This is such a good question and it’s really important for any woman questioning their orientation/attraction. I’m going to explain the difference using three specific examples of times when attraction gets confusing, but there are a ton of different ways compulsory heterosexuality manifests, so if none of these hit on what you’re feeling, feel free to shoot me another anon.
Attraction vs. Compulsory Heterosexuality
- Nervousness and Blushing
A ton of romance media and common cultural tropes have this idea that you know you’re attracted to someone if you’re nervous or blushing around them. Because of this, you might feel like you must be attracted to a man if you feel nervous around him, just because you’re experiencing the physical bodily response you’ve been told to expect, not because you actually want to date him.
Actual Attraction: You’re nervous because you’re excited to get to know someone. You find them attractive first and because you’re thinking about your attraction to them, you get self conscious because you hope they might like you too.
Compulsory Heterosexuality: You’re nervous because you are aware that he is attracted to you, and because he’s paying such close attention to you– especially if he’s pushing boundaries or getting too close into your personal space– you become self conscious because you know he’s watching you. You blush because you’re uncomfortable.
- Hypothetical Attraction
Many questioning women have a hard time sorting through their attraction because of hypotheticals. Our culture, in general, disregards or challenges wlw’s attraction and it gives this anxiety that we need to know 100% that we are not and will never be attracted to men no matter what in order to claim labels.
It’s hard to do that as a young person who is just learning about themselves, flooded with “what if”s about the future. Because of this, you might feel like you can’t rule out being attracted to men because you might hypothetically be attracted to one someday. Who knows?
Actual Attraction: You imagine a hypothetical future where you end up with a man and it feels exciting and makes you feel good and hopeful and happy and right. It’s a nice feeling and is comfortable to think about. Reassuring.
Compulsory Heterosexuality: You imagine a hypothetical future where you end up with a man and it makes you feel uncomfortable, scared, sad, disappointed, wrong. It’s an upsetting thing to think about and you hope it doesn’t happen. You don’t want to end up with a man even if you feel like you could.
- Sexual Fantasies
Our culture places a big emphasis on sex when it comes to orientation. Some people’s orientation includes sexual attraction and some people’s orientation doesn’t, but most of us feel like our sexual fantasies are the most important indicator of non-straight sexuality because LGBPQ+ people have been so thoroughly reduced to sexual acts and sexual objects in the homophobic culture we’ve grown up in.
Along with that, we’ve also grown up in a heteronormative and cisnormative society that repetitively teaches and reemphasizes the same singular sexual “script” for how sex is supposed to go, over and over and over. They do not teach any others, and it requires non-straight and non-cis people to invent their own sexual scripts individually and with partners.
But as a young person, when you’re aroused, your mind has a very limited template of potential narratives associated with that feeling, so many people default to the same heteronormative script in their fantasies because it’s unconscious and easy. Because of this, you might feel like you must be attracted to men because you imagine abstract situations of sex with men, even though you have absolutely no desire to sleep with men in real life.
Actual Attraction: When you fantasize about men, it is because you’re attracted to their bodies or specific men or the idea of having sex with men. You imagine qualities of their body and you like the idea of what you’re imagining. If you think about the fantasy later that day, you might feel like it’s embarrassing, but you also feel like it’s sexy.
Compulsory Heterosexuality: When you fantasize about men, it is mostly just enacting a kind of narrative. More focused on movement than features– the men in your fantasies might be faceless or blank-featured or their bodies might symbolize some emotion. You don’t really like the idea of what you’re imagining. You might not even be in the fantasy, but instead another faceless woman might be. You might even imagine yourself as the man. The narrative follows the sexual script, but the details are more vague and abstract and might even shift and change throughout the fantasy. If you think about it later that day, you might feel vaguely nauseated or uncomfortable or feel invalidated and wrong.
It’s really difficult to unroot compulsory heterosexuality. My simplest advice on getting through it is this: even if you are attracted to men, you do not need to date them if you don’t want to. If you only want to date other women, then you have the right to that. The rest is less important than the simple reality of what you want right now.
File under things that would have been helpful for me to have read many years ago. I could have saved myself a lot of time.
This is also just so useful for people who are confused on the idea of attraction as well and also have to face compulsory problems like this!
Incidentally the first one also scatters the signal for some people who actually are attracted to some dudes… I get more uncomfortable and blushy around dudes to whom I am not attracted than around ladies to whom I am because BRAINS ARE WEIRD. When I started dating my (male) partner, I was super disconcerted because I didn’t have all the discomfort-y feelings, he was just basically… a friend that I wanted to touch a lot? So did I really like him in “the right way” if I wasn’t all blushy and shit? (spoiler alert: yes)
I can’t speak for every orientation but man I know a lot of ace people who could have saved a lot of time being aware of this, me included.