I want to talk about political or voluntary lesbianism. This is a concept that emerged from second wave, radical feminism in the 1960s and continues to exist as a practice and a philosophy in those feminist circles today. Essentially, political lesbianism is heterosexual women rejecting heterosexual relationships with men and in many cases, forming romantic and/or sexual relationships with women by choice, because heterosexuality is incompatible with their feminist politics.
The debate about political lesbianism stems from the perception of sexual orientation as natural, involuntary, and innate vs. a lifestyle choice. In America, the most popular view of human sexuality is the 20th century Western model that suggests your sexual desires and attractions are an involuntary part of who you are and cannot be changed willingly or even unwillingly. Not everyone even accepts that sexual fluidity is real; they write off an adult change in sexuality as the person in question repressing their true orientation in early life only to come out later on or never having been really gay in the first place. Hell, there are a lot of heterosexuals AND homosexuals who still can’t accept that bisexuality is a real, legitimate orientation because they’re so attached to the idea of the straight/gay permanent orientation binary.
Born lesbians and many heterosexual women alike are deeply critical of political or voluntary lesbianism as a concept because they see it as undermining of innate homosexuality, appropriating lesbian identity from women who cannot choose to be anything other than gay or escape the social consequences of homophobia and heterosexism, and a choice rooted in the hatred and fear of men rather than the love of women. I think that lesbians who were born gay or who feel intrinsically gay have a right to be skeptical and even critical of born heterosexual women who want to choose lesbianism or identify as lesbian, but I also think that there are ways to be a voluntary lesbian that are valid. I also tend to feel that this popular model of human sexuality so many Americans buy into—of sexual orientation being innate, involuntary, and fixed—is problematic and certainly not the best or the only model.
Just to be clear, I am not a radical feminist, and I do disagree with the problematic behavior and beliefs of some radfems, particularly transmisogyny. But I do think that it’s possible for a woman to be a voluntary lesbian or a political lesbian outside of radical feminism, and I want to talk about voluntary/political lesbianism as an aromantic asexual outside of the radical feminist framework but within the broader context of feminism and female empowerment.
How do we define lesbianism? Is a woman a lesbian by sexual activity alone? Do we require of lesbians both sexual and romantic attraction to other women? Is it only about who she’s attracted to and not who she actually fucks and dates? Is she defined as lesbian by her romantic feelings and relationships primarily, regardless of sexual activity? Or is lesbianism broad enough to include any kind of woman-centric intimacy and lifestyle lived by women?
Do the following women qualify as lesbians, if they want to use that identity?
- Homoromantic heterosexual women who only fall in love with and date women, while only being sexually attracted to and involved with men
– Hetero-romantic homosexual women who only fall in love with and date men, while only being sexually attracted to and involved with women
– Homoromantic asexual women (particularly the sex-repulsed, celibate women)
– Aromantic asexual women who prefer to bond, partner, and be intimate with other women exclusively or predominantly
– Aromantic homosexual women who want to fuck women but don’t fall in love with anyone and often don’t have actual romantic relationships with sexual partners or with anyone
– Homosexual women who end up falling in love with a man in an isolated case
When political lesbianism first became a thing in the feminist movement back in the 60s, nobody knew or talked about these groups of people or these experiences of sex, romance, relationships, love, and friendship. For the longest time, the world viewed sexuality in black and white terms: heterosexual and homosexual. As I said before, bisexuality is STILL getting the shaft in both straight and gay spaces, and it’s almost 2015. Asexuality only came on the scene a little over 10 years ago, in the early 2000s, and aromanticism is still virtually unknown outside of the asexual community and a small handful of online queer spaces. So already, we can know that both the promotion and the critique of political or voluntary lesbianism have taken place with incomplete information about human sexuality and relationships.
It’s become public knowledge to some degree in the last several years that women can be late-blooming lesbians: living the first third to half of their lives as heterosexuals and suddenly experiencing a change in their orientation, falling in love with another woman and feeling sexual desire for her. These women leave behind their husbands or long-time male sexual partners and go forward to live in romantic-sexual relationships with other women. They do not feel or identify as bisexual. They do not feel simultaneously attracted to men and women through life or after their same-sex attraction kicks in. They were born straight and now feel gay. If their heterosexual history doesn’t invalidate their present lesbian reality, why should a voluntary lesbian’s heterosexuality matter? If a woman chooses to live with another woman in a committed, intentional way and to make that woman her primary partner in life, why does it matter if she lacks sexual and/or romantic attraction to her? Don’t get me wrong, a straight woman can choose to make another woman her primary partner without identifying as a lesbian and without fucking her, but if she does want to see herself or present herself to the world as lesbian, why shouldn’t she be able to?
More importantly, why should heterosexual women be obligated to only have heterosexual relationships? Sexual orientation doesn’t necessarily correspond with emotional bonding, one’s personal sense of comfort and safety, overall compatibility, lifestyle preferences, relationship desires, etc. Just because you want to fuck men doesn’t mean you can find a man who is an adequate match to you overall when it comes to partnership. Just because you want to fuck men doesn’t mean you feel emotionally satisfied by them. Just because you like fucking men doesn’t mean you feel safe and secure in relationships with men. Who you like to fuck and who’s good for you as a domestic, emotional, financial, creative, political, and even professional partner are not automatically one in the same. There is a basis for some heterosexual women finding greater happiness with other women than with men, whether their relationships with women are sexual, romantic, or neither. As I understand it, true political or voluntary lesbianism isn’t about hating or fearing all men necessarily but it is about feeling a greater, deeper resonance with other women regardless of your sexual orientation and deciding to let your emotional and intellectual desires and needs lead your relationship building instead of your sexuality.
It sounds like gay women who are critical of political lesbians often assume that political lesbians don’t actually want or enjoy having sex with other women. I’m sure it doesn’t help that political lesbianism was originally defined as “women who don’t have sex with men,” meaning that actually having sex with other women was always optional for political lesbians, not mandatory. However, what little research I’ve done on political lesbianism makes it clear to me that political lesbians who have gay sex can and do enjoy it; why would they keep doing it if they didn’t? Any two people can have sex without attraction to each other, and asexuals prove this on a regular basis. No matter what the gender of the ace is and what the gender of their partner is, an asexual who fucks someone is not sexually attracted to their partner. Yet this lack of attraction and sexual desire alone doesn’t stop the asexual from experiencing physical pleasure during sex. (Not all aces experience sexual pleasure, but some do.) A heterosexual woman who becomes a voluntary or political lesbian can absolutely experience sexual pleasure with other women. Even if she is not sexually or romantically attracted to her partners, gay sex can be emotionally and physically pleasurable for her. This doesn’t mean that voluntary lesbians are obligated to have sex with other women—because again, lesbianism doesn’t have to be defined by sex—but it means that voluntary/political lesbians can and might choose to have sex with a female partner for emotional bonding and/or sexual satisfaction.
And I cannot stress enough that voluntary lesbianism might be an act of self-love and healing for heterosexual women who are survivors of rape and sexual assault by men. These women may not be able to help feeling sexual attraction toward men, but they also may feel repulsed by sex with men or at the very least unsafe and uncomfortable with it. These women should not force themselves to perform heterosexual sex or heterosexual relationships just because their orientation is heterosexual. If they don’t want to be celibate forever or if they still feel like sexual beings following their assaults but they don’t want to have sex with men again, voluntary lesbianism can be the only thing that makes sense for them.
That said, I don’t think you can criticize voluntary lesbianism as irredeemably problematic without believing that sexual identity is based only on who you want to fuck and nothing else. Not even who you fall in love with, whatever that means to you. Just sex. And from what I’ve learned about lesbians as people, as women, and as loving beings, that genital-sex-based definition of lesbianism just doesn’t cut it. There are a lot of lesbians who are sexually attracted to women but who don’t actually like sex. There are a lot of lesbian relationships that start out sexual and end up becoming totally nonsexual. There are a lot of lesbians who may actually in fact be homoromantic asexuals and not homosexual at all; they just don’t know it because they don’t know asexuality is an orientation. Yes, these women all have an innate attraction to women in common, whether it’s sexual or romantic or both, and that attraction exists even if they don’t have or like sex. But even if you want to argue that attraction, not sexual activity, defines real lesbians, I have to challenge you: why is it only sexual and/or romantic attraction that counts?
Well, I can answer my own question: amatonormativity, romance supremacy, compulsory sexuality, and sex supremacy. These beliefs that romance is superior to nonromantic love and friendship, that sexual relationships are superior and more valuable than nonsexual relationships, that all people want and should have a primary romantic-sexual partnership, and that sex is mandatory in life, in romance, and in your central relationship(s).
Take into account gray-area feelings and friendships: those which fall somewhere in between normative friendliness and normative romance, those which are too ambiguous to be comfortably boxed in one category, those which may even be hard for the people experiencing them to define. Consider that these feelings and friendships can happen to someone in contradiction to their sexual and romantic orientations: a heterosexual woman could have a friendship or feelings with another woman that are not sexual and yet which oversteps common nonromantic friendship without clearly falling into romantic relationship territory as she understands it. We as a society don’t talk about these feelings or friendships. We have no language to talk about them, unless we refer to the vocabulary that asexuals and aromantics have constructed recently. Yet these feelings and friendships can and do exist, even if they’re rare.
Now, if you’re of the romance and sex supremacist persuasion, you’ll want to say that these friendships don’t count because friendship in general doesn’t count. If you’re not fucking and you’re not dating or in love, whatever you feel or have is unimportant; it’s JUST friendship. But as an aromantic asexual who feels and desires love and significant relationships, I take major issue with that attitude.
I don’t think that aromantic or asexual relationships should be sexualized and romanticized, even linguistically. I sure as hell don’t want alternative friendships and nonromantic/nonsexual partnerships to be sexualized and romanticized by society and stuck into the gay/straight binary of relationships. I take major issue with that shit. Friendship is not straight or gay or queer. Aromantic asexuals are not straight or gay or queer, unless they choose to pick up those labels. Nonromantic, nonsexual love and relationships are exactly that: nonromantic and nonsexual. Not gay or straight. But I want these relationships to be recognized as serious, valid, and equivalent to romantic/sexual relationships, especially when they function as primary partnerships.
If romantic-sexual people have any choice in how they organize their personal relationships, if they have any power whatsoever to choose a nonromantic/nonsexual relationship as their primary or central partnership instead of a romantic/sexual relationship, they aren’t going to start making those choices until nonromantic/nonsexual partnerships are culturally validated and accepted as equally good and serious to romantic/sexual relationships. And regardless of what romantic-sexual people do, aromantics and asexuals are already here, wanting and needing our relationships and our identities to be taken seriously.
In terms of voluntary or political lesbianism, asexuals and aromantics can absolutely have a gender preference for who they become intimate with that has nothing to do with sexual and/or romantic attraction. That’s why I dislike critics of political or voluntary lesbianism saying that “gay by choice” is an insult to the real queers—not because sexual attraction is a choice but because relationships are. For aromantic asexuals, who we love and commit to and prioritize, who we live with, become intimate with emotionally and even physically, is ALWAYS a choice. Not something we’re compelled to via attraction. If you allow your sexual and romantic attractions to determine who you pursue romantic, sexual, and/or central relationships with, that’s fine, but invalidating relationships that are chosen without attraction is invalidating all relationships that aromantics, asexuals, and especially aromantic asexuals have. Aromantic asexual women choose partners or queerplatonic friends based on emotional connection, comfort level, relationship goals and style, common interests, etc. Not sexual attraction. Not romantic attraction.
I’ve seen and heard of SO MANY aromantic asexual women who strongly prefer to be intimate with other women and who are least interested in cis men. And yes, a lot of that has to do with feminism, gender inequality, sexism, and the fact that a lot of cis men are violent, oppressive, abusive, and generally terrible to women—in general and especially in intimate relationships. A lot of that has to do with aro ace women being afraid of cis men raping them or sexually assaulting and harassing them, if the men are straight; if that abuse happens to heteroromantic asexual women, it can happen to aro ace women even outside of romantic relationships. I think a lot of it also has to do with the fact that once you take away romantic and sexual desire for men from a woman, she is a lot more likely to see that she has more in common with other women, can have a more emotionally satisfying relationship with a woman vs. a man, and has little to gain from men that she can’t have with women.
Additionally, aromantic heterosexual women can choose to center nonsexual relationships with other women in their lives, instead of the men they fuck, because they feel more emotionally connected to their female friends, they might be romance repulsed and actively avoid romantic relationships with men for that reason, or they may simply want a nonsexual queerplatonic partnership and find it easier to pursue that with a woman who doesn’t want sex or romance from them.
So I really get where some of these political lesbians are coming from. I get it. I grew up feeling more interested in and drawn to men despite all my close friendships being with other girls, experiencing more emotionally intense love and desire for men, and imagining my life partner as a man. I went through a period where I assumed I was hetero-romantic. I’m still someone who is strongly drawn to masculinity, who is a masculine person, and who likes to emulate conventionally masculine men stylistically and personality-wise. But now, I’m finding myself more drawn to the idea of being intimately connected to women. I’m appreciating and admiring women more. I’ve become open to experiencing intimacy, love, and touch with women in all the same ways I’ve long been interested in experiencing those things with men. I want a female domestic life partner as much as I want a male domestic life partner. Now, I want all the same cuddling, hugging, caressing, kissing, etc in my partnership with a woman that I want with a man, and I am interested in that physical intimacy with female friends in general (along with male friends). I grew up, deconstructed the heterosexism and queerphobia that I internalized as a child, became a feminist, did a lot of reflecting, and realized that as a female-born nonbinary butch person and an aromantic asexual and someone with my particular spiritual, emotional, political, and intellectual leanings and desires, I am far more likely to find women who are compatible and satisfying companions than I am to find men. I’m still capable of loving and bonding with men, and I still want to love and bond with men. But I can now see my intimate relationships with women outnumbering my intimate relationships with men in the future and I’m not just okay with that, I think it’s a great thing.
None of this means that aro ace women or aro heterosexual women should identify as lesbians if they don’t want to or be viewed as lesbians against their will, but it does mean that there is valid reason for a woman who isn’t homosexual to center relationships with other women instead of with men.
Aromantic asexual women who choose to partner with other women will be read as lesbians by society, whether they like it or not and whether they declare it or not. Their partnerships and queerplatonic friendships will be read as romantic and sexual, whether they are or not, because of the amatonormativity paradigm and compulsory sexuality and this idea that only romantic-sexual relationships can be central partnerships. Two women who commit to each other, prioritize their relationship above all others, who live together and go through life as a team, will be considered romantically and sexually coupled by society unless they publicly and continuously reject that reading by identifying their relationship as nonromantic and nonsexual. And realistically, how many people in that situation are going to go through the trouble of telling everyone they know and people they don’t know that they aren’t fucking or romantically in love?
This default romantic-sexual reading of central relationships is super problematic and annoying, and I want it to become defunct. But until it does, the reality is that two women having a central partnership with each other will be considered lesbians, whether they identify themselves that way or not, and that reading is something that socially conscious women are surely aware of when they decide to enter into a central partnership with another woman, even if it’s nonsexual and/or nonromantic. If you are an aromantic woman or an asexual woman or any woman who chooses to pursue central or primary relationships with other women, you are accepting a kind of de facto lesbian identity, even without specifically IDing yourself that way to others. So in a way, you don’t have to come out or use the label “lesbian” to be a voluntary lesbian. You don’t even have to believe in political lesbianism to be a voluntary lesbian. You just have to be a woman who chooses to make another woman your partner, whether you fuck her or feel romantically toward her or not.
We can’t change our sexual attractions and romantic attractions voluntarily, but we can choose how to live, how to build relationships, and who to build them with. We are not and shouldn’t be slaves to our attractions, especially if they are at odds with our well-being. Being intimate with or prioritizing other women instead of men might be in the best interests of a woman despite her heterosexual orientation. As an expression of feminism or simply because of the fact that being close to other women is safer, features equality between herself and her partner, and is more likely to give her respect, political or voluntary lesbianism is a valid choice for non-homosexual women and one that shouldn’t invalidate or reflect upon homosexual women.
Political Lesbian Perspectives:
“Political Lesbian Myth Busting“
“Radical Lesbian Feminism or Political Lesbianism in 2012“