Compulsory heterosexuality plays a huge role in our sex lives, and it shouldn’t. We asked Marlee Liss, a somatic coach and co-creator of F*ck Comphet Support Club, to share some advice on how to change this. Read on for the meaning of comphet, understanding attraction vs. comphet, and one of the best support clubs around.
Looking back on my life, I could probably name one thousand reasons that it took me 26 years to realize that I am lesbian. But the number one barrier to recognizing and owning my authentic queer identity was compulsory heterosexuality - also known as comphet.
What is comp het?
If you’re on gay or questioning Tik Tok, you might be familiar with this term. Compulsory heterosexuality is the theory that heterosexuality is assumed and enforced upon women and non-binary folk by a patriarchal and cis-heteronormative society. The term was popularized by Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay titled “Compulsory heterosexualilty and lesbian existence”, which went viral on Tik Tok during the pandemic. Gen Z and millennial queers and questioning folk are fascinated by Rich’s work, which distinguishes between heteronormative conditioning versus authentic attraction. Many of us may be familiar with the term heteronormativity, which is a broader concept of how heterosexuality is viewed as the norm and the ways in which that impacts people of all genders and sexual orientations. In distinction, comphet is a more specific theory that examines the intersection of gender and sexual orientation and the experience of additive oppression for queer women, trans and non-binary people. So, comphet is a theory that takes a more intersectional look at the queer experience.
Coming out during the pandemic
For many, like myself, the pandemic was a time to pause and engage in deep reflection on who we actually are and want to be in this world. While so much tragedy occurred throughout the pandemic, many simultaneously experienced the benefits of a break from immersion in institutions and environments that enforce comphet. Time away from work in a super heteronormative office may have allowed enough breathing room for authenticity to override conditioning. Comphet basically tells you that if you’re a woman, then an attraction to men is the default. This very limiting messaging seeps into all kinds of agents of socialization, be it media, books, dinner tables, family gatherings, or religious institutions. Until the pandemic, I was so deep in comphet that I didn’t even recognize that gay fantasies, crushes on women and non-binary folk, and feelings of anxiety around men had anything to do with being gay. AND a lot of spaces that were shaped by personal development and extreme spiritual bypassing taught me that this was a wound, a blockage, a remnant of trauma to overcome. I also really feared that claiming this sexual orientation meant that women and non-binary folk would be uncomfortable around me. I’ve heard so many queer folk echo that fear of being predatory (it’s giving: internalized homophobia).
For these reasons and many more, I am deeply thankful for spaces that normalize and celebrate queerness. Unpacking comphet and immersing myself in 2SLGBTQIA+ community and an authentic sapphic relationship has allowed me to find more self-love and empowerment as a lesbian than I knew was possible.
Whether you’re queer or not, unpacking comphet can allow you to claim a deeper understanding of yourself and a greater sense of liberation within all areas of your life (sex life and relationships VERY much included). No matter the identities you behold, it is important to educate yourself on systems of oppression and notice the ways you’ve internalized related cultural messaging. For instance, learning about fatphobia can support everyone in shedding body shame and ditching diet culture, no matter what body you live in. The same is true for unpacking comphet, every single one of us can benefit from understanding the ways these expectations shape our sense of self, our relationships, and our sex lives.
How to unlearn comphet?
1. Performative male-centered sex vs. authentic pleasure.
Beyond being taught that we should be attracted to men, women and non-binary folk are repeatedly taught that we exist to please men. We are taught to dress for men, talk in a way that appeals to men, seek the approval of men, and take up less space than men. In our sex lives, this translates into a major imbalance of pleasure. Heteronormativity teaches us to put maximum time, energy, and effort into a man’s pleasure in order to be perceived as a desirable, good-enough lover. For instance, sexual scripts teach us that sex is only finished when the man is finished (we will expand more on this point in number 3). We also see this imbalance expressed via the orgasm gap, in heterosexual sex, women report experiencing orgasm 65% of the time whereas men climax 95% of the time (Broster, 2020). Conversely, according to a survey from the Archives of Sexual Behavior, lesbians experience much higher amounts of orgasms, reporting climax 86% of the time (Frederick, 2018).
It’s clear that queer people have figured something out when it comes to unpacking comphet and maximizing pleasure for all individuals involved. We also must acknowledge that so many of us receive our sex education from mainstream pornography, which is typically cis-heteronormative af, as well as performative and definitely centered on men’s pleasure. Performative pleasure is expressed through fake moans, fake orgasms, photoshopped and edited genitalia and little to no body diversity. So, performative sex really does have A LOT to do with appeasing and pleasing men. In order to shift into more authentic expressions of pleasure, women and non-binary folk can reflect upon why we are taught to prioritize men’s pleasure while devaluing our own. Ideally, we can move towards focusing on the ways that we feel, rather than being preoccupied with appearance and performance, which brings us to point number two…
2. Cis-heteronormative ‘shoulds’ vs. desire-led decisions.
A ‘should’ is anything that our culture prescribes to us as an expectation or compulsory practice. As we’ve discussed, that very much includes pressure for women and non-binary folk to please and seek the approval of men. When we begin unpacking comp het and getting curious about what actually feels authentic and pleasurable for us, we must go through a process of relying on our own body’s cues rather than focusing on social ones. In Dr. Nagoski’s book Come as You Are, she explains how vulva-owners are conditioned to recognize attraction through social cues and context (ie. “It makes sense that I’m aroused right now, because there is porn on tv!”), whereas penis-owners are taught to recognize attraction through physiological changes (ie. “I have an erection, guess I’m turned on!”). When we consider the prominence of messages enforcing comphet, we begin to understand how confusing this must be for queer and questioning vulva-owners. Basically, if we are not experts at noticing our own physiological arousal cues, we end up relying on the culture around us to justify arousal.
In my didn’t-know-I-was-gay case, this meant having a whole lot of experiences where I didn’t feel any attraction at all, but if a man was interested in me and I looked around the room and my friends were saying, ‘yes, he’s cute!’, I would interpret those social cues as my own sexual interest. Therefore, unpacking comphet requires us to stop looking outside of ourselves for a sexual green light and instead, focus on how we FEEL. This means we must study signs of our own arousal, notice what we feel in our bodies, and breath when we do feel attraction. It also means learning to distinguish between anxiousness and attraction, as Adrienne Rich outlines in her essay. It is all about knowing what your YES and your NO feel like.
A major moment for me in my coming out journey happened when I was reading the Am I a Lesbian masterdoc (basically a comprehensive ‘am I gay?’ quiz). There is a part where it invites you to 1) Think of how you’d feel spending much of your time with a man in a relationship. Don’t just think about sex, but think about sharing a house, falling asleep together every night, and so on (It’s a little outdated in monogamous assumptions I know, but this was still SO helpful for me). 2) Think of how you’d feel doing all of that with a woman or non-binary person. When I thought of the former, I felt literally suffocated, like there was a huge crushing pressure on my chest. Conversely, when I thought of the latter, I felt like a butterfly spreading her wings. I could breathe easily and I felt joyful and free. This major focus on sensation and feeling allowed me to, for the first time, genuinely acknowledge the reality of my queerness. Learning to focus on what’s happening in your body is a practice of somatic awareness, which plays a huge role in improving your sex life! Noticing body sensations and becoming familiar with what actually feels good in your body can amplify your pleasure profoundly. Shifting away from reliance on cis-heteronormative social cues and instead focusing on body sensations provides major grounds for that reclamation.
3. Sexual scripts vs. diversifying and queering sex.
As we’ve discussed, comphet is not natural, it is actually societally prescribed. Comphet shows its ugly head in comments like, “Where is your boyfriend?” and “My son is lovely, I should introduce you two!”. It’s all kinds filled with assumptions that repeatedly remind us of expectations of straightness. Ugh. These expectations also show up in our actual sex life via sexual scripts. Sexual script theory is the idea that sexual behavior is a result of extensive prior learning that teaches us sexual etiquette and how to interpret specific situations. According to this concept, we’ve all learned an elaborate script that tells us the who, what, when, where, and why of sexual behavior (Hyde, 1994). For instance, this could include the expectation that women should be with men of a certain age and aesthetic. It even predetermines the order of events within a sexual dynamic (ie. kiss, then fondle, then finger, then blow, then penetrate). Get the gist?
The power of queering sex
When we unpack comphet, we essentially go off-script and give ourselves the opportunity to make our own rules and sequences. We are required to own our genuine likes and dislikes in order to create our own sexual experiences, rather than following a script. Self-pleasure, sex toys, and building capacity for somatic awareness can play a major role in discovering those wants and boundaries. Queering sex empowers us to embrace difference, while cis-heteronormative sexual scripts teach us that there are only two ways to experience pleasure (a girl's way and a boy's way. Booooo). Through ditching the script, we begin to realize that everyone is different and sex cannot be made into one size fits all manual.
Queering sex also enhances consent. In the aforementioned scripted sequence of events, there is a component of obligatory giving and receiving. A major part of ditching comphet includes reflecting upon what genuinely does and doesn’t work for you. This is why we see queer folk claiming pride in sexual identities like ‘top’ or ‘bottom’. Such diversity forces us to ask and check in, rather than assuming, which allows us to avoid a whole lot of discomfort and boundary violations. Yay for trauma-informed queered-up sex!!!!!
Now for some resources
I hope that those three points leave you feeling INSPIRED to do some deep unpacking of comp het in the name of HOT, HOT SEX. I have absolutely found that deconstructing programming around compulsory heterosexuality has changed my sex life and enhanced my pleasure in a million ways. Not only has the way I show up in partnered sex changed (BOTTOM PRIDE!!!!!), but even the way I show up in self-pleasure has evolved. The shift from focusing on social cues to somatic awareness has allowed me to have more trauma-informed experiences shaped by my genuine pleasure and desire.
If you’re looking for resources on unpacking comphet and to connect with like-minded queer and questioning folk who are on a similar journey, please do check out the F*ck Comp Het Support Club! This is a 2SLGBTQIA+ community space created by myself and fellow queer sex educator (and bestie!) Eva Bloom aka @whatsmybodydoing. We’ve welcomed in members from all over the world in our 24/7 virtual discord community featuring monthly guided calls. Get the details and join the club here. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to message me on IG or Tik Tok @marleeliss . Remember, you are so worthy of a life and sex life rooted in authentic, vibrant, comphet-free pleasure.
Marlee Liss bio:
I am a sensual reclamation coach, award-winning speaker, author and restorative justice advocate. I am also a lesbian, sparkle-loving, Jewish feminist and trailblazer. I made history in the justice system when my sexual assault case became the 1st in North America to conclude with restorative justice through the courts. Since then, I have coached hundreds of women and non-binary folk in reclaiming sensuality and embodied leadership. I've shared my voice via Forbes, HuffPost,Buzzfeed, Mel Robbins Show, Recovering from Reality podcast with Alexis Haines, and more. You can find all of my press and media coverage listed here. As a speaker, I have presented/consulted for for the US Military Sexual Assault Response Team, on an elite panel for the National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, Fordham School of Law and more. Currently, my story is being made into a documentary directed by Kelsey Darragh. Learn more at www.marleeliss.com
Broster. (2020). What is the Orgasm Gap? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicebroster/2020/07/31/what-is-the-orgasm-gap/?sh=30af10b60f8e
Frederick, D.A., John, H.K.S., Garcia, J.R. et al. Differences in Orgasm Frequency Among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Heterosexual Men and Women in a U.S. National Sample. Arch Sex Behav 47, 273–288 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-017-0939-z
Hyde, Janet Shibley. (1994). Understanding human sexuality. New York :McGraw-Hill,Back to category