By being assimilated under the same label as homosexual men, lesbian existence is deprived of their own particularities. It is clear that both homosexual men and women face social rejection by being brought up in a background where heterosexuality is enforced as the official and the only fully acceptable form of sexuality. But lesbian existence is a profoundly female experience, like motherhood or childbirth and it means both the rejection of compulsory heterosexuality and the breaking of a taboo, resulting in a challenge to male power. Rich thinks that lesbians have been erased from feminist discourse as well. Her response to this fact is expressed in “Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence” (1983) in which Rich invites the feminists to question heterosexuality and examine it as an institution and not just as a sexual alternative. Compulsory heterosexuality is thus analysed in this text as one of the institutions by means of which patriarchy exerts its power. In order to examine this institution, Rich studies and comments on several authors who develop issues related to male power and women submission in their work, rendering such issues as universal, as they take place in every society, culture and race.
Starting with “The origin of the family” by Kathleen Gough, Rich comments on Gough’s eight items of male power – the denial of female sexuality, to force male sexuality upon women, to exploit their labour or to control their produce, to rob them of their children, to confine them physically, to use them as objects in male transactions, to cramp their creativeness and to withhold from them large areas of knowledge- and expands each item by introducing a list of actual practices through which women have been kept under male control in all societies and throughout history. These practices range from clitoredectomy, infibulation, rape, incest, prostitution and masochistic oriented images of women in pornography to the structure of the nuclear family, the economical dependence of wives, the feminization of poverty or the use of high heel shoes. The topic of male power and control over women is also developed by Catharine MacKinnon. MacKinnon’s reference to the eroticization of women’s submission, is connected to the above mentioned aspect of pornography, but in this case the focus is set on the sexualization of women at work, which is doubly damaging in the case of lesbians, as not only must they conceal their real sexual, emotional and psychic identity, but they are also expected to behave according to the traditional role assigned to all women: flirtatious, complaisant, supportive, mother-like.
Another remarkable aspect for Rich is that according to a psychoanalytic view, male domination is seen as the result of the mythic male hang ups about their incapability to fulfill the expectations they have about female insatiability. Rich thinks that their fear is more probably triggered by the possibility of women’s indifference; thus they must control women’s sexuality, as their sexual access to women is seen as crucial in a male orientated culture. The means through which they gain access to women are analysed by Kathleen Barry. Barry establishes parallels between women slavery and the daily life of women and examines instances of master-slave behaviour such as prostitution, marital rape, incest, wife beating, pornography, bride price, selling daughters, the purdah or genital mutilation among others as ways of exerting power and controlling women.
Given that the term “lesbianism” has been polluted by all these psychoanalytic and mainstream patriarchal scholarship views, and it has turned too simplistic, failing to convey the complexity of lesbian existence, by making reference to a purely genital and sexual reality, the term lesbian existence is needed in order to convey other aspects such as the sharing of psychic and emotional joy, friendship, and comradeship.