Monique Wittig, French author, and feminist theorist coined the famous phrase “Lesbians are not women” in her essay “The Straight Mind” (1980). Since then, the idea has provoked confusion and surprise. I wish to unpack the phrase and the theories behind it. Drawing on Wittig’s and other scholar’s work around sex, gender, and sexuality in relation to lesbians.
We are taught that lesbians are women who sexually attracted to other women. Plainly, women who love women. Wittig argues lesbians are not women because they don’t fit into heterosexual ideas of women. Lesbians put themselves outside of this relationship of dominance. They do this when they refuse to engage in sexual, romantic, and economic relationships with men. They, and people who are non-heterosexual and gender-non-conforming, resist compulsory heterosexuality and the language it uses to divide and oppress them.
Monique Wittig and the category of sex
“The Category of Sex” (1976/1982) is an essay Wittig discusses the labels of “men” and “women” as divisions promoting relationships involving the domination of women by men. She says these categories come from a heterosexual society where “[m]asculine/feminine, male/female… serve to conceal the fact that social differences always belong to an economic, political, ideological order.” Naturalizing the idea of “men” and “women” also naturalizes heterosexuality and its uneven power dynamics.
Diane Griffin Crowder, in “From Straight Mind to Queer Theory” (2007), analyzes Wittig’s ideas around gender. She calls society a “totalitarian regime of heterosexuality” that pushes “literally under pain of death, the division of humanity into two and only two sexes/genders through daily repetition of mental and physical acts.” Binary gender relies on strict performance. For people to dress, talk, and act in specifically gendered ways according to their sex. People who don’t follow heterosexual expectations face judgment, abuse, and discrimination. Violent reactions towards non-heterosexual and gender-non-conforming people are tools that impose heterosexuality.
Heterosexual womanhood is also defined by a “rigid obligation [to] the reproduction of heterosexual society… the system of exploitation on which heterosexuality is economically based.” Thus, child-bearing and birth are the prime markers of womanhood. Voluntary sterilization and same-sex relationships defy it by breaking from heterosexual expectations of women. Society wants you to think it is your “natural duty” to marry a man, have his (straight) children, raise them, and care for his household with no pay. Making it, so women are dependent on and serve men in exploitative relationships. Since women started entering the workforce and gaining opportunities for education, economic dependence on men has become a fading reality. However, compulsory heterosexuality still enforces relationships where men wield power over the women in their lives in other ways.
What is compulsory sexuality?
Adrienne Rich, in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980), defines it as “the enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economical, and emotional access [to women].”
Examples she provides are: in porn, women as objects to serve male sexuality which is naturally violent and out of the man’s control; in workspaces, women as visible sexual objects to stare, grab, and harass at will by men; in the home, women as wives who support men emotionally and as unpaid domestic workers. Wittig and Rich emphasize the connections between women, sex, and male sexual desire in compulsory heterosexuality. Wittig writes, “[w]herever they are, whatever they do (including working in the public sector), they are seen (and made) sexually available to men, and they, breasts, buttocks, and costume, must be visible.”
Recently on twitter, a study in the medical community received attention for gendered claims about professionalism. Doctors, nurses, and other medical workers pictured in swimwear on their public social media were “unprofessional.” Other “unprofessional” content included holding alcohol, using profanity, and controversial political opinions. More significant is the wording around clothing: “Inappropriate attire included pictures of underwear, provocative Halloween costumes, and provocative posing in bikinis/swimwear.”
This phrasing targets women. Their visible bodies are sexual symbols tied to their work. The assumption is these “inappropriate” and “unprofessional” images will be on the minds of their peers, employers, and patients. Unsurprisingly, men conducted the study. Here men are defining professionalism – what women professionals (this distinction is important) should look and act like. In a heterosexual understanding, a woman’s visible body can’t be anything else but sexual, wherever she is, whatever she is doing.
Not the first time cis-heterosexual, middle-class men have taken it upon themselves to define language.
Sexologists and sexual inversion
In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (1991), Lillian Faderman traces the diversity of lesbians in changing social contexts of the United States. She begins with “romantic friendships,” intense emotional friendships between young middle-class women in the 1800s.
Attacks on romantic friendships and same-sex relationships came during the second half of the century. Sexologists were middle-class men in medicine looking to define female sexuality. For them, “[w]hite middle-class European values and behaviors that reflected the background of the medical men came to be seen as scientifically normal and healthy.” Sexologists saw same-sex relationships as “abnormal” and “unhealthy” because it did not fit with their understanding of the world.
Thus, came the term sexual inversion or sexual invert. A woman considered a sexual invert was described as “a man trapped in a woman’s body.” Faderman says sexologists failed to separate gender behavior from sexual orientation. At the time, working-class women disguised as men for more job opportunities. Women also took up male identities to live safely as lesbians and marry their partners. Sexologists did not consider the impact heterosexual ideas of gender had on people who were not straight. Nor did they think about the way these people created spaces for themselves in heterosexual society
Sensationalist studies on the dangers of lesbianism and sexual inversion emerged. Books discouraged young women from having same-sex crushes and masturbating. Medical journals wrote of women suffering psychologically after experimenting sexually. Others spoke of lesbian orgies fueled with alcohol and lesbian nymphomania. Later, violence became associated with lesbians in 1895 when Alice Mitchell killed her lover, Freda Ward. Fiction depicting lesbians as “masculine and murderous” were published and popularized a few years after. This perception dominated the public’s view of lesbians.
Lesbians and a way out
Amanda Hurwitz, another Women’s Republic writer, wrote an article about the negative connotations of the word lesbian created by media. The article captures heterosexual society’s impact on the meaning words are have. For the word lesbian, it means curbing resistance. Lesbians refuse to play by heterosexual society’s rules. No only lesbians, but anyone who isn’t heterosexual or don’t follow gender binaries and go outside of it. The outside of queerness, as Crowder calls it, is “to reject what is normal and natural in favor of what the straight mind finds monstrous, if not unthinkable.”
Defying gender binaries, “refusing to become or remain women,” as Crowder says, paints lesbians “as monsters by a society in which there are only men and women.” Lesbians cannot fall into the fold of “women” because heterosexual society considers women only as they relate to men. Our ticket to the outside is rejecting as inevitable marriage to men, attraction to them, and service to them with our sex. Embracing each other and different ways of being not in heterosexual terms is the way out.
Out and into space where we can love and live as equals. Not as sexual objects for male desire, dissatisfied and overworked wives, stepping stones to male achievement, and the exploitation of everyone else underfoot. Crowder highlights this in Wittig’s call for “a proliferation of sexualities to break with the binarisms of woman/man and hetero/homo” for sexualities “not founded on the sexual difference (especially reproduction)…there are as many sexes as there are individuals.” Such a call and the assertion that lesbians are not women seeks to give space for people’s way out of an oppressive heterosexual society and binary domination.
There are lesbians who aren’t women. And there are lesbians who are reshaping the concept of women.
Non-binary and He/Him lesbians
We are taught to associate lesbians with a strict definition of women and gender. So non-binary lesbians and lesbians who use he/him pronouns are seen as impossible. The truth is, lesbians who are non-binary or go by he/him pronouns have existed for a long time. This is why it’s important to understand how lesbians challenge heterosexual ideas of gender. Because some lesbians don’t identify as women in traditional ways or at all. I am drawing on two helpful sources by @izukudior, and Micaiah. Both go into great detail on information about non-binary and he/him lesbians.
Lesbians who go by they/them do so for different reasons. One reason can be because they are non-binary, which is a spectrum of gender identities and not only a lack of gender. People who are non-binary can align themselves with manhood, or womanhood, or neither in varied ways. Whether or not they align with manhood or womanhood does not automatically mean they are comfortable with binary pronouns (she/her, he/him) or gendered language (sis, bro, girl, dude, etc.).
Micaiah explains, “non-binary people can be lesbians the exact same way they can be bisexual or pansexual, gay or queer.” In fact, they can have all the sexualities everyone else can. A non-binary person who is women-aligned or not aligned and is exclusively attracted to women and other non-binary people are not man-aligned can identify as lesbian.
Another reason why people identify as non-binary lesbians can also be because of a lack of terminology. It could be that their native language does not have the words that capture their attraction accurately. Or, for instance, they can feel disconnected from their womanhood. Many cultures define womanhood in terms of attraction to or a relationship with men. As well as basing a woman’s worth on the ability to give birth. For he/him lesbians, it can be a smilier case.
Lesbians who use he/him pronouns are not men! He uses he/him pronouns for similar reasons non-binary lesbians use they/them. It can be to express his gender non-conformity or disconnect from womanhood. Touched on earlier, lesbians have historically used the strategy to pass as men (and express their gender that way) to feel safer in heterosexual society. Gender non-conformity is a big part of lesbian history. Lesbian existence directly challenges ideas of strict heterosexual gender binaries and this is how they enact it.
It can also be a matter of language, again. Some languages do not have totally gender neutral pronouns like they/them. For example, in Spanish ‘they’ is in the masculine ello. People have sought to change language to be inclusive like with the word elle in Spanish instead. But for those who do not use elle or do not feel a connection to it or they/them, could potentially use ello or “him” in English. Some people who are neuro-divergent also use he/him or they/them because they don’t feel comfortable expressing gender in traditional ways. Pronouns like xe/xem, ze/hir, and others are also used to help that discomfort.
What’s important to note is that they (lesbians, non-binary lesbians, and he/him lesbians) are creating their own ways to identify and express their gender and sexuality. They are changing and expanding language on their own terms and untangling it from oppressive heterosexual ideas. Pronouns are one of the ways people present their personal experiences of gender. Using he/him pronouns does not automatically mean someone is a man. Nor does it invalidate non-binary peoples’ identities when they use he/him, she/her, they/them or any combination of them (or new ones). It also does not mean it is okay to misgender people, regardless of their sexuality or gender expression.
One person’s way out is not going to be the same as someone else’s. That’s okay. We are all trying to go to the same place. Away from a heterosexual society that makes living possible only for people who live by its rules.