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What you need to know about Compulsory Heterosexuality (Comphet) and Sexual Orientation OCD 

By Elle Warren

May 10, 20249 min read minute read

Reviewed byPatrick McGrath, PhD

What is Compulsory Heterosexuality (Comphet)?

You’ve likely heard the term “comphet” tossed around in corners of the internet (or in real life) where discussions about sexuality take place. On TikTok, videos using #comphet have collected over 100 million views. Often, wading through conversations about comphet—short for “compulsory heterosexuality”—leads to more confusion than clarity, which can be especially frustrating if you’re someone who is trying to make sense of your own thoughts about your sexuality or sexual orientation

Simply put, comphet describes the idea that, in most places around the globe, there is an implicit pressure to conform to heterosexual norms. And when straight is the default, being anything but heterosexual is viewed as deviant, abnormal, and—oftentimes—not an option

Keep reading to learn more about the signs of comphet as well as Sexual Orientation OCD, a condition that could be mistaken for comphet if you aren’t aware of the true differences.

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The origin of compulsory heterosexuality 

The theory of comphet was first coined by queer feminist writer Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” The status quo, she explains, is “heterosexual until proven otherwise.” Comphet impacts people of all sexualities, but the original theory focused on its detriment to women and people assigned female at birth (AFABs). Heterosexuality is not always a preference, but rather something that’s imposed—and this helps to keep men in power by letting women believe they must be with men. 

A 1980 essay by Adrienne Rich introduced the concept of compulsory heterosexuality, or comphet.

More recently, comphet has been repopularized by something called “The Lesbian Masterdoc”—a 30-page document published on Tumblr by Angeli Luz in 2018. It’s a tool of self-reflection for women questioning their sexual identities, born out of Luz’s own attempt to distinguish between sexual orientation and societal conditioning. The Masterdoc contains an entire section called “Attraction Vs. Compulsory Heterosexuality,” and aims to help people understand when they may have ruled out the possibility that they could be queer because of the expectations we’re trained to adhere to.

Signs of comphet

Comphet can be so ingrained in our psyches since birth that it’s often difficult to spot how it factors into our lives. Here are some common ways it plays out:

  • You’ve picked an opposite-gender crush because you know that’s what you’re “supposed” to do.
  • You’re a woman who has talked yourself out of romantic feelings toward another woman or non-man because you think queerness is unlikely or abnormal. 
  • You’ve felt resentful toward people of sexual orientations other than straight because you follow the “rules” and believe that all people should conform. 
  • You’ve pursued an opposite-gender partner despite a lack of interest or desire, thinking maybe you just haven’t found “the right one” yet.
  • You’ve felt worry or fear when your partner has had friendships with someone of the opposite sex—since two people of opposite genders are “bound to” have a physical and/or romantic attraction toward one another and could never be platonic.

You might experience a range of emotions as a sign of comphet. Cassidy Dallas, LICSW, a queer therapist and educator who specializes in working with the queer community, explains that “you might feel numb, detached or disengaged when friends or loved ones discuss romantic interest in a heterosexual way, like, for example, a woman feeling dread, dissociation, bodily discomfort, or confusion before, during, or after a romantic, sexual, or physical encounter with a man. This similar feeling could come up when discussing dating with friends, and everyone else shares heterosexual experiences.”

What’s the controversy surrounding comphet?

It is worth noting that there is some controversy surrounding comphet. “Some criticism of the original theory of comphet has suggested that it could contribute to the erasure of bisexual identities as well as identities outside the gender binary,” says Dallas. For example, some say that the implication is that bisexual people are actually just gay, but since they’re responding to societal pressures, they still maintain some degree of comphet to keep up appearances of desire for the opposite gender.

“More work has been done to see the specific ways comphet is oppressive to all of us in varying intensity,” including men or masculine people, says Dallas. Theories about comphet today are more inclusionary and acknowledge that it affects all people regardless of their gender identities and sexual orientation. 

What comphet is not 

It bears repeating that comphet is a social institution and pressure, and while it can certainly cause some people to think a lot about their own sexual orientation, for many people it’s not something they ever have a conscious thought about.

That’s a lot different than having sexual intrusive thoughts and incessant doubt about your sexuality, which is a symptom of a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) called Sexual Orientation OCD (SO-OCD). 

“A person with SO-OCD might be excessively concerned with whether their behaviors align them with a particular sexual orientation—’Why did I look at that guy at the gym?’ ‘What does it mean that I think this woman is attractive?’ ‘What if I’m actually straight and am not really in love with my partner?’” says Nicholas Farrell, PhD, Director of Clinical Development & Programming for NOCD, the leading telehealth provider of OCD therapy. “These thoughts can take hold of a person’s mind and not let go until they’ve found sufficient proof that these fears are unfounded.”

The specific obsessions vary for everyone, but in all cases, they cause significant distress. To find relief, people with SO-OCD engage in compulsions—mental or physical behaviors done to try to solve or get rid of those thoughts, or prevent something bad from happening. 

Common SO-OCD obsessions:

  • What if I’ve been in denial about my sexuality, and when I realize the truth, I blow up my life?
  • Am I secretly in love with my best friend, or is this some kind of false attraction?
  • Maybe I’ll always be questioning my sexuality and never be able to stop wondering.

Common SO-OCD compulsions:

  • Avoiding interactions with people of certain genders if being around them triggers your intrusive thoughts. 
  • Compulsive dating for the sake of proving to yourself that you have the “right” sexual orientation.
  • Seeking reassurance from others about your sexual history and preferences.

Comphet vs. Sexual Orientation OCD: Key Differences 

It’s normal to still be asking yourself, Am I questioning my sexuality because of OCD, or because I’m challenging comphet? The primary difference between comphet and SO-OCD is that OCD obsessions and compulsions feel very urgent and specific, says Tracie Zinman-Ibrahim, LMFT, CST, a therapist at NOCD who has treated countless people with this disorder. It causes people to become so concerned with knowing definitively who they are attracted to that they believe it’s dire if they don’t find the answers right this second.

Often, patients are not necessarily worried about their sexuality itself; rather, the uncertainty and doubt they feel about their identity is highly distressing and overwhelming. They might say, “I don’t care if I’m gay or straight; I just want to know for sure,” says Zinman-Ibrahim.

“It feels a bit different to be worried about comphet and to be consumed by the fear of getting my sexuality wrong,” writes Reddit user pr15m4. “I literally knew that I have been at least bi-sexual/pan-sexual for ages whilst only having had relationships with cis-men (I am F). Now that I am single, my brain makes me think that it’s ‘super important to figure out RIGHT NOW who I want to date’—basically my OCD telling me I need to urgently make a decision and reach a final and 100% certain (!) conclusion.”

Where to get support for comphet or SO-OCD

The fact that comphet is a social construct while SO-OCD is a mental health disorder means that coping with each of them requires a drastically different approach.  

With comphet, the key is to understand when it’s affecting you and get support when it’s leading to distress. This could be in the form of opening up to trusted loved ones, or seeking professional help. It’s important to make sure that any mental health professional you see is the right fit for you and your needs, so be sure to ask your prospective therapist during a consultation call if they’re comfortable and experienced with discussing sexuality. 

Here are some additional tips for coping with comphet:

1. Apply self-compassion. Again, this isn’t something that is your fault—it’s a force that has been placed on us by society.

2. Educate yourself on comphet. Through reliable resources, you may be able to gain a better understanding of comphet’s influence in your own life and feel less alone. Check out The Trevor Project’s resource center or watch this YouTube video, “Ask a Therapist: What is Compulsory Heterosexuality?” created by Kelly R. Minter.

3. Seek media with diverse representation. See a description of a movie, T.V. show, or book that includes queer characters? Watch or read it. Media representation helps to broaden our conception of what’s “the norm.” Seeing characters who follow their desires, rather than doing what’s expected, can inspire you to do the same.

4. If you think you might not be straight, engage with queer spaces and events. Having more queer people in your life can help you feel more connected to community and less tied to comphet. “Getting to live as our authentic selves and having space to understand ourselves makes us healthier and happier,” says Dallas.

While no one individual has the power to dismantle comphet, the good news about SO-OCD is that there is a way to recover. The evidence-based therapy to treat SO-OCD (and all forms of OCD) is called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, and it’s highly effective. Note that this specialized treatment is key. If you work with a traditional talk therapist or general CBT therapist who doesn’t practice ERP specifically, it’s very likely that OCD will get worse—not better.

ERP works by gradually exposing you to what triggers your intrusive thoughts—like certain words, people, or places that cause you to confront your sexuality, for example—and teaching you response prevention techniques to prevent compulsions. In other words, instead of avoiding dating altogether or dating compulsively, you’ll learn that there’s a different way to cope with your discomfort. You will never be forced into anything before you’re ready, but you will be encouraged to take steps that move you toward recovery.

Over time, people who use ERP therapy learn to accept uncertainty and therefore don’t find their thoughts to be as intrusive. As one NOCD member, mtaylor25, explains, there’s a great deal of relief that results from this process: “I have SO-OCD, and even though it’s really hard, it’s best to not ask for reassurance. The best thing for me to do is say to myself, ‘Maybe I’m gay, maybe I’m straight, who really knows? It’s not a big deal right now.’”

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