Defining heterosexuality

American feminist poet Adrienne Rich theorizes that patriarchal society treats heterosexuality as the baseline and enforce it upon people. Her theory of compulsory heterosexuality holds that social and cultural practices (from dating, fashion, to social expectations) perpetuate the ideology that women naturally prefer sexual relationships with men and act accordingly. Literature and film, according to this theory, frequently upholds this default position. An example is heterosexual interpretations of the legend of Romeo and Juliet (often touted as the greatest love story of all times) even though Shakespeare wrote the play for all-male casts with adolescent “boy actors” playing female parts such as Juliet. Here is a 1996 film version by Baz Luhrmann. It exemplifies a form of modern, compulsory heterosexuality.


Juliet (Claire Danes) and Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) at a costume party in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film.

Your Turn


Further Reading

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980),” Journal of Women’s History 15. 3 (2003): 11-48.