If you’ve seen the term Comphet (or Comp Het) around lately and want to know more, we’ve got you covered.
Comphet – short for Compulsory Heterosexuality – isn’t a new term, but it’s seeing a resurgence lately on platforms like Tiktok. In this article we’ll take you through what it means, where it originated, who uses it and some examples in pop culture… like Regina George.
If you’ve found yourself searching “am I a lesbian?”, then read on, and have faith in knowing that you aren’t alone in questioning your sexuality. In fact, this particular query is searched on Google about 1200 times a month in the UK and over 3000 times a month in the US. And this article was written by a self-identifying queer woman who’s been in your shoes.
In this article:
- Comphet meaning
- What does Heteronormative mean?
- Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence: A brief summary
- Patriarchy meaning
- Tumblr’s Am I a Lesbian master doc explained
- Compulsory Heterosexuality in film and television
When it comes to the meaning of Comphet, it can be simply defined as Compulsory Heterosexuality. Comphet or Compulsory Heterosexuality is a theory that originated in the 1980s, which argues that heterosexuality is assumed as the default sexual identity, and further enforced upon people by a patriarchal, heteronormative society.
The term Compulsory Heterosexuality was coined by Arienne Rich in a now-famous 26-page essay called Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980). This concept claims that heterosexuality is often assumed because of societal norms, with other sexual identities then falling into the category of wrong or abnormal.
Critics claim that assuming sexuality is an issue because it doesn’t allow space for individuals to explore the possibility of being something other than heterosexual. The logic of Comphet is grounded in binary gender difference, meaning that compulsory heterosexuality relies on the assumption that people are either men or women and that men and women are the proper sexual pairing.
What does Heteronormative mean?
Heteronormativity is an assumption of a person’s heterosexuality. If we break down the word heteronormativity into two parts, it’s simply the normalising of hetero relationships and identities. In doing so, a heteronormative society positions heterosexuality as the correct or preferred sexual identity with everything else being considered abnormal.
Heteronormativity is what makes heterosexuality seem natural and privileged, sort of like a default setting for people’s identities. It also positions heterosexuality as an ideal, superior to homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality etc.
Examples of heteronormativity
- Assuming that everyone (or the majority) is straight, cisgender and wants to have children
- The wife stays home with the kids while the husband goes off to work
- Penis-in-vagina intercourse—or PIV—represented in media as the only way to have ‘proper’ sex
- The assumption that men will pay for dinner or dates
- Documents that force people to check “male” or “female” boxes
- Gender reveal parties
- Phrases like “gay best friend” and “gay marriage”
- Equating sexuality with appearance, i.e. if you look masculine as woman then you must be a lesbian and vice versa
- Treatment of homosexuality as a phase
- The belief that queer people can be converted back to being straight through conversion therapy
- Assuming that queerness is a choice, while straightness is a default that requires no choice
Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence: A brief summary
In her popularised essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Adrienne Rich – who was also a poet – argues that women’s sexuality towards men is not always natural but is societally-ingrained and scripted to women. Comphet creates the belief that society is overwhelmingly heterosexual and delegitimises queer identities.
Rich argued that heterosexuality is not natural or intrinsic to humans but is a political institution that supports the patriarchal domination of men over women in society. The institution defines the standards for sexual and romantic relationships and alienates those that fall outside of those standards.
She notes that various prevalent examples in literature suggest women are “innately sexually oriented” towards men, and that women who choose to be involved with women (sexually or romantically or both) are acting out of bitterness towards men.
Patriarchal refers to a system of patriarchy, meaning ruled by men. When we say that Western society is a patriarchal one, it means that the society is controlled by men in which they use their power to their own advantage.
According to Sylvia Walby, a British sociologist, paid employment remains a key structure for disadvantaging women. Traditionally feminised professions, like teaching, nursing and caregiving remain underpaid compared to male-dominated industries despite the fact that these roles in a society provide high value to culture and the economy.
The expectation that male jobs would be paid more than feminised jobs originated in the idea that men must be the bread-winners in a relationship or family unit, while women’s work was considered a supplement to the household income.
Today, women are seen as equal participants in the workforce, generally. However, the Gender Pay Gap still exists, as does the fact that there are far more male CEOs and leaders in positions of power than there are women.
Examples of a patriarchal society
- a patriarchal legal system that may require men to sign documents on behalf of their wives, even for women’s healthcare
- the expectation to take your husband’s name in marriage
- the Gender Pay Gap
- uneven expectations of a woman’s role in domestic settings/an uneven balance of domestic work and childcare at home
- engrained views that men are more fit to rule as leaders in politics, business etc than women (and the imbalanced ratio of men to women that hold positions of power)
- male-first inheritance of wealth and property, as well as inheriting family surnames from men only
- masculine traits being viewed as more valuable than feminine traits (independent vs dependent, rational vs emotional, dominant vs submissive, active vs passive)
- Gender roles (socially-determined roles assigned to people of a particular sex) being used to place expectations on how men and women should think, speak, dress, and interact with one another. For example, gender stereotypes that men shouldn’t cry or wear pink or take up sewing, and women shouldn’t have short hair, be too muscular or earn more than her male partner.
Tumblr’s Am I a Lesbian master doc explained
The Am I a Lesbian master doc was written and published on Tumblr in 2018 by Angeli Luz under the handle @cyberlesbian. The 31-page document sets guidelines for navigating women’s understanding of their sexuality, with a look at the role of compulsory heterosexuality.
“Women are taught from a very early age that making men happy is our job. We’re supposed to be pretty for men, we’re supposed to change the way we talk so men will take us more seriously, we’re supposed to want a man’s love more than anything else. Our magazines are full of sex tips on how to better please men, our movies are about how we’re supposed to fall in love with men.“
The document is worth a look-in if you’re questioning your sexuality. Here are a few bullet points that are of note if you’re questioning:
- You expect relationships with men to be unfulfilling by default
- You like the idea of men being attracted to you, but you dislike the idea of being attracted to men
- When fantasising about men, you’re not really into the man in your fantasy. You imagine another woman in place of yourself or imagine that you’re the man in the fantasy
- You’re only attracted to fictional men, celebrities, or men that are completely unattainable (i.e. your teacher, gay men, men in established relationships etc)
- You know that lesbians exist but you think you can’t possibly be one of them because if you were, you’d know already
- You think your interest in seeing attractive women stems from the sexualisation and objectification of women in media
Compulsory Heterosexuality in film and television
From queer-coded characters like Velma and Regina George, to entire genre tropes – pop culture is chock full of Compulsory Heterosexuality. So, let’s get into it…
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Is Regina George a lesbian?
Regina George, the queen bee of Mean Girls (2004) herself. Regina displays the trademark behaviors of someone working hard to lead in the inherent racetrack of female competition; her hyper-feminine, plastic, pink look can be viewed as Regina’s dedicated performance of compulsory heterosexuality. There’s no better place to hide than in plain site. Does Regina do horrible things? Yes, undoubtedly. However, she’s also potentially a victim of the society she’s a part of.
Various tweets, blogs and articles argue the fact that Regina’s attraction for Cady (played by Lindsay Lohan) is shrouded in aggression because she’s closeted – so she terrorises Cady to keep herself hidden. Firstly, high-femme lesbians exist, and they perform an important role in society as well as in the film Mean Girls.
High-femme queer women are a seemingly more protected class of queer people because they are perceived as straight women by other straight people. In a society that makes assumptions based on aesthetics, Regina keeps herself safe within her performed heterosexuality. She is also admired to an almost god-like status at high school, but only really by other women. Other women at school are enamoured by Regina in a far more intense way than she receives male attention. Although the girls’ attention isn’t romantic or sexual — it’s clear that they need her approval. As for Janice, Regina’s ex-best friend, she’s ostracised as a lesbian – arguably to throw the scent of Regina herself.
Sex with men, to Regina George, seems far more focussed on maintaining power, i.e. the power play of dating the hottest guy at school is a move towards maintaining a public image. After all, she finds it fairly easy to cheat on Aaron Samuels, yet puts a tonne of effort into ruining Janice’s reputation and keeping rule of The Plastics. The overt display of her male relationships and obsessive policing of other girls appearances and actions nearly makes her a textbook definition of a Comp Het lesbian. At the end of the film, she even joins the field hockey team—a subtle jab at lesbian tropes.
I rest my case.
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Velma is an unusual case of a character who has moved from queer-coded to canon, meaning she has since been confirmed as a lesbian, but that wasn’t always the case. While Velma has always been suggested to be queer, it wasn’t until 2020 that Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated producer Tony Cervone confirmed Velma is a lesbian, and always has been.
The clues were there all along, in a traditional sense, like more masculine dressing compared to Daphne and few romantic interests. In fact, James Gunn, writer of the first two live-action Scooby-Doo films, tweeted: “In 2001 Velma was explicitly gay in my initial script. But the studio just kept watering it down & watering it down, becoming ambiguous (the version shot), then nothing (the released version) & finally having a boyfriend (the sequel).“
Rom-coms and perceived straightness
As someone who loves a good romantic comedy, I’m not here to bash rom-coms or those that enjoy a bit of Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Pretty Woman (1990), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), When Harry Met Sally (1989) or the like. However, the entire genre of rom-coms is one that is pretty firmly set in the idealisation of men chasing after uninterested women. Stay with me…
Adrienne Rich says: “The ideology of heterosexual romance is beamed at her from childhood out of fairy tales, television, films, advertising, popular songs, wedding pageantry.”
At the end of When Harry Met Sally, the film pretty much accepts Harry’s theory that men and women can’t be friends because sex will always end up getting in the way. But that’s not all, rom coms (especially the older ones), follow similar dynamics; the woman and the man really don’t get along to begin with, she often shows zero interest in him or considers him only as a friend, she’s likely never been in love before or suffered through a long string of failed relationships, and then one day some sort of change catalyses the romantic progression of the relationship.
And this isn’t to say all rom-coms are entirely unrealistic, or that straight love can’t look like it does on screen. But all these films imply that heterosexual love can overcome all obstacles and is universal among all people. It’s the natural inevitability that’s ubiquitous in the genre. The man and the woman always end up together, no matter what. Despite the fact that a real and inherent lack of attraction or interest in men isn’t just an obstacle to overcome, or one that would finally be proved wrong by finding the right guy.
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
Lastly, let’s talk about the esteemed classic But I’m a Cheerleader. Mostly because it’s an excellent film that deals with the gender roles and gendered expectations of men and women, but also because I personally think the film is a gem. The late-90s comedy is set at a conversion therapy camp called True Directions (not to be confused with Glee’s New Directions). The film follows cheerleader Megan (Natasha Lyonne) who is sent to the camp after her parents become concerned by her lesbian tendencies – which include eating tofu and owning a poster of Melissa Etheridge.
A young RuPaul stars as a reformed ex-gay counsellor who helps the attendees reorientate and adopt behaviours that reinforce stereotypical gender roles. The girls dress in only pink, take on domestic chores and try on wedding dresses – while the boys chop wood and fix cars. Not-so-subtly, the film’s display of heteronormative ideas expose them as something to be ridiculed for following such strict conventional norms.
Unlike a lot of queer media, there also isn’t a sad, tragic ending in which a lesbian dies or is left for a man. The film even regards the gendered expectations thrust upon the kids in the film as something harmful to everyone in society – even straight people. Jan, who is the butchest of the girls, actually comes out as straight, saying: “Everybody thinks I’m a big dyke because I wear baggy pants and play softball and I’m not as pretty as other girls. But that doesn’t make me gay.“