Freud. Although much of what the man came up with in the way of explanations for human behaviour can be understood as profoundly misogynist/problematic, some of the “complexes” he identified do (still) hold water. The Madonna-Whore Complex, for example, is far more prevalent than many would like to acknowledge, so allow me.

What’s Madonna got to do with it?

In case you’ve never heard of the good ol’ MWC, let me break it down for you. This, my friends, is compartmentalization at its best (worst). The aforementioned complex can be described as the dominant pattern of thought that divides women’s humanity into two neat and tidy categories that don’t overlap: Madonnas and Whores. The pure and the tainted. The nurturing and the depraved. The asexual and the sexual. The loved and respected versus the desired. Uncomfortable yet? Personally, I was already uncomfortable with the not overlapping bit. How realistic is that?

According to our friend Sigmund, men with this complex desire a sexual partner who has been degraded (the whore), while they are incapable of desiring the respected partner (the Madonna). "Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love,” he wrote. Clinical psychologist Uwe Hartmann, writing in 2009, stated that the complex "is still highly prevalent in today's patients.” 

How this plays out today

Ever notice that OKCupid question: “Could you respect someone you slept with on the first date?” If you thought the question was weird, just know that it’s there for a reason. There are men who answer no and yet would never apply the same standard to themselves. The MWC is the assumption that the traits we value as stereotypically “feminine” are at odds with embracing one’s sexuality, and that you can’t be "kind, understanding, composed and also sexually empowered". Not sure about you, but I’ve met a lot of dudes online who are “married/attached but looking,” and when pressed, will invariably talk about how they love their wives/girlfriends, and will never leave them, but the sex just isn’t there. 

But the reality is, you can’t separate Madonnas and whores any more than you can separate men and women. We all play into this shit. If you’ve ever lied to your boyfriend about how many people you’ve slept with to appear less experienced, you may be reacting to attitudes present in your guy, but the lies only make it worse. I dated a guy once who identified as a “feminist,” and yet accused me of pressuring him every time I expressed a desire to have sex. It took him two years (we were together for five) and a lot of emotional labour and suffering on my part for him to admit/realize that he had issues with a woman initiating sex. Working through it after that was no walk in the park, but we did manage to do some unravelling. I know other women who enjoyed incredible sex lives with their men only to have said men completely lose their attraction once said women became pregnant/gave birth. Madonna-tinted glasses indeed. How sad.

It works against women (and men)

Holding a view of women as either Madonnas or whores not only limits women's sexual expression, but it creates a false dichotomy, and impossible standards, not to mention it strips women of their right to pleasure in the same way that men simply expect it, without question. To quote Beyonce’s Flawless, “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” It may be 2018 people, but some of us may as well be laying on Freud’s couch.

In society as we know it, then, women who exhibit the openness, tenderness, and empathy of “the virgin mother" while at the same time embodying the sexuality, directness, and courage of the “whore” are often rejected, sought ambivalently, or sought only for some of these facets by men. In other words, the best of us get the shit end of the stick. I’ll be the first to announce that I’m the full, totally overlapping package, and when men ask me why I’m still single, I immediately rule them out.

Where does this attitude come from?

I hope the world as we know it does live to shed the oppressive weight of colonization and organized religion, since these power structures are completely connected to the repression of women’s sexualities. The continual demonization of female promiscuity, slut-shaming in all its forms, rape culture in all its horrifying dismissiveness, are all prevalent today, and are all a product of the Madonna-Whore Complex, which is simply an identifiable manifestation of men’s fear of women’s power, and thus of our sexual prowess (the two are heavily linked). And then you get the spreading of harmful myths, like the idea that men have higher sex drives, that women are naturally more passive, that men are the hunters, yadeeyah. The fact that women continually suppress their inner huntresses to make men feel less threatened—like we’re letting them win at ball—does not help matters. And the fact that generation after generation continues to (attempts to) socialize boys and girls to enforce this does not help matters either.

I don’t know about you, but just because most of the men I’ve ever been with have been threatened by my sexuality and hoped I would tone it down and let them do the initiating, does not mean I have been able to. Oh, I used to try. When I was far less experienced I tried to shape my sexuality in man’s image. Didn’t work for me. Worked against me. And if you want my opinion, any guy who appreciates this is seriously not worth the time. Isn’t this a denial of real women? And therefore hatred of real women?

Show and let show, shall we?

Rather than give each other sexist, oppressive advice like “don’t sleep with him on the first date,” or “don’t text unless he texts first,” which is a hell of a bad way to start something with someone worthwhile, we would all do well to instead ignore the “rules of conduct,” instead texting when we want, bedding who we want when we want, and not denying our past or present desires to paint a picture we think will please someone else. We are all beings with passive/active, compassionate/passionate, and feminine/masculine—all bound up together. Let’s stop being afraid to show our true colours and start acting like the wildly complex beings that we are.

One love, babes.


Image Source: Tony Futura