Compulsory hexterosexuality?

I have just been severely put off an otherwise interesting book on medieval gender (Simon Gaunt, Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature), by its sloppy use of terminology and lack of historical perspective. He starts quoting Gayle Rubin and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and then comes out with the ridiculous claim: ‘homophobia, like misogyny is an inevitable product of patriarchy’. Just how culture-bound can you get? Ancient Greece and Rome were undeniably patriarchal societies, but you can hardly call them homophobic.

And what on earth does ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ mean anyhow? It may work as a concept for modern Western society, but it certainly does not for many premodern societies. Gayle Rubin (in her classic article ‘The Traffic in Women’), trying to locate ‘obligatory homosexuality’ in prehistory, claims ‘the incest taboo presupposes a prior, less articulate taboo on homosexuality’. But again this theory doesn’t cope with societies (classical or other) that have incest taboos, but no taboos on homosexuality. You don’t have to assume that incest taboos are for eugenic reasons to see that incestuous relations which are potentially fertile are likely to be more socially disruptive than intrinsically non-fertile relations (since they are more likely to be discovered and have more consequences) and therefore that it is those ones which get mentioned. (As an interesting aside, Judaism developed prohibitions on sleeping with one’s grandmother later than with one’s granddaughter).

The term ‘compulsory homosexuality’ seems to me to be unhelpful in several ways. Firstly, what you can often see in the modern world is not ‘compulsory’ but ‘presumed’ heterosexuality. It is assumed that people will be straight and systems/patterns have been developed which follow these assumptions. For example, if I am talking to a woman I’ve just met and she says ‘my partner works at X’, I would probably say: ‘What does he do?’ This is an assumption on my part of the sex of the partner (although one that is likely to be accurate nine times out of ten). If I was wrong, I would expect to apologise and then carry on with the conversation as normal.

Such kinds of heteronormativity may be very irritating for gays, but I don’t think can accurately be called ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. As an analogy, there’s a difference between assuming all people are right-handed and forcing them to be. ‘Compulsory heterosexuality’ seems to me to require more social pressure. But even here, there seems to be a tendency to conflate together several different demands made historically by society on individuals:

1) ‘compulsory procreation’ – that individuals must reproduce
this was common in ancient Mediterranean cultures (e.g. Greek/Roman), but is entirely compatible with any number of homosexual relationships combined with marriage

2) ‘compulsory non-homosexuality’ – that individuals must:
a) not desire their own sex
b) not engage in same-sex sexual acts
these, I would say, were the most common medieval demands. Note that these both allow a positive valuation of asexuality/celibacy.

3) ‘compulsory heterosexuality’- that individuals must:
a) desire the opposite sex
b) engage in opposite-sex sexual acts
these are different from 2) because they mean that asexuality and celibacy are no longer valued. Instead lack of opposite-sex desire/activity is taken as a sign of same-sex desire/activity.

By this definition compulsory heterosexuality is obviously commonplace today, especially in certain macho environments. The interesting question is about the history of this and I think it’s quite complex. There are medieval examples of such attitudes (for example where celibate priests are presumed to be sodomites or when claustration is said to be essential to preserve the chastity of monks/nuns) but I don’t think it’s the dominant discourse until the end of the Middle Ages or even later. I think for men the Reformation did pretty much endorse the unnaturalness of male celibacy and that more or less remained the normal view. For women, I’m less sure. I think asexuality in women retained at least some of its positive value for far longer. I suspect, for example, that it was only in late Victorian period (or maybe even later), that a pair of spinsters living together would come to seem suspicious.

I don’t follow the view of some scholars like James Schultz, who think that the term heterosexuality isn’t useful in medieval studies. I think there is ‘presumed heterosexuality’ inherent in most medieval texts, unlike in classical ones. (Once you can no longer have debates about whether the love of boys or girls is better, you know presumed heterosexuality has come in). But I don’t think ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ is a useful term to be using, unless you think rather more carefully (and historically) than most scholars of gender seem to do about the topic.


2 thoughts on “Compulsory hexterosexuality?

  1. Historians haven’t worked much on bisexuality, and I think it’s very difficult for them to do so for most historical periods, for reasons I’ll explain.

    There seem to be two main ways of defining bisexuality. One way is anyone who has sexual encounters with both men and women. On that criteria, the vast majority of ‘gays’ historically would actually be bisexual. (Even Oscar Wilde, for example, had children). You can in theory then have a continuum based on proportions of sexual encounters, but that’s not very satisfactory, because it’s not clear what you ‘count’.

    The alternative (which I take from John Boswell) is to define as gay those with an erotic preference for their own sex. That seems a reasonable, because a transhistorical definition: there seem to have been such people in all societies we know. No society has ever been entirely ‘straight’ (as some African homophobes claim). On that definition, then bisexuals would be those who do not have an erotic preference between sexes and you can have a more useful continuum between exclusive same-sex preference and exclusive opposite sex preference. (Note that this kind of definition can be used analogously for other sexual preferences e.g. you can similarly discuss those whose erotic prefercnes are for darker-skinned sexual partners, those who prefer lighter-skinned partners and those who are indifferent).

    I think the second of these definitions of bisexuality is more useful, but historically both are extremely difficult to explore in societies which are homophobic (as Western society has been for most of the last 2000 years). The number of sexual encounters with each sex is heavily influenced by social constraints (so that e.g. gays are likely to try far harder to adhere to stright sexual mores, such as by marrying, in a homophobic society). Similarly, people aren’t likely to reveal their true erotic preferences in a society where they can be ostracised/persecuted for them.

    I suspect that historically the majority of bisexual people would have ‘passed as straight’; they would have stuck with ‘straight sex’ and got their sexual fulfilment in that socially acceptable way. The ‘sexual deviants’ we see in the historical records are largely those who could not find any satisfaction within ‘straight sex’ and so were forced into socially unacceptable practices, i.e. those whose sexual preferences were exclusively or almost exclusively same sex.

    All this means that I don’t think with the kind of historical material we have you can say much useful about bisexuality in Christian Europe, although you might be able to say more about either classical or modern Europe.


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