The Madonna-Whore Complex in Depth – Virgins, Sluts and You: Sexual Healing

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ColumnYou can thank your old friend Dr. Freud for the oh-so-useful, yet staggeringly frustrating concept that is the “Madonna-Whore complex.”

Even though there’s much that Sigmund got wrong about women (hello, Penis Envy) the Madonna-Whore complex was one of his greatest hits, at least in terms of framing the male psyche, and through it, our culture at large. He coined the term close to 100 years ago, yet we’re still dealing with its daily ramifications. This is one cigar that is not just a cigar.

Defined by Freud as a complex stemming from Oedipal origins, he posited that heterosexual men can only truly love and admire women that they are not sexually attracted to, with a bitch of a corollary – these same men cannot love the women they want to boink. “Where such men love they have no desire, and where they desire they cannot love,” he said. Grossly and sadly, this is still overwhelmingly the case, except with the most conscious and progressive of men. I’m not, however, saying that men are responsible for all relationship ills — don’t send me angry emails. (Also: it’s the patriarchy, folks.)

Back in the day this meant that men wouldn’t marry women who’d been sullied by sex — it was a lot more straightforward than it is now, however wrong it was. You could only “snag a man” if you perfectly performed the archetype of the virgin, which in some cultures came down to blood-stained sheets on your wedding night.

Women, of course, internalized this and began to believe that there was only an either/or available to them – in order to survive, they’d need to learn the script. Either act like a proper mother/saint and never have pleasure, or get your rocks off but never marry. This fit comfortably within the construct of women as property sold from fathers to husbands. Society didn’t much care about the “sluts” cast out of this process.

Before there was birth control, there would be evidence of your slutty unmarriageable deeds, one of the reasons so many women were compelled to be “good girls.” The Pill was supposed to have set us free of such binaries, but we continue to struggle with them everyday, from rape culture to the intimate corners of our established relationships. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still far to travel, baby.

So much of this plays out in pop culture, where our complexes are mined for corporate advertising profits. The Madonna-Whore complex is the TV trope that keeps on giving, even as our small screen is increasingly diverse in terms of race and gender. We’ve got the gays (and they’re married), we’ve got women in positions of power, but still, it seems the sexually-empowered woman rarely gets the guy in our contemporary dramas. The bitch, the slut, the hardened lady cop who is too cold for a relationship, the frigid wife, the harried mom who has a headache — some of our favorite characters.

And then we watch Peggy, Betty, Meghan and Joan battle with these identities on “Mad Men” each week, imagining ourselves liberated by the waves of feminism that have saved us from their lives. But some archetypes hold so fast, so tight, that we must also break through them individually, even while the collective boundary-bashing is happening before our eyes. The myths we’re fed since babyhood are powerful things.

The intricacies of the Madonna-Whore complex are legion, and they seamlessly thread from the personal to the political and back again. There is the MW complex within your husband or boyfriend’s psyche, and then there is the one that permeates every pore of our simultaneously sexist and hyper-sexualized culture. And there’s the one that’s inside of you, and growing inside of the seven-year-old girls who already understand that in order to be liked, they need to be sexy – not smart.

The MW complex suggests that women are not fully human – that we are defined by our roles as either sexual or non-sexual beings. There is no grey here, only the black of the slut or the white of the virgin. Sex is vital, important, life-giving (quite literally). But when we are defined by it and nothing else, it’s harder and harder for us to take pleasure in it, to have it without shame. Before you’ve processed this, you enter any room as either the slut or the virgin, full stop.

When we are cast as virgins, we’re infantilized. We are still property, meant to be taken care of because we can’t really think for ourselves. When we’re cast as the whore, it’s because we dare to have desires, thoughts, and ambitions – like Eve, any woman wanting to eat of her own knowledge is a she-devil bent on destruction.

Here are some of infamous slogans of the Madonna-Whore complex:

Good girls don’t.

Don’t give the milk away for free.

She’s marriage material.

Be a lady in the streets, and a whore in the sheets.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Let’s explore that last one a bit more closely. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” We’re damned if we are openly sexual, because we’re told men won’t consider us marriage or even “girlfriend material” – they’ll never text again the morning after. And of course, we’re damned if we don’t, because then we’re not getting our own sexual needs met any time soon, and/or our husbands will cheat on us, especially after the kids are born.

Perhaps we’re condemning ourselves to damnation here, because we’re measuring ourselves by someone else’s standards.

Conservatives believe there is but one antidote to the oversexed state of the union: drive sex underground. They call for abstinence-only education, Purity Pledges, and Purity Balls, which are really, really creepy. And then there are the racial implications of Bill O’Reilly’s insane obsession with Beyoncé. Note that even when girls buy into the purity industry and talk about the fact that they’re not having sex, they’re still positioning themselves as sex objects.

Saint/sinner. Mother/whore. Are you one or the other, a little bit of both, or something entirely in between? You know that you contain multitudes, gradations on the scale from slut to Madonna and back again depending on your mood, your ovulation/menstruation, your relative horniness of the moment, your work deadlines, your relationship status, etc. You might even cycle through all these sensations in one afternoon. So why do you still feel like you need to fit into a neat little man-pleasing package when you interact with the outside world? That’s what bedroom role-playing is for — but these roles should never govern your place in the world.

Intellectually, you probably already tucked away everything I’ve written before this paragraph ages ago.

The question is, why don’t you feel that way deep in the cells of your body? You have a new opportunity to wake up and expunge shame every single day. With every casual interaction, with every potential sexual encounter, you can take back what you had before you had shame. What if we reintegrated our inner whores on our own, without waiting for our prospective/current or imaginary partners to catch up?

Got a question for Stefanie? Email stefanie at ecosalon dot com, and she’ll answer it in the next Sexual Healing column.

Keep in touch with Stefanie on Twitter@ecosexuality

Related on EcoSalon

How To Start Your Own Personal Sexual Revolution

Sex and Intimacy: What’s Love Got To Do With it?

Get Your Renewal On And Have Better Sex This Spring

 Image: porschelinn

 

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