Writing by Olivia Richmond-Ferns. Illustration by Antonia Popescu.
It is almost March again. Lockdown for many meant instability and trepidation - it feels preposterous to be writing about recovery when the United Kingdom is in lockdown again almost a year later, but surviving a deadly pandemic is not the recovery this piece focuses on. Lockdown is not some lavish retreat, much the opposite, but it did provide for some a period of self-reflection (whether welcome or not) that led to an interesting phenomenon online, specifically on TikTok. Usage of TikTok in the UK skyrocketed as a result of lockdown, with installations of the app going up by 34% in the week of the 23rd of March (Kale 2020). This rise reflected the experiences of those who were suddenly stuck at home on furlough or otherwise forced into a break from normal routines. During this period, TikTok became a real resource for young queer people to analyse their sexuality in ways they may not have considered without the online community that TikTok provides and the time that lockdown allowed. Videos describing complicated relationships women have with their attraction to men became extremely popular, tagged with ‘#comphet’- a hashtag that currently stands at 14.6 million views. Common themes that people discuss in these TikToks are: feeling like you have extremely high standards for men to be attracted to them; thinking that women on a whole are just more attractive than men; only ever being attracted to fictional characters that are male or otherwise unattainable men, then immediately losing interest when their attention was gained; choosing men to be attracted to at random, and so on.
The creators of these videos often cite the ‘lesbian master doc’ as a resource to use if any of their videos resonated; if you were on Tumblr during its hay day then this document might be familiar to you, but it has recently had a renaissance on TikTok, especially during lockdown. When you google ‘lesbian master doc’, you’ll find a google doc that opens on the lesbian pride flag, with the first section of the document asking and explaining ‘what is compulsory heterosexuality?’ and its relation to lesbianism (2018). Compulsory heterosexuality, often abbreviated to ‘comp het’, is when heterosexuality is assumed to be the norm in a heteronormative, patriarchal society; from the words of the master doc, written by young Angeli Luz (@mindullmusings on TikTok), ‘being straight is something our culture tries to force on us.’ Adrienne Rich, the feminist academic who popularised the term, suggests that we must consider heterosexuality a political institution that works to control women for the benefit of the patriarchy and in turn, industrial capitalism (1980). Understanding heterosexuality as an institution helps contextualise the lived experiences of women who are just realising that they are lesbian despite having been in relationships with men or having truly thought they were attracted to men; it explains how something as personal as attraction can be part of systems much bigger than the individual experiencing it.
One TikTok user who has been popular for sharing their experiences of comp het is Paff, known as @dreadliftz on TikTok, a 27-year-old Australian who during lockdown had just come out of a long term relationship with a man and realised her attraction to men was something that was learned, rather than what came naturally to her. Paff explains in one of her TikToks that ‘Comp Het basically confuses actual attraction with assumed attraction’ (@dreadliftz, 2020) - an attraction produced by the culture we are in. Some symptoms of comp het she identified in herself were: feeling like something was missing in her relationships with men; wishing her boyfriend was more like her female friends, and mistaking her desire for male approval as attraction. During lockdown, Paff started talking to a woman she met on TikTok from Scotland, and 7 months later she had booked flights to come live with her now-girlfriend in Edinburgh. Paff herself learned about comp het from the ‘Am I a Lesbian Master doc’ and since this realisation has worked to educate others online about the reality of comp het, helping other young queer women to critically analyse their attraction to men. The comment sections of her videos are saturated with people relating to her experiences and sharing their own, with many at the start of their journeys of recovering from compulsory heterosexuality.
Judith Butler’s work on gender as performance can help us understand what might be happening here. Butler understands gender as a performance that is conducted through repetitive social actions that reaffirm that gender, acts that we are often not even aware of ‘performing’ as they are so culturally ingrained that they feel natural (1988). They explain how this is an extension of compulsory heterosexuality, as the survival of the traditional kinship structure relies on heterosexual gendered systems in order to further reproduction of humanity, and this is naturalised by society (1988, p.524). We can extend this understanding of gender to compulsory heterosexuality; taking the idea of gender as repetitive acts that are performed to an audience and applying it to sexuality, we can begin to ask what happens when there is a disruption to one’s routine performances when the ‘theatre’ changes. In this case, if the performance is compulsory heterosexuality, then the theatre is all places in which one typically interacts with others - such as work, school, pubs and so on. The theatre changed when the lockdown was imposed and the ‘everyday’ changed drastically; this then allowed many people to think critically about their performance, when given time to step away from it, and to consider whether this was a true reflection of themselves or rather what society expected of them.
It is important to note that while compulsory heterosexually does impact gay and bisexual men, that is not the dominant demographic that has participated in the TikTok revival of the concept, with much of it deriving from a document written for lesbians. The lesbian master doc acknowledges how comp het impacts men, and much recent academic discussion of comp het has involved the experiences of men. Upon looking for non-binary perspectives of compulsory heterosexuality, it has become clear that there is not much mainstream discussion of it on TikTok. This is not to minimise these perspectives, but rather to acknowledge the lack of space given to their experiences on this topic. It is important to understand the intersectional factors that make each experience of comp het more complex; Mattie Udora Richardson discusses how race adds another dimension onto compulsory heterosexuality, focusing on the experience of Black women: ‘Any divergences from the social norms of marriage, domesticity, and the nuclear family have brought serious accusations of savagery, pathology, and deviance upon Black people.’ (2003, page 64). However, this is a discussion that has not seemed to reach TikTok quite yet, with most of the experiences represented at the top of the comp het hashtag being that of young, queer, white women.
It is interesting to consider the butterfly effect of lockdown in other facets of life than the obvious health implications: it has become clear that while a horrible situation, the isolation of the pandemic has served as a period of recovery for young queer people to truly understand their sexuality and how compulsory heterosexuality may intersect with it. With lockdown being an enforced period away from work, education, and general routine, many found this period of reflection useful for unlearning and recovering from what heteronormative culture had imposed on them. With this time and the help of the queer community on TikTok, many young women realised that they are lesbian. This time helped them question their subconscious performance when they were allowed a new perspective on their ‘theatre’. Where we go from here is the next logical step: what will life be like post-lockdown for these newly-realised queer people, and what knock-on effect will it have on wider society’s understanding of heterosexuality?
@dreadliftz, 2020. [Online]
Available at: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMeNP4B8T/
[Accessed 17 February 2021].
Judith Butler, 1988. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre journal (Washington, D.C.), 40(4), pp.519–531.
Kale, S. 2020. How coronavirus helped TikTok find its voice. The Guardian, 26 April (available on-line:
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/26/how-coronavirus-helped-tiktok-find-its-voice accessed 1 December 2020)
Luz, A., 2018. Am I A Lesbian?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.docdroid.net/N46Ea3o/copy-of-am-i-a-lesbian-masterdoc-pdf
[Accessed 16 2 2021].
Rich, A., 2002. Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence (1980),
Udora Richardson, Mattie, 2003. No More Secrets, No More Lies: African American History and Compulsory Heterosexuality. Journal of Women's History, 15(3), pp.63–76