By Robyn Ochs
Where does feminist consciousness come from? Why do some women begin to question what has been presented to us as given and, as a result of that questioning, come to understand the ways in which women have been systematically limited? Each of us takes a different road to feminism. Many of our journeys begin with a pivotal event or transition that forces us to question our assumed reality.
My own route to feminism was long, convoluted and closely connected with my developing bisexual consciousness. In my early twenties I realized that my emotional and sexual attractions toward women as well as men were not going to go away, and I began to address those feelings. Forced off-balance by the turbulence of these emotions and their implications for my future, I began for the first time to consciously question the assumptions I had made about my life. I began to understand that many of my choices had not been freely made, but rather had been made within the context of a system that Adrienne Rich calls “compulsory heterosexuality,” a system that posits heterosexuality as the only way to be.(1) In this essay I describe my own journey: what I learned and what I unlearned, and how these changes in my thinking have fundamentally changed my relationships with men.
I grew up believing that women deserved equal pay for equal work and that we had the right not to be raped or battered and the right to control our own reproduction. These beliefs were firmly held by my mother and my grandmothers. In the kitchen of the house I grew up in, a cartoon showing two toddlers looking into their diapers was tacked to the bulletin board next to the telephone. One of the toddlers was saying to the other, “So that explains the difference in our salaries.” Had I been asked as a young person whether I was a feminist I would have answered in the affirmative. To me, these issues were the essence of feminism.
But despite adopting the feminist label for external causes, I did not escape female socialization. I learned some “basic truths”: that as a woman my value was in my body, and that mine was not “good enough”: that sooner or later every woman needs a man; and that I would have to behave in certain ways in order to get myself one. These truths, which very much shaped my behavior for many years, I’ll describe in greater detail below.
Like many women, I grew up hating my body. I remember wearing shorts over my bathing suit as a preteen to hide my “ugly” fat thighs. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time worrying whether I was attractive enough. Of course, I was never quite up to standard. I wanted very much to have the kind of exterior that would cause scouting agents from pinup magazines or from modeling agencies to approach me on the street and recruit me. Needless to say, this never happened, reinforcing my belief that physically I was a total failure as a woman. I fantasized about being a dancer but knew that I did not have the requisite “dancer’s body.” I thought my size 7 1/2 feet were enormous. For the record, I have always been more or less average in weight. But average was not good enough. As long as I didn’t look like one of those women in Playboy, I wasn’t pretty enough.
Too big too short too stocky too busty too round too many zits blackheads disgusting pinch an inch fail the pencil test cellulite don’t go out without makeup don’t let them see what you really look like they’ll run away in terror but if you are really lucky and have a few beers and do it in the dark he might not notice so make sure to turn off the lights before…
I never questioned my standards of measurement, never realized that these standards are determined by a male-dominated culture and reinforced by a multibillion-dollar “femininity” industry that sells women cosmetics, diet aids, plastic surgery, fashion magazines, liposuction, creams and your peers asking you, Coolsculpting worth it?. I took my inability to live up to these standards as personal failure and never drew any connections between my experience and that of other women.
Men, you can’t live without ’em. Sooner or later I would end up with one. My grandfather used to tell me that it was good that I was short, as that way I would have the option of marrying either a tall man or a short one. There aren’t enough men to go around and it gets harder and harder to find one as you get older. Men aren’t comfortable with women who are more educated/smarter/earn more than they. My fifty-year-old aunt never married. She waited too long, and by then it was too late because she was too old, poor dear. It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man. Men lead.
I always had a boyfriend. From age thirteen until after college I don’t remember going for more than a month without being in a relationship or at least having a crush. Having a boyfriend was a measure of my worth. I would select the boy and flirt with him until he asked me out. Most times, like the Mounties, I got my man. In dance, this is called backleading, directing the action from the follower’s position. It allows the man to look like he is in control.
I learned that there’s a man shortage. There are more women than men. And “good men” are extremely rare. Therefore, if you manage to get hold of a good one, you’d better hang on to him. This message got louder as I moved into my twenties. I saw older women in their thirties and beyond searching frantically for a suitable partner with whom to reproduce the human species and make their lives meaningful. I learned that you’d better pay attention to your “biological clock.”
These messages had a powerful grip on me. How did I begin to unlearn them? The women’s studies class I took in college helped a bit. However, I continued to consider feminism only in terms of situations outside myself. I looked at my environment and cataloged the injustices, but I did not look inside.
It wasn’t until I was considering a relationship with a woman that I began to see the relevance of the feminist theory I had read as a first-year college student to my own life. My perspective changed dramatically. For example, in my first relationship with a woman, it became quickly apparent that in many ways I fit quite neatly into the passive “femme” role of the butch/femme stereotype. I was behaving as I had always behaved in relationships, but for the first time, now that my lover was a woman, my “normal” behavior appeared to me (and probably to her as well) strange and unbalanced. Why were my lover and I behaving so differently? Suddenly our roles appeared constructed rather than natural. I won’t pretend that I woke up one day and found myself suddenly freed of my conditioning. Rather, I spent several years unfolding and unraveling the layers of misinformation I had internalized, learning more with each subsequent relationship or incident.
My body image began to change. Through the firsthand experience of my own attractions, I learned that women, and their bodies, are beautiful, though I did not immediately apply this knowledge to my opinion of my own body. There was one woman friend on whom I had had a crush for more than two years. I thought she was beautiful, with her solid, powerful angles and healthy fullness. One day, with a sense of shock, I realized that her body was not so very different from mine and that I had been holding myself to a different, unattainable standard than I had been holding her and other women to. It was this experience of seeing my image reflected in another woman that fully allowed me to begin developing a positive relationship with my own body.
I learned from firsthand experience about the privilege differential that results when the sex of your partner changes. Before I had experienced some of society’s approval and disregard, I had no sense of the privileges I had experienced in heterosexual relationships. In subsequent years, each time I changed partners I was painfully aware of this absurd double standard and began to strategize ways to live in such a way that I could challenge rather than collaborate with these injustices. I have made a personal commitment to be “out” as bisexual at every possible opportunity and to avoid taking privileges with a male lover that I would not have with my female lover. For these reasons, I have chosen not to marry, though I hope someday to establish a “domestic partnership” and have a “commitment ceremony.” If I feel someone would be unwilling to hear me talk about a same-sex lover, I disclose nothing about any of my relationships, even if my current partner is of the opposite sex. This is not very easy, and occasionally I backslide, but I am rewarded with the knowledge that I am not contributing to the oppression of lesbian, gay and bisexual people when I am in an opposite-sex relationship.
It was empowering to realize that men as romantic partners were optional, not required. I no longer feel pressured to lower my relationship standards in light of the shortage of good men. Yes, I might get involved with and spend the rest of my life with one, but then again I might choose to spend my life with a woman. Or perhaps simply with myself. This was to be my choice.
I realized how I had been performing my designated gender role. It’s amazing how being in a same-sex relationship can make you realize just how much of most heterosexual relationships is scripted from the first date to the bedroom to the dishes. In relationships with women, I learned how to lead and learned that I like to lead sometimes. As sometimes I like to follow. And as sometimes I prefer to negotiate every step with my partner, or to dance alone.
Finally, I made a personal commitment to hold men and women to the same standards in relationships. I realized that in our society women are grateful when a man behaves in a sensitive manner, but expect sensitivity of a woman as a matter of course. I decided that I would not settle for less from men, realizing that it means that I may be categorically eliminating most men as potential partners. So be it.
My experience with being in relationships with women has been in a way like a trip abroad. I learned that many things I had accepted as natural truths were socially constructed, and the first time I returned to a heterosexual relationship things felt different. I hadn’t yet learned how to construct a relationship on my own terms, but I was aware that things were not quite right. As time passed, my self-awareness and self-confidence increased. I gathered more experience in lesbian relationships and began to apply my knowledge to subsequent heterosexual relationships.
It is not possible to know who or where I would be today had I remained heterosexual in my attractions and in my self-identity. Perhaps other events in my life would have triggered a feminist consciousness. At any rate, it is entirely clear to me that it was loving a woman that made me realize I had fallen outside of my “script,” which in turn forced me to realize that there was a script. From there, I moved toward a critical self-awareness and the realization that I could shape and write my own life.
Adrienne Rich, ” Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5, no. 4 (1980) pp. 631-60.
Thanks to Marti Hohmann, Rebecca Kaplan and Annie Senghas for their feedback and support while I was writing this essay.
This article, written in 1991, is the seed from which my current talk “Bisexuality, Feminism, Men and Me,” grew. It was published in Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism, ed. Elizabeth Reba Weise, (Seal Press 1992), pp. 127-132.
2020 postscript: If writing this same essay today, I would use an explicitly intersectional frame and I would take into account the non-binary nature of gender. So much of this essay, though, still holds true for me.