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The Psychology of the Madonna Whore Complex

by | Aug 11, 2022 | MENTAL HEALTH, RELATIONSHIPS, SEXUALITY, SOCIAL ISSUES

couple in argument due to partner's madonna whore complex

“Where such men love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love.” This quote directly from Sigmund Freud describes a phenomenon he called the Madonna Whore Complex. The Madonna Whore Complex is deeply rooted in misogynic beliefs and is damaging to women on both an individual and societal level.

 

What Is The Madonna Whore Complex?

 

The Madonna Whore Complex (MWC) is a psychological complex often perpetuated by heterosexual, cisgender males which places women into two categories the “Madonna, “ a woman who is pure, virtuous, and nurturing, or a “Whore,” a woman who is deemed as overly sexual, manipulating, and promiscuous. The dichotomy of MWC creates a rigidity that limits women’s sexual expression, agency, and freedom by defining their sexuality into one of two categories.

 

The Psychology Behind The Madonna Whore Complex

 

Freud originally coined the term MWC to describe men in heterosexual relationships who no longer viewed their partners, for whom they had romantic feelings, as sexually attractive. It was Freud’s theory that men with MWC could not differentiate between their love for their mother and their love for their romantic partner. Men suffering from MWC often can’t view women’s sexuality as “loving” and “sexual.”

 

To cope with these feelings of anxiety, they compartmentalize their romantic love for women they deem to have the qualifications to be a wife and mother, but have little to no sexual arousal and devalue women they consider promiscuous, but whom they sexually desire. In other words, men with MWC can only become fully sexually aroused when reducing their partner to a sexualized object, degrading her in the process because the “good girl” or the “Madonna” can’t be fully sexually desired.

 

Orly Bareket, Ph.D., a relational researcher, discussed in a 2018 study that perhaps the most visual depiction of the MWC is Camerino’s 1400 paintingThe Madonna Of Humility With The Temptation Of Eve. In this painting, we see a large portrait of the Madonna beautifully clothed in blue tapestries surrounded by gold as she uses her body to breastfeed her child, an act of love and virtue.

 

The Virgin Mary is depicted as nurturing, motherly, and modest; therefore, she is surrounded by earthly and heavenly beauty. Underneath the Madonna is Eve, who is primarily naked, surrounded by darkness, using her naked body as a form of temptation, sexuality, and is therefore sinful. Camerino’s painting has opposing depictions of women as either “good” or “bad”; you can’t be one in the same, which is the ideology of the MWC.

 

 

The Connection Between The Madonna Whore Complex & Misogyny

 

Feminist theory suggests that the MWC is deeply rooted in upholding our patriarchal society in an attempt to control women’s sexual autonomy. Shaming women with sexual freedom reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and double standards, allowing men to maintain a position of power. Sociologists William Simon and John Gagnon discussed in their book, Sexual Conductthe idea of sexual script theory, where human sexuality is acted out based on a cultural script written primarily by heterosexual males.

 

In these scripts, men are seen as sexual pursuers and favor casual sex and women as gatekeepers who favor relational sex. These sexual scripts don’t allow women sexual autonomy for fear that being sexually assertive means, they will be slut-shamed and seen as an unfit long-term romantic partner.

 

Furth more, researchers, Emily Kane and Mimi Schippers, discussed in their study on men’s and women’s beliefs about gender and sexuality that assertive female sexuality represents a potential threat to men’s social dominance. Their theory suggests that men may fear that women will use their sexuality as a manipulation tactic to emasculate them. Thus, reducing female sexual autonomy minimizes the threat to their power.

 

Research on social dominance orientation further supports this theory stating that men in positions of high social dominance were more likely to be supportive of harmful gender stereotypes such as believing men and women are “naturally” different and should have different roles both outside and inside the home.”

 

The psychology of the MWC is not just an individual belief, but a societal ideology perpetuated throughout history and continues today. The most recent and poignant example is the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court justices. As women come into positions of power, it becomes more threatening to men, especially men with MWC.

 

The overturning of Roe v. Wade compartmentalizes women into “Madonna’s” or women who want to be mothers who are seen as virtuous and worthy of good health care and the “whores” who want sexual autonomy and rights over their bodies; consequently, they should be penalized. The dichotomy of the MWC is keeping women’s sexuality shrouded in shame and reduces sexual agency, putting women’s physical safety and mental health at risk.

 

 

Why We Should Fight Against the MWC Ideology

 

While the dichotomy of the MWC was created by straight men in the protection of their ego, research shows that men with MWC show overall lower relationship satisfaction than men who supported gender equality. A study conducted by Rudman and Phelan on the power of feminism found that men’s approval of feminism leads to healthier and more sexually satisfying relationships for both male and female partners.

 

Too many individuals fear the word feminism and how it might change the social and sexual scripts written for us. The problem is that if we don’t change these misogynic scripts, women will continue to suffer, and men will also harbor the burden of toxic masculinity to uphold false ideas of what it means to be a man.

 

We must consider how we speak and think about women’s sexual autonomy to create a safer world in which women can thrive, not having to fear judgment or endure violence from misogynistic people.

 

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.

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Author Bio

Brooke Brownlee, APCC is an Associate Professional Clinical Counselor at Modern Intimacy under the supervision of Dr. Kate Balestrieri. Brooke is passionate about helping clients heal from trauma, feel more empowered sexually, and repair relationships. Brooke is continuing her education and working towards becoming a Certified Sex Therapist.

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