The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Madonna of Humility and Eve (c. 1400) by Carlo da Camerino.

In the famous words of Sigmund Freud: “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” Since the coining of “Madonna-whore complex” by Freud in the early 1900s, the term has become ubiquitous.

While the phrase itself is relatively new, the concept isn’t. We have patriarchal value systems to thank for that! Polarized representations of women as either “good” aka chaste and pure or “bad” aka promiscuous and impure can be traced back from ancient Greece through later western literature. Camerino’s The Madonna of Humility and Eve (c.1400) perfectly exemplifies this dichotomy: “the Virgin Mary holds the infant Jesus, while below Eve lies naked with a serpent and fur around her hips and legs, representing sexual lust and temptation.”

There’s certainly no shortage of modern day depictions of the Madonna-Whore Complex either – from Madonna very intentionally playing up both the Madonna (remember that white lace dress she wore in Like a Virgin?) and the Whore (i.e that time she was a cross-burning vixen in the Like a Prayer music video) in her performances to the iconic Sex and the City scene where Charlotte’s partner, Trey, has trouble getting it up because now that they’re getting married, he views her as this wholesome, virginal Madonna.

Conflicting Perspectives

Freud invented the term “Madonna-whore complex” while developing a psychoanalytic approach to treat his prostitute-loving male patients. According to him, “men suffering from this complex can become aroused only when they degrade a partner, reducing her to a sex object, because a respected partner cannot be fully desired.” Freud believed men afflicted with such a complex had unresolved sensual feelings towards their mothers, which led to sexual and relationship dysfunctions. Critics of Freud’s approach cited his failure to factor in how culture and social structure shaped men’s beliefs about women and also argued that his research was more anecdotal than anything else, as it relied solely on case studies. 

After Freud came the evolutionary psychologists, who believed the Madonna-whore complex reflected “adaptations of men’s reproductive role.” Under this school of thought, “men objectify promiscuous women to avoid emotional attachment, treating them with contempt. By contrast, emotional attachment to faithful, long-term mates creates a pair bond for cooperative child-rearing.” This served as the explanation for why “promiscuity cues increased heterosexual men’s attraction to women as short-term mates, but decreased attraction to women as long-term mates.” Critics disliked how this approach failed to factor in cultural variations and how power structures affect attitudes about sexuality. 

Later on, feminists came to view the Madonna-whore complex as an ideology designed to reinforce patriarchy. Feminist scholars claim that the Madonna-whore complex “reinforces unequal gender roles, limiting women’s self-expression, agency, and freedom by defining their sexual identities as fitting one of two rigid social scripts.” By this chain of logic, “assertive female sexuality represents a potential source of power over men: as gatekeepers to heterosexual activity men fear women’s ability to use sexual allure as a manipulative tactic to ‘unman’ them.” As a result, “men penalize women who assert sexual agency just as they do women who assert power in other ways.”

Interview with an Afflicted Man

While all three perspectives have merit, the fact of the matter is the Madonna-whore complex is far too complex a concept to force into one box or another. It deserves careful consideration and nuanced analysis. So in honor of Freud, I decided to conduct a little psychoanalysis of my own, sitting down with a friend and ex-lover of mine who has always struck me as a textbook case of the Madonna-whore complex.

Here’s a bit of background: Daniel and I dated briefly when I was in my early 20s. He was 37 with a real job and what felt like a lot of depth. For a brief time it really felt like he was my soulmate, but looking back I recognize that he was part of a pattern — one in which I dated men who fetishized my mental illness.

In a post #MeToo era, it’s almost too easy to write him off as just another villainous fuck boy. From abandoning his first wife and newborn child to go on a year long coke binge to reminiscing about how he had “never felt more needed” than when his ex-girlfriend — a professional ballerina with a severe eating disorder — would curl up in his arms post binge-and-purge, to his most recent adventure, which involved impregnating an 18 year old stripper — there’s no denying that much of his behavior is categorically cringe. 

Yet there’s something undeniably sexy about a man — or any human really — who is so open and honest about who and how fucked up he is. As much as Daniel romanticized my fresh-out-of-rehab, slightly emaciated, “hot mess” aesthetic, I not only let him, I played into it. Having readily accepted the “exceptional yet profoundly damaged” label ex-lovers had given me, I undoubtedly found comfort in hiding behind the role of whore, or as I liked to think of myself, muse.

Men put you on a pedestal, accepting and taking inspiration from the wounded, dark side of your persona, but they only ever dig deep enough to see what they want to see, which makes it safe. By keeping them at arm’s length, the muse safeguards herself from ever having to become too vulnerable. This, in turn, perpetuates the manic pixie dream girl / femme fatale / whore archetype, in which the woman is an object of desire but not a long term prospect. 

 

Daniel: “Which came first — my Madonna-whore complex or hearing about it in therapy? I think it’s a common narrative. You see a lot of gangster archetypes in films where the guys are basically Lucifer but then loving towards their mothers. I think my own mom was pretty spectacular and my dad was a bit of a flop. Of course, everybody thinks their mother is awesome but I mean she really ran the household, not my father. I remember being at a strip club once and the stripper saying to me, ‘I don’t have daddy issues, but you sure do.’

I grew up in Yorkshire in the 1980s. It’s this rural, industrial part of England but then there’s a whole streetwalker, red light scene. And I remember thinking how fascinating these creatures were. Once every two years, I’d catch a woman peeking out from under a lace umbrella and she would be this almost saintly creature. And just the idea that they were out there was so far out for me, as this 12 year old kid living a sheltered life and attending an all boys school. 

Looking back, I’d say my Madonna-whore complex became noticeable when I met my son’s mom. We had an amazing sexual relationship. The first time she came over, she was wearing a fishnet body stocking underneath a trench coat. And you know, the sex was incredible and then when she met my mom and dad, all of a sudden she became this idolized mother to my kids. So even though she was still this super hot chick with huge tits, I started hanging out with strippers who I found way less attractive than her. 

That lifestyle certainly got much more intense in my 30s. I wasn’t quite aware of it at first. But it’s like when you reach that point where you realize you’re a daily pot smoker and you’re cool with it. I looked at my life and there was a sharp divide between the women I had sexual relationships with and the women I had platonic relationships with. It was odd because the women I was having platonic relationships with were very attractive, sexual, and interested in me but I separated the two. 

The whole thing became quite ritualized and I became cautious of going out with people and moving them into the Madonna box because the moment that happened, I knew the relationship would be dead. It would go from being blunt and animalistic to something quite bland. The attraction of smoking a cigarette is the burning ember you know is killing you. If everything is kosher and embraced, you lose the emotional intensity. It’s the difference between going on a sailing voyage in the 16th century versus traveling today with your iPhone. 

 

The way I see it, the whore is the same as the classic muse or the femme fatale. She represents creativity and Dionysus. And then the Madonna symbolizes domesticity, home, safety, love, caring, caring for someone, allowing them to look after me. The whore is more intelligent than 95% of women you meet in your day to day life. When I think of a whore I think of an artist funding herself.

There’s this line I love from Graham Greene’s, Quiet American: ‘The Gascogne Squadron possessed only small B. 26 bombers – the French called them prostitutes because with their short wing-span they had no visible means of support.’ That really says it all. A whore is completely independent. She’s not dependent on society. She’s living outside the bounds. She’s like the snake eating itself. If I come back in another life as a woman, I’ll probably be a stripper…”

The Final Word

As a now 27 year old, my tastes have evolved and I would never in a million years go for a guy like Daniel – I’m more into that divine feminine meets divine masculine and lives happily ever vibe these days. But the whore / muse is still part of me. Sure it is one of many layers and is less pronounced than it once was, but it will always be part of me. I think too often well-meaning feminists try to construct these strict binaries, in which no twenty-something woman dating a man more than 10 years her senior can possibly be in a healthy nor empowering relationship because of the unequal power dynamic.

In doing so, such women are cast as helpless victims. While age, wealth, and status dynamics undoubtedly shape relationships, to reduce all May-December romances or “unconventional” sexual exchanges, be it stripping or escorting, as exploitative and rooted in misogyny is to deny women of their power. Women ARE so much more than the Madonna and the Whore, but the Madonna and the Whore nonetheless still exist within all of us – and there’s nothing wrong with embracing those characters every once in a while. 

In the words of Camille Pagdala: “The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror, an outlaw, who controls the sexual channels between nature and culture.” 

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Feminism
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Jules

Jules

Author

Based in Brooklyn, Jules has dedicated her twenties towards harnessing her pussy power, exploring the muse, whore, and wild woman archetypes along the way. When not blogging, you can find her sweating the toxins out in a hot yoga class or sipping a matcha latte at a pretentious coffee shop, whilst she scribbles away in her journal.


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