I started using TikTok in late 2020. Not long after joining, the app began feeding me videos by queer women who enthusiastically praised something called the "Lesbian Masterdoc," describing it as the key to "discovering," "figuring out," or "finding out" their sexuality.1 I, then a willing audience to anything that might clue me in to my own sexuality, googled "Lesbian Masterdoc" and clicked on the first result: a thirty-one-page, double-spaced, anonymous PDF titled "Am I A Lesbian?"2

The Lesbian Masterdoc is addressed to a second-person singular "you," a presumed woman or nonbinary person. The Masterdoc reads as a self-help document. It suggests that compulsory heterosexuality, or the idea that "being straight is something our culture tries to force on us," uniquely affects lesbians.3 Several introductory sections provide a (lite) crash course into compulsory heterosexuality and lesbianism "What Is Compulsory Heterosexuality?", "How do I know if I'm a lesbian?", "Conflicting feelings about men" and then the Masterdoc walks you through a bulleted list of feelings that you may have had in order to determine if your attraction to men is genuine.4 (Here, the author adopts the rare first-person: "[i]f you relate or identify to a lot of these things, I'd say it's worth an investigation into why so many of these things resonate with you"; "[i]n no way are these all the experiences of lesbians who once thought they liked men, but these are the most common ones from lesbians I have gathered."5) A conclusion section, "You might be a lesbian if TL;DR," contains a pithy seventy-one bullet points, including statements such as "you wish you were a lesbian so you could escape the discomfort of dating men," "men are okay in theory but terrible in practice," "you can't imagine having a happy and fulfilling future with a man."6

The list spoke to me. Did I wish I were not attracted to men? Yes. Did I "dread the idea of a future with a man?"7 Yes again. I had felt many of these things but so had many of my friends who did not identify as lesbian and had no plans to do so anytime soon. This was a constant refrain to our conversations: we asked ourselves why heterosexuality could often feel so bad for women; why it was so personally exhausting, humiliating, and guilt-inducing to be straight; why we knew so few women who, by their mid-twenties, had not experienced sexual assault, intimate partner violence, or extreme misogyny at the hands of men. In short, I already knew that heterosexuality did not work for me. But it also did not work for many of my straight or bisexual female friends. So how could this alone make me a lesbian?

Many of the TikTok videos referencing the Lesbian Masterdoc are collated under the hashtag #comphet, which is the Internet's abbreviation for "compulsory heterosexuality," the term that Adrienne Rich developed in her 1980 essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Today Adrienne Rich is remembered as an essayist, a poet, and an important figure in second-wave feminism, a movement whose complex inheritances continue to be debated and criticized. She is also remembered for helping Janice Raymond write the violently transphobic book The Transsexual Empire (1979). Although Rich's name is never cited, the Masterdoc draws heavily upon her "Compulsory Heterosexuality" essay. Yet the definition of compulsory heterosexuality that emerges in the Masterdoc constitutes a major departure from Rich's essay in its considerations of what lesbian history looks like, and how to interpret this history in the present. Taking this difference between Rich and the Masterdoc as a point of departure, I want to offer an intellectual history of debates over how American lesbianism is shaped by desire and politics. This history reveals that contestations of the meaning of lesbianism are central to questions about how to repudiate or reform heterosexuality, and thus also central to heteropessimism's provocations.

For Rich, compulsory heterosexuality refers to the inaccurate assumption that women are innately attracted to men, as well as the erasure of lesbian existence from feminist scholarship, especially history.8 Rich prefers the expansivity of lesbian existence over the "clinical and limiting ring" of lesbianism, because lesbian existence encompasses "the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continued creation of the meaning of that existence."9 In other words, lesbian existence may have meant different things at different moments in time, and its meaning will continue to evolve as women adopt new ways of relating to the world and each other. This existence happens on what Rich calls the lesbian continuum, i.e.the "range . . . of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman."10 Put simply, living on the lesbian continuum involves committing to any action(s) that could lessen the economic, political, and social power of men. The most obvious example of the lesbian continuum is choosing women "as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, [and] community."11 Notice that only one of these identities overtly involves being sexually or romantically attracted to other women. Think of Elena Ferrante's four-volume novel My Brilliant Friend, where although both Lila and Lenù experience heterosexual romantic attraction towards men, they live and write for each other. Other examples might include, as Ellie Anderson suggests, commiserating and consciousness-raising with other women, or engaging in research and pedagogy that deepens one's "commitment to the intersections between non-monogamy and justice for people of all genders."

According to Rich, centering one's life away from men is, importantly, a choice that all women should be able to make, regardless of who they sexually desire. However, making this choice may feel impossible because it feels new; we have far more historical evidence of those who have perpetuated heteropatriarchy than we do of those who resisted it, even though these resistors have always been around. This is the effect of compulsory heterosexuality: the destruction of the historical evidence of lesbian existence and (even feminist) scholars' apathy towards recovering it  makes it impossible for many women to conceptualize an escape from straight culture. In order to disrupt the perpetuation of heterosexual life as an unquestioned norm, it is necessary to show that, for some, lesbian existence has always been a liberatory possibility. Therefore, at the heart of Rich's conception of compulsory heterosexuality is a powerful argument about how history shapes our shared present and future.

Like Rich's essay, the Lesbian Masterdoc asks its readers to be historically reflective. Yet it does not ask readers to reflect on the suppression of lesbian existence across centuries or their responsibility in recovering the evidence of that existence but instead on the ways in which its readers have suppressed their own innate lesbian existence due to the continued prevalence of compulsory heterosexuality in contemporary culture. The implication is that only lesbians experience compulsory heterosexuality, and that therefore if you read the Masterdoc and see yourself in it you must be a lesbian. But how does this explain the TikToks by bisexual women insisting that they are not lesbians, even though the Masterdoc seems to think they are; or my straight roommate who shuddered when I read parts of the Masterdoc aloud to her, recognizing her own complaints about men in some of its diagnoses?12 That these women identify with the Masterdoc does not mean they are unknowingly lesbian. Rather, these instances confirm Rich's definition of heterosexuality as a "political institution" that affects all women.13 At times the Masterdoc grasps for similar language: "[i]f you love women but feel fake about it, just remember that those feelings are the product of a patriarchal society which has conditioned you to believe the false idea that you are defined by your ties to men."14 We hear echoes of Rich's "political institution" of heterosexuality in the Masterdoc's description of a "patriarchal society" that discourages women-oriented affection. Still, the causal relationship created through the above "if" clause suggests that compulsory heterosexuality only describes the feelings of women who already love women (but feel fake about it). Conversely, Rich would say that compulsory heterosexuality prevents women from ever considering the possibility of loving other women in the first place.

Each of these definitions of compulsory heterosexuality implies different understandings of lesbianism. On the one hand, the Masterdoc overwhelmingly equates lesbianism with the desire to be physically intimate with women. It suggests that early signs of lesbianism might include "[w]anting to kiss your female best friend on the mouth for literally any reason ('to practice for boys' included)," or "[g]etting butterflies or feeling like you can't get close enough when cuddling with a close female friend."15 On the other hand, Rich takes lesbian existence as evidence of the erotic existing "in female terms: as that which is unconfined to any single part of the body or solely to the body itself."16 Borrowing from Audre Lorde's essay "On the Uses of the Erotic," Rich sees the erotic as a sharing of intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual joy between women. It is a conceptualization of the erotic completely different to patriarchal definitions of the term, which see the erotic as synonymous with physical sexuality originating from, and circumscribed by, the bedroom. Moreover, Rich argues that "lifelong sexual lesbians" are not necessarily engaged in a lesbian existence because they might still be caught up in "male-identification," or "the casting of one's social, political, and intellectual allegiances with men."17 For her, living a lesbian existence means committing to undo the widespread assumption that there exists a "mystical/biological heterosexual inclination, a 'preference' or 'choice' which draws women towards men"; it also means committing to identifying and learning from those who, historically, have resisted that "choice."18

In short, the Masterdoc hints that compulsory heterosexuality is a way of thinking about one's relationship to the world it is an epistemological orientation that one can, with practice, choose to opt out of whereas for Rich, compulsory heterosexuality describes how the world is organized. In the Masterdoc, individual lesbianism represents a potential escape from compulsory heterosexuality. The Masterdoc states that "[m]any lesbians STILL struggle with compulsory heterosexuality even when they know they don't want men," thereby implying that this is not a struggle for some lesbians; and it says that "compulsory heterosexuality is built into you from the moment you're born into this time and place, and it takes a long time to dismantle it."19 There is no doubt that being lesbian or inhabiting any kind of queer identity involves some renegotiation of tradition. It can be a joyful, liberating thing to realize that one's ideas of relationships, sex, friendship, community, and self-knowledge can exist outside of the scripts that were given to us. Yet Rich argues that self-enlightenment doesn't go far enough in addressing the systemic effects of compulsory heterosexuality. Instead, what is needed is the kind of collectivity implied by the lesbian continuum. In sum, while the Masterdoc sees individual lesbianism as an end to suffering under the political institution of heterosexuality, for Rich, communal lesbian existence (made available to all women, regardless of who they sleep with, through the "lesbian continuum") is a pathway to approaching the institutional problem itself.

Of course, today is not Rich's time and place, and the Masterdoc is not contemporaneous with Rich's "Compulsory Heterosexuality" essay. Yet the very existence of the Masterdoc first published on Tumblr in 2018 indicates that we are still struggling to undo the political institution of heterosexuality, just as radical feminists debated the relations between desire, politics, and sexuality in the 1960s and '70s. In second-wave feminism, "pro-woman" feminists and "anti-sex" feminists disagreed about whether pleasure under patriarchy was morally reprehensible (the anti-sex camp) or, to borrow Amia Srinivasan's words, a "strategic necessity" (pro-woman).20 Srinivasan describes how when lesbian feminists began to argue "for the compatibility of their sexual identities with their politics . . . they did so by framing lesbianism as a matter of political solidarity rather than innate sexual orientation."21 This is how the concept of "political lesbianism" emerged. Yet in the years that followed, "political lesbianism" shifted in meaning so that it came to refer to a conscious choice for separatism from men, as opposed to a woman's innate desire for other women.

Today, contemporary feminism remains divided on how to interpret political lesbianism's afterlives. In his 2019 essay "On Heteropessimism," Asa Seresin dismisses political lesbianism, along with celibacy, as a "largely outmoded option" in reacting to heterosexuality's inconveniences.22 Unlike Rich's definition of compulsory heterosexuality, which describes an institutional problem, heteropessimist utterances express personal affects like shame, embarrassment, and regret about one's own heterosexuality. Seresin acknowledges that individual heteropessimism contradicts feminist theory's belief in the systemic ills of heterosexuality: "[i]t doesn't make sense to extricate your own straight experience from straightness as an institution"; "heterosexuality is nobody's personal problem." This attention to the personal makes heteropessimism conceptually similar to colloquial understandings of compulsory heterosexuality in the Masterdoc and on TikTok, which are also individualistic. We may assume that Seresin calls political lesbianism "outmoded" because it is largely understood to be a flawed response to the systemic problems associated with heterosexuality. Yet Seresin also doesn't consider political lesbianism to be a possible solution to heteropessimism. Rather, he argues that a "radical transformation" of heterosexuality may be possible through the act of description. In this cluster, Adora Svitak questions, "[h]ow much space have women been granted historically to express highly embodied desire?" Likewise, Seresin suggests that we need more women to account for the appeals of heterosexuality, to explain what is good about it and why they remain attached to it in the first place.

In discounting political lesbianism as a viable response to heteropessimism, Seresin assumes the popular opinion that desire is inescapable and unchangeable: straight people cannot stop being straight, even though (they say) it is bad for them. This follows the thinking of Andrea Long Chu, who in early 2018 wrote that political lesbianism is a "failed project" because "nothing good comes of forcing desire to conform to political principle."23 For Chu, political lesbianism is linked to modern-day TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) discourse not only because TERFs have "inherited political lesbianism's dread of desire's ungovernability," but also because women who had formerly identified with the lesbian separatist movement are now active in anti-trans discourse. The larger context of Chu's provocative essay "On Liking Women" is "to countenance the notion that transition expresses not the truth of an identity but the force of a desire." In other words, Chu speaking from her experience as a trans woman argues that (her) transness is about wanting to be a woman, rather than intrinsically being one.

In contrast to Chu, Amia Srinivasan sees political lesbianism and its teachings on desire more positively. Shortly after the publication of Chu's n+1 essay "On Liking Women," Srinivasan argued in the London Review of Books that desire itself is a "political question," not a metaphysical one, and that we can look towards the history of radical feminism for help on how to go about interrogating desire.24 Then, for a summer 2018 interview in The Point, Chu rebutted Srinivasan, pointing out that Srinivasan's view of desire's malleability risks leading to a moralization of desire that would predominantly affect marginalized people. In 2021, Srinivasan defended her original position, saying that it is impossible to opt out of the politicization of desire because desire is always inherently political.25 (Srinivasan draws from Rich's "Compulsory Heterosexuality" essay in both of her pieces.) Taking lesbianism as an example, Srinivasan suggests that we need to collapse the distinction between political lesbians and "real" lesbians. She asks, "how often is there a lesbian relationship that is not in some important sense political that is not at a deep level about honoring what women, outside the script of heterosexual male domination, can have and be together?"26 As Chu's interviewer for The Point puts it, this debate between Chu and Srinivasan revolves around two main questions: 1) is it possible to change our desires, and, if so, 2) do we have a responsibility to do so, especially if our desires are "reflective of discriminatory political practices?"27

I'm interested in a different set of questions: are we responsible for knowing our desires, and what impedes our ability to do so? In another one of Srinivasan's essays, "On Not Sleeping with Your Students," she again mobilizes Rich, this time to illustrate how compulsory heterosexuality structures desire in relationships between (male) professors and (female) students. When women admire other women, they first assume that they want to be like them; but when women admire men, they assume that they must like them.28 Srinivasan points out that whether or not a student is likely to be attracted to their professor is the result of "gendered socialization," not an innate biological difference between women and men.29 Professor-student relationships thus exemplify how "a practice which is consensual can also be systematically damaging."30 So how can women redirect their desires in better places when compulsory heterosexuality so often dictates who and how and what we want? For many women, an academic education involves learning to recognize the signs of compulsory heterosexuality, and it involves reorganizing your life in response to what you have learned. Yet Srinivasan's underlying argument, I think, is that those who are already in positions of power such as male professors have a greater responsibility to interrogate their desires than do the women that admire them. Still, the structure of compulsory heterosexuality means that for women, desire is produced out of social norms which, in turn, obscure the possibilities of having agency over those desires.

There is another view of desire, which is that it is inherently unknowable. Of course, desire always implies absence: we want what we don't have. But my point is that we often don't even know our desires; or we know some of what we desire, but certainly not all of it. When I came out as lesbian, I did so, ultimately, because the word felt right to me. Alongside Chu, I felt that I was expressing the fact that I wanted to be lesbian, not that I already was one. Since then, I've maneuvered my way through the queer ritual of excavating one's past, looking for signs of lesbianism that were previously hidden to me. I now see that some of them were there all along. Overall, though, coming out was a humbling process, because it revealed to me how much of myself I have yet to figure out. For everything I now know about myself and my desires, there are millions more that I'm still figuring out, and others that I never will. In this sense, desire is a parallel to self-knowledge, because coming closer to understanding our desires means that we come closer to understanding ourselves. But desire and self-knowledge will always elude us, and I'm ultimately happy to exist in a world in which I can be curious and surprised about my desires, and, in turn, be curious and surprised by myself. To borrow Katherine Angel's words: "The fantasy of total autonomy, and of total self-knowledge, is not only a fantasy; it's a nightmare."31

Desire is anticipatory  it is oriented towards what we want out of the future. Yet over the past few years, I have come to learn that lesbians (at least the ones I know) care so much about history. We care about interpreting our own histories, as the Masterdoc encourages us to do, and we care about understanding the histories that precede us, in recovering the kinds of collectivities that go beyond personal experience. This also means recognizing that history, unlike the present, reveals to us its imperfections. When I told a lesbian Twitter friend of mine that I was writing about compulsory heterosexuality, they responded that they have never personally read Rich's essay. "There's a whole thing about how the fact she was transphobic precedes her reputation today," this friend said to me, "so it's like how do this generation's lesbians engage with that." I agree with Srinivasan that there's "feminist value in a certain fearless reckoning with the rich, contradictory history of feminist thought and practice."32 But my friend's decision to not read Rich still stems from their deep engagement with the legacies of second-wave feminism, and from their engagement with more recent citations of those legacies, like the Lesbian Masterdoc and Elif Batuman's 2022 novel Either/Or, which names Rich's essay as an influence in the endnotes.

Chu and Srivinasan are among the many contemporary feminists who return to second-wave feminism in their scholarship. This return to the past doesn't show that we got it right the first (or second) time. Rather, it reveals that a commitment to historical knowledge and a reparative approach to that history  is built into lesbian experience and lesbian scholarship. This is in contrast with heterosexuality's endless repetitions of itself, in which it can never come up for air quite long enough to figure out what needs to change. It also suggests that queer futures will emerge only out of serious considerations of the past. "Compared to the heady possibilities of the queer world to come," says Seresin, "heterosexuality appears unbearably drab and predictable."33 The future I hope for is one in which we recognize feminist history's shortcomings but continue to engage with it in serious and provocative ways.

Célina Sciamma's 2021 film Petite maman tells the story of eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who has just lost her maternal grandmother. She visits the home where her mother grew up so that her parents may remove her grandmother's belongings and prepare to sell the house. While exploring the woods close to the house, Nelly meets a young girl who looks just like her (played by Joséphine's twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz). Over the course of a few days, a succession of uncanny similarities in their personal lives including the revelation that Marion's grandmother is also named Nelly leads Nelly to realize that Marion is her mother. Nelly announces this to Marion. Marion asks, "You come from the future?" and Nelly responds, "I come from the path behind you." It's more or less the same for us: in looking forward, we seem to find our way back to where we started.

Caroline Godard (@carolifegodard) is a PhD student in French at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation research traces theories of the contemporary in early modern French literature. She also writes and edits publicly about feminism in the present.


  1. See the following representative examples: @kp.creates, "i would like to thank the lesbian masterdoc and my mother dearest for this discovery *bows* #foryou #lgbtq #lesbian #wlw #eyeliner," TikTok, October 7, 2021; @kaeasinhi, "presenting: the lesbian masterdoc hope this helps! (i did not make this we found it somewhere ok) #lgbtq #comphet #lesbian #fyp #wlw," TikTok, October 29, 2022; @etherealg0d, "Reply to @writtenbyseven this doc really helped me to start breaking down comphet and stop confusing male validation with attraction #masterdoc #lesbian #sapphic #wlw #lesbiansoftiktok🏳️‍🌈," TikTok, December 22, 2021; @feralfairy_, untitled video, TikTok, April 8, 2022.[]
  2. A June 2022 article in The Cut identified Anjeli Luz as the author of the Lesbian Masterdoc. Michelle Santiago Cortés, "Can a PDF Really Tell You if You're Queer?," The Cut, June 24, 2022.[]
  3. "Am I A Lesbian?," 2.[]
  4. "Am I A Lesbian?," 1.[]
  5. "Am I A Lesbian?," 9. []
  6. "Am I A Lesbian?," 24-29.[]
  7. "Am I A Lesbian?," 26.[]
  8. Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980)," Journal of Women's History 15, no. 3 (2003):13.[]
  9. Rich, 27.[]
  10. Rich, 27.[]
  11. Rich, 13.[]
  12. For example, see @taromilftea, "my friends don't believe me but like i SWEAR I AM!!... #foryou #bi #comphet #lesbians #help," TikTok, July 2, 2021. The text on this TikTok reads: "me explaining how 90% of the am i a lesbian masterdoc applies to me but i am definitely attracted to men." []
  13. Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," 17.[]
  14. "Am I A Lesbian?," 4.[]
  15. "Am I A Lesbian?," 15.[]
  16. Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," 28.[]
  17. Rich, 24.[]
  18. Rich, 17.[]
  19. "Am I A Lesbian?,", 4, 3.[]
  20. Amia Srinivasan, "The Right to Sex," in The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), 77-78. Originally published as "Does anyone have the right to sex?" in the London Review of Books, March 22, 2018.[]
  21. Srinivasan, "The Right to Sex," 79.[]
  22. Asa Seresin, "On Heteropessimism," The New Inquiry, October 9, 2019. []
  23. Andrea Long Chu, "On Liking Women," n+1, Winter 2018.[]
  24. I am citing from the 2021 republication of "The Right to Sex" in Srinivasan, The Right to Sex.The essay was originally published as "Does anyone have the right to sex?," London Review of Books, March 22, 2018.[]
  25. Srinivasan, "Coda: The Politics of Desire" in The Right to Sex, 93-122.[]
  26. Srinivasan, "Coda: The Politics of Desire," 99.[]
  27. Andrea Long Chu and Anastasia Berg, "Wanting Bad Things: Andrea Long Chu responds to Amia Srinivasan," The Point, July 18, 2018. []
  28. Srinivasan, "On Not Sleeping with Your Students," in The Right to Sex, 137-38.[]
  29. Srinivasan, "On Not Sleeping with Your Students,"138.[]
  30. Srinivasan, "On Not Sleeping with Your Students,"147.[]
  31. Katherine Angel, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2021), 114.[]
  32. Amia Srinivasan (@amiasrinivasan), "I'm reluctant to conclude this. I think there's feminist value in showing that parts of a worldview can be prised apart, some kept and others discarded; and feminist value in a certain fearless reckoning with the rich, contradictory history of feminist thought and practice." Twitter, September 9, 2021.[]
  33. Seresin, "On Heteropessimism."[]