolising. There is also zero chance of this crush being reciprocated by Taylor Lautner, which makes crushing on him a pretty safe game. The Masterdoc states that if a crush were to be reciprocated in any way it is common for the queer person to immediately lose interest. But what about attraction towards someone who is accessible? What about a whole relationship? Here’s where it starts to get a lot more complicated.
Comphet is not a one size fits all explanation, and many of the manifestations of it as put down by the Lesbian Masterdoc outright contradict each other. This is because it can show up in a lot of different ways and queer experiences, whilst sharing general similarities, can differ vastly from one another. Your lived experiences, belief systems and personality all come into play here. Queer people engage in heterosexual behaviour and relationships all the time. Whether because they feel it’s what they are supposed to do, whether they desire male approval and mistake this for attraction, or a myriad of other reasons.
The list of feelings or experiences in the Masterdoc are not always specific to lesbianism or queerness, and on the other hand, you do not need to relate to every bullet point in order for it to apply to you. For one, it is written through the lens of lesbianism and directed at women, thus excluding a large group of queer people. It also positions attraction to men as the only sexual norm and fails to recognise the privilege lesbianism receives from being monosexual, as opposed to bisexuality or pansexuality which face just as much, if not more, discrimination and erasure. It goes without saying but the experience of trans people in relation to comphet deserves much more critical attention, and I hope someone writes that google doc—I’ll be glad to see it. However, the Masterdoc is a good first step on the road towards thinking critically about your feelings and responses toward love, sex, gender and relationships, and a good first step to better understanding yourself.
We hear a lot about queer people who ‘just knew’ they were queer but that narrative is actually far less common than you might believe. Particularly for women, for whom sexuality is tied up in misogyny and patriarchal expectations, it can take years to fully unpack the effect of comphet; some women never do.
Thankfully, however, we are now in an age where communication is easier than it has ever been. However you identify, I hope this discussion of comphet piques your interest and leads to you questioning the way things have always been, looking for the ‘why’ in behaviour, and examining your own actions and reactions. This can be scary but it is so fulfilling. I encourage you to find women, trans and non-binary people you admire on social media, listen to and learn from them. Centre people of colour in these discussions, feminism must be intersectional to survive. Although virtual, being connected to a network of people who are willing to share their knowledge and experience with you is so empowering, and it will be our strength in numbers and shared voice that lift us up. Last but not least, f*ck the patriarchy.
Words by Jackie du Bled
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