SOLUTION: UBC The Cult of Virginity as A Purity Myth Article Summary and Analysis Essay

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AORIENNE RICH
BIBLIOGRAPHY
Rich has published nearly two dozen books of poetry. Her prose is collected in On
Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (1979), Blood, Bread, and
Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985 (1986), and What Is Found There: Notebooks on
Poetry and Politics (1993). Her book on motherhood, Of Woman Born: Motherhood
as Experience and Institution, was published· in 1976. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and
Prose, edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi andAlbert Gelpi (1993), offers selections
from the whole span of Rich’s career, along with critical essays on her work. The best
biographical source remains Wendy Martin’s “Adrienne Rich,” in American Writers,
supplement I, part 2 (1979). For more recent information, see the entry on Rich in
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series 53 (1997).
Reading Adrienne Rich: Reviews and ReVisions 1951-1981, edited by Jane Roberta
Cooper (1984), is a collection of critical responses to Rich. A book-length treatment
of Rich’s feminist work Is Liz Yorke’s Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics and the Body
(I997). Alice Templeton’s The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist
Poetics (1994) focuses primarily on the poetry. Two broader studies that consider
Rich’s contribution to feminism are noteworthy: Krista Ratcliff’s Anglo-American
Feminist Challenges to the Rhetorical Tradition: Virginia Woolf, Mary Daly, Adrienne
Rich (1996) and Sabine Sielke’s Fashioning the Female Subject: The Intertextual Networking of Dickinson, Moore, and Rich (1997). Both biographical sources noted above
also offer good working bibliographies of Rich’s own writings and of critical responses
to the work.
.
From Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence l
Foreword (1983)
I want to say a little ·~bout the way “Compulsory ~eterosexuality” was originally conceived and the context in which we are now living. It was written
in part to c~allenge the erasure of lesbian existepce from so m~ch of scholarly feminist literatur~, an erasure which I felt (~nd feel) to be not just antilesbian, but anti-feminist in its consequences, and to distort the experience
of heterosexual women as well. It was not writt~n to widen divisions but to
encourage heterosexual feminists to examine he~erosexuality as a political
institution which Hisempowers women-and to cltange it. I also hoped that
other lesbians would feel the depth and breadth of woman identification and
woman bonding tha~ has run like a continuous though stifled theme through
the heterosexual experience, and that this would become increasingly a politically activating impulse, not simply a validation of personal lives. I wanted
the essay to suggest new kinds of criticism, to incite new questions in clasl!rooms and academic journals, and to sketch, at least, some bridge over the
gap between lesbian and feminist. I wanted, at the very least, for feminists
to find it less possible to read, write, or teach from a perspec~ive of unexamined heterocentricity.
.
Within the three years since I wrote “Compulsory HeterosexuaJity”-with
this energy of hope and desire-the pressures to conform in a society increasingly conservative in mood have become more intense. The New Right’!pl
I. This essay was first published In Signs: Journ .. 1
of Women in Cult”,e ….d Society (I 980). The
shorter version printed here originally appe,ared in
Adrien …. Rich’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Barbars
Charlesworth Gelpi snd A1bert Gelpl (1993); the
asterisks mark their deletions.
2. Social or cultural conservatives who stres. “0called moral and Ufamily” values, and who are often
COMPULSORY HETEROSEXUALITY AND LESBIAN EXISTENCE
I
1763
messages to women have been. precisely, that we are the emotional and
sexual property of men, and that the autonomy and equality of women
threaten family, religion, and state. The institutions by which women have
traditionally been controlled-patriarchal motherhood, economic exploitation, the nuclear family, compulsory heterosexuality~are being strengthened by legislation, religious fiat, media imagery, and efforts at censorship.
In a worsening economy, the single mother trying to support her children
confronts the feminization of poverty which Joyce Miller of the National
Coalition of Labor Union “‘omen has named one of the major issues of the
1980s. The lesbian, unless in disguise, faces discrimination in hiring and
harassment and violence in the street. Even within feminist-inspired institutions such as battered-women’s shelters and Women’s Studies programs,
open lesbians are fired and others warned to stay in the closet. The retreat
into sameness-assimilation for those who can manage it-is the most passi”(~ and debilitating of responses to political repression, economic insecurity,
and a renewed open season on difference.
I want to note that documentation of male violence against womenwithin the home especially-has been accumulating rapidly in this period.
At the same time, in the realm of literature which depicts woman bonding
and woman identification as essential for female survival, a steady stream of
writing and criticism has been coming from women of color in general and
lesbians of color in particular-the latter group being even more profoundly
erased in academic feminist scholarship by the double bias of racism and
homophobia. 3
There has recently been an intensified debate on female sexuality among
feminists and lesbians, with lines often furiously and bitterly drawn, with
sadomasochism and pornography as key words which are variously defined
according to who is talking. 4 The depth Qf women’s rage and fear regarding
sexuality and its relation to power and pain is real, even when the dialogue
sounds simplistic, self-righteous, or like parallel monologues.
Because of all these developments, there are parts of this essay that I would
word differently, qualify, or expand if I were writing it today. But I continue’
sdf-id”ntified Christians. They played a huge role
in the U.S. election of President Ronald Reagon in
19R().
.~. S””. for example, PAULA GUNN “LLEN, TI,e
Sm.Ted I-Ioop: Rec01Jeri”s tl,e Fen7;”ille in Am.er;·
(;,111
J”,linn Traaitions (Boston: Beacon, 1986);
Ht,th Brant, ed., A Gat1rering oISpirit: V,’iriJlg IJud
;'”‘ b.l’ Nor,l •.4.merican 1.ldin”, Wo”.,.”,,, (!·1011tpclier,
VL, Sinister Wisdom Book.,
1984), (;LOIUA
t “‘-iZ LDLiA and Cherrfe Moraga, etls., ‘n,i!O Bddge
Cal/ed l1y Back: Writings by Rac/kal Hhnr”lf of
Colo,- (,y.:ltertown, Mass.: Persephone, 1981 j dis·
,ributcd by Kitchen Table IWomen of Color Press,
Alban)” !,;.Y.); J. R. Roberts, Black l_eshia …: An
Allllo,,,,.d Bibliography (Tallahassee, 1’1 •. , Naiad,
19~ I·” 1l.’RIlARA SMITH, ed., Home Girls: A Blacl.
Fe”,i,,;”t !tlt.hokJgy (Albany. N.Y.: Kiteh .. n Table I
\lomen ofColar Press, 1984). As Lorraine Bethel
and Barbara Smith pointed out in Conditions 5:
TI,e Blnck ~Vomen’s Issue (I980), .. great deal of
fiction by Black women depicts primary relation·
ship!’. hetween women. [ would like to cite hel’e the
wurk of Ama Ata Aidoo, Toni Cade Balnbara,
Buclli Elnecheta, Bessie Head, ZOHA N(~ALE IIUR·
‘To”. !lice Walker. Donna Allegra, Hed Jordan
lruhaleclu, Auc1re Lorde, Ann Alien Shockley,
among others, who write directly 3!O Blcu.:k k·!Obians.
For fiction by other lesbians of color, see Elly
Bulkin, ed., Lesl>i”n Fiction: An AntholollY (Watertown, Mass.: Persephone, 1981).
~ .
See also, for accounts of contemporary Jewishlesbian .,xistent’e. Evdyn Torton Beck, ed., Nice
Jewisl, Girls: A Lesbi”” Anthology (Watertown,
Mass.: Persephnne, 1982; distributed by Crossing
Press, Trumansburg, N.Y.); Alice Bloch, Lifetime
Gr4.arnlltee
(\’:-otertown,
Mass.:
Pcrscphone,
1982); and Melanle Kaye-Kantrowitz and Il’ena
K1epfisz, eds., n,e Tribe of Dina: AJewish Wom,,”‘s
Ant/lology (Montpelier, Vt.: Sinister Wisdom
Books, 1986).
The earliest formulation that I know of heterosexuality as an institution was in the lesbian·
feminist paper The Furies, founded In 1971. For·a
collection of articles from that paper, see Nancy
Myron and Charlotte Bunch, .,ds., Lesbianism ‘!lid
tIle Women’s Movement (Oakland, Callf.: Diana
Press, 1975; di.tributed by Crossing Press, Trumansburg, N.Y.) [Rich’s note).
4. The so-called sex wars within feminism-with
the status of sadomasochism a key Issue as femi·
nists argued about pornography-flared in the
wake of an academic conference, C1Towarc1 a Puli
tics of Sexuality.” held at Barnard College in April
1982.
a
1764
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AORIENNE RICH
to think that heterosexual feminists will draw political strength for change
from taking a critical stance toward the ideology which demands heterosexuality, and that lesbians cannot assume that we are untouched by that ideology and the institutions founded upon it. There is nothing about such a
critique that requires us to think of ourselves as victims, as having been
brainwashed or totally powerless. Coercion and compulsion are among the
conditions in which women have learned to recognize our strength. Resistance is a rnajor theme in this essay and in the study of women’s lives, if we
know what we are looking for.
I
Biologically men have only one innate orientation-,-a sexual one that
draws them to women,-while women have two innate orientations, sexual toward men and reproductive toward their young. 5
I was a woman terribly vulnerable, critical, using femaleness as a sort of
standard or yardstick to measure and discard men. Yes-something like
that. I was an Anna who invited defeat from men without ever being
conscious of it. (But I am conscious of it. And being conscious of it
means I shall leave it all behind me and become-but what?) I was stuck
fast in an emotion common to women of our time” that can turn them
bitter, or Lesbian, or solitary. Yes, that Anna during that time was …
[Another blank line across the page:]6
The bias of compulsory heterosexuality, through which iesbi;;tn.expeiience’
is perceived on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent or simply rendered
invisible, could be illustrated from many texts other than the two just preceding.’ The assumption made by Rossi, that women are “innately” sexllally
oriented only toward men, and that made by Lessing, that the lesbian is
simply acting out of her bitterness toward men, are by no means theirs alone;
these assumptions are widely current in literature and in the’sociafsciences.
I am concerned here with two other matters as well: first, how ~md why
women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co~workers,
lovers, community has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding and
disguise; and second, the virtual or total neglect of lesbian existence in a
wide range of writings, including feminist scholarship. Obviously there is a
connection here. I believe that much feminist theory and criticism is
stranded on this shoal.
My organizing impulse is the belief that it is nqt enough for feminist
thought that specifically lesbian texts exist. Any theory or cultural/political
creation that treats lesbian existence as a marginal or less “natural” phenomenon, as mere “sexual preference,” or as the mirror image of either heterosexual or male homosexual relations is profoundly weakened thereby,
whatever its other contributions. Feminist theory can no longer afford merely
to voice a toleration of “lesbianism” as an “alternative life style” or make
5. Alice Rossi, “Children and Work in the Lives of
Women,” paper delivered at the University of Arizona, Tucson, February 1976 [Rich’s note].
6. Doris Le.sing, The Golden Notebook (1962;
reprint, New York: Bantam, 1977), p. 480 [Rich’s
note].
COMPULSORY HETEROSEXUALITY AND LESBIAN EXISTENCE
I
1765
token allusion to lesbians. A feminist critique of compulsory heterosexual
orientation for women is long overdue. In this exploratory paper, I shall try
to show why.
‘”
‘” ‘”
II
If women are the earliest sources of emotional caring and physical nurture
for both female and male children, it would seem logical” from a feminist
perspective at least, to pose the following questions:’whether the search for
love and tenderness in both sexes does’ riot originally lead toward women;
why in fact women would ever redirect that search; why species survival, the
means of impregnation, and emotional/erotic relationships should ever have
become so rigidly identified with each other; and why such violent strictures
should be found necessary to enforce women’s total emotional, erotic loyalty
and subservience to men. I doubt that enough feminist scholars and theorists
have taken the pains to acknowledge the societal forces which wrench
women’s emotional and erotic energies away from themselves and other
women and from woman-identified values. Th~se forces, as I shall try to
show, range from literal physical enslavement to the disguising and distorting
of possible options.
I do not assume that mothering by women is a “sufficient cause” oflesbian
existence. But the issue of mothering by Women has been much in the air
of late, usually accompanied ‘by the View that’ increased parenting by men
would minimize antagonism between the sexes and equalize the sexual
imbalance of power of males over females. These discussions are carried on
without reference to compulsory heterosexuality as a phenomenon, let alone
as an ideology. I do not wish to psychologize here, but rather to identify
sources of male power. I believe large numbers of men could, in fact, undertake child care DJ; a large scale without radically altering’ the ‘balance of male
power in a male-identified society.
In her essay “The Origin of the Family,” Kathleen Gough lists eight characteristics of rt’Uile power in archaic and contemporary societies which I
would like ‘to use’ as a framework: “men’s ability to deny women sexuality or
to force it upon them; to command or exploit their labor to control their
produce; to (:ontrol or rob them of their children; to confine them phys~ally
and prevent their movements; to use them as objects in male transactions;
to cramp their creativeness; or to withhold from them large areas of the
society’s knowledge and cultural attainments.”? (Gough does not perceive
these power characteristics as specifically enforcing heterosexuality, only as
producing sexu~l inequality.) Below, Gough’s words appear in italics; the
elaboration of each of her categories, in brackets, is my own.
Characteristics of male power include the pawer of men
1. to deny women [their own] sexuality-[by means of clitoridectomy
and infibulation;” chastity belts; punishment, including death, for
7. I

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