The Madonna-Whore Complex and You

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Hey Jenny, Jenny
Why are you crying?
There’s a beauty of a moon in the sky
But I guess when you’ve been
leading such a sheltered life
You never lift your head and look so high

The process of getting better at dating and relationships – especially for men – is a tricky one. As much as men need to work to improve the practical aspects of their game – the ability to approach stranger, knowing how to flirt, the use of body language, even how to master the power of texting and phone calls – they also need to work on the mental aspects.

Earlier this week, we talked about self-limiting beliefs and how they can hold you back from the life you want. Today, we’re going to continue that conversation, dealing with one of the most distressingly common beliefs out there – one that actively affects women as much as men, distressingly enough.

We’re talking about the Madonna/Whore complex. You can see it manifested in pop culture – the virginal, even repressed “good girl” (usually a blonde) and the “fallen” femme fatale (usually a brunette) for whom sex is a weapon and men are merely tools are playthings. You see it in how men – and women – refer to women’s behavior and in how men treat the women in their lives.

And this belief is hurting everyone.

What Is It?

The Madonna1 /Whore complex was first encoded into psychological literature by Sigmund Freud as the idea that men (and women) codify women into two camps: saintly “Madonnas” and debased “whores”. The good girls – the Madonnas – are virtuous, innocent, pure and virginal, almost to the point of asexuality. The bad girls – the whores – are sexually voracious, indiscriminate and aggressive… in fact, they are often depicted acting in a manner traditionally defined by male sexuality.

Also: constant inspiration for trashy Halloween costumes

Where Does It Come From?

Well, that’s a bit of a question mark, isn’t it? According to Sigmund Freud, it all stems from Mommy2 and the idea that men are disturbed by feeling the same affection that they once had for their mothers in their sex partner. Because they cannot bear the Oedipal conflict (familial love associated with their mother mixing with sexual desire) they divide women into two categories in their mind.

The dichotomy, however, has existed for centuries before Freud ever started having weird thoughts about cigars and seeing penises everywhere. The division of the saintly, non-sexual woman and the woman-as-sexual-being shows up all over the place. Medieval literature and poetry is rife with the imagery of sexual women being the downfall of men (La Morte D’Arthur, The Faerie Queene) and the pure women as the representation of “proper” life. Hell, in the book of Genesis, it’s Eve who seduces Adam into sin after she’d eaten from the Tree of Knowledge.

Frankly, in my experience and study3 it stems from the fear of female sexuality, a blurring of gender roles and the transfer of power.4

Men are frequently portrayed as being absolutely at the mercy of their own sexual desires, leaving women as the guardians of morality. Men, already feeling at a disadvantage, resent the authority and power over sex that women represent and blame women for their feelings of… impotence. Regulating female sexuality into the acceptable form – under the authority of men (the Madonna)  and the unacceptable form – acting in a manner similar to men (the Whore) provides the illusion of control.

In addition, control of female sexuality also means control of reproduction. Because men had no way of being assured that they weren’t actually expending effort raising someone else’s child (thus contributing to the spread of someone else’s genes, rather than their own), locking a woman’s sexuality to specific rules meant that they could have greater control over who the father is.

So What’s The Problem?

When the sweat is sizzling on
your skin in the dark
And you’re desperate now
for somewhere to turn
Every muscle in rebellion
Every nerve is on edge
And every limb has been erotically burned

It’s easy to think of this as an “old-world” problem; after all, this is the 21st century. We’re living in a post-Third Wave Feminism world. Women are encouraged, nay, expected to take ownership of their sexuality, to be empowered sexual beings… right?

And yet this dichotomy still exists. Women who are considered to be “too” sexy or sexual are condemned for the crime of being the “whore”. Witness the recent manufactured controversy with Sandra Fluke’s testimony before Congress on the matter of government subsidization of hormonal birth control. Despite the fact that her testimony was focused on the non-reproductive benefits of the Pill – controlling her friend’s fibroid ovarian cysts – she became the poster child for unrestrained sexuality to the Right. She was accused of being a whore (metaphorically and literally), told that she was having “far too much sex” by people who don’t seem to have any idea how birth control works and called a “sperm-gulping gutter slut”  (and worse) by the right-wing echo chamber.

All of the insults directed Fluke’s way were of a sexual nature, implying that not only was she having too much sex but that this marked her as being a horrible person on the whole. The suggestion that she is a sexual being carries the implication that she is otherwise worthless because she’s sexual.

The concept of slut-shaming – bashing or insulting a woman for being a sexual being – also springs from this dichotomy. Because a woman doesn’t follow the role of restrained sexuality that culture has laid out for her (the path of the Madonna), she is to be mocked and shamed. The fault of a Whore’s treatment is focused solely on her. If she were to be proper, innocent and pure, she wouldn’t be bringing this upon herself.

As much as the Whore represents fear of unrestrained sexuality, the Madonna is equally patronizing and insulting to women. By putting the Madonna on the pedestal of saintliness and purity, she becomes something to be “protected”. Her role is to be submissive and subservient to men; just as the Whore is meant to be punished, the Madonna is to be preserved and worshiped. Her personhood is disregarded.

It’s About More Than Just Sex

The difference between the Madonna and the Whore goes beyond just sexual expression. The division of “good girl” from “bad girl” covers societal codes for behavior as well. The Good Girl is submissive. She doesn’t act too forward or aggressive for fear of offending others. She’s quiet. She goes along to get along. The Bad Girl, on the other hand, is a bitch. She’s brassy. She’s loud. She stands her ground or even pushes for more. She makes a fuss.

She acts more masculine.

A woman who acts too male, too much like The Whore – who enjoys a masculine sense of sexuality – is punished and reviled. The more feminine Madonna is adored because of her submissiveness.

“You *know* we have the better parties too…”

How The Madonna/Whore Complex Affects Men

You’ve been nothing but an angel
Every day of your life
And now you wonder what
it’s like to be damned

As bad as the division of female sexuality is in general, it also takes it’s toll on relationships.

Men – especially men who have little to no experience in sexual relationships – often have a hard time with the concept that women are sexual beings. Or, for that matter, that women enjoy – or even want – sex as much as men do. The belief that women aren’t sexual beings – or that only certain women are – leads to difficulty not only relating to their potential girlfriends and wives on a sexual level, but it can make it difficult for men to know when or how to escalate sexually. These men may be intimidated by the fact that she may be more sexually experienced than him, making him feel as though he is the inferior partner in the relationship.

Other men have a hard time relating to a woman for whom sexuality is an integrated part of her personality. The idea that men want “a lady in the street and a whore in the bedroom” springs from this dichotomy. The sexual woman – the Whore – is for him and him alone and the woman shouldn’t give a single hint that this sexual side exists outside of his immediate control.

The division of female sexuality makes it difficult for many men to properly appreciate his partner as a fully sexual person. Many men have issues with the separation of sex from love. Love is to be reserved for the “good” girl, the one you bring home to mother… the girl who is “marriage material”. Sex, on the other hand, is reserved for the “bad” girl, the one who excites you, the one you can’t think of without feeling an erection growing almost uncontrollably. The one who wears sexual attraction like perfume. The “party girls”. The “hot” ones.

Guess which of them is recommending “the Rusty Venture”?

While these men can and do desire their partner, when they enter a certain stage of the relationship – exclusivity for some, marriage for others, fatherhood for still others – the switch between Whore and Madonna is flipped. They may still feel desire for their partner, but it’s desire leavened with restraint. It’s hard for these men to fantazise about their girlfriends or wives the way they think of the hot stranger at the end of the bar. Gone are the fantasies of slipping off to the bathroom in a crowded club for a blowjob or  a quickie in the changing rooms at Nordstrom. No more kinky, transgressive sex. “I can’t think of her that way,” they say. “She’s the mother of my children!

Despite seeing his partner as the Madonna, the man still has sexual needs – ones that he “can’t” satisfy with his wife. As a result, his gaze begins to wander to the Whore; because he doesn’t see her as sacred and “pure”, he can fully enjoy the “debased” sex he craves. He sees sex as being something “dirty”, which he can’t possibly share with the Madonna; he respects her too much to subject her to his base desires.

This becomes a prime recipe for infidelity on both sides. The man starts looking outside of his relationship for women he thinks he can be sexually honest with, while his partner is left unfulfilled and starts looking for sex and intimacy elsewhere.

Side note: Yes, I’m covering a feminist issue as part of a blog that’s primarily directed at helping men get better at dating. I fully realize that this can be seen as minimizing an important issue by turning it into “…and here’s how this helps you get laid.” That being said: I’m of the opinion that teaching men how to be a better person – or at least less of an asshole – is a critical part of the path of self-improvement that leads to getting better at handling relationships.

How Do You Fix It?

The first step for men dealing with a Madonna/Whore complex is to accept that all women are sexual beings. The division between “good girls” who don’t and “bad girls” who do is a remnant of a time and culture that no longer exists. A woman who has sex, enjoys sex, radiates sexuality is still a woman who is quite capable of being a caring and nurturing parent. Similarly, the girlfriend or wife you love is still a sexual being; the fact that you’re in a relationship or put a ring on her finger doesn’t mean that she doesn’t still crave the wild sweaty monkey sex the two of you used to have in the early days when you burned through every page in the Kama Sutra.

Embrace her bad side.

If you’re in the relationship already and you’re feeling the switch has already been flipped… well, the best thing you can do is fuck. Keeping the passion in your relationship alive can be difficult, but trying to restrain yourself because of some bogus idea of respect is only going to make it fade faster.

The point of a relationship is more than just finding a mother figure to raise your future progeny. You want a partner, yes, but she’s also a partner in crime. You’ve both signed on to share the adventure together, and that means sharing and experiencing the crazy-ass fantasies you have. Remind yourself that she’s as much of a sexual being as you are and start mixing up the sex. Make moves back to the transgressive, borderline illegal stuff you’ve always enjoyed.

Appreciate the fact that your angel has her share of devil inside her, or that your devil has that angelic side and embrace all of her.

Don’t flip the switch; break it off.

  1. as in the Virgin Mary, not the singer… and don’t think that Ms. Ciccone didn’t know what she was doing when she picked that stage name. []
  2. of course it does because, well, Freud…  []
  3. Dr. NerdLove is not a historian. []
  4. Dr. NerdLove is also not a psychologist []

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