Modern Implications of the Madonna-Whore Complex

“Where such men love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love.” – Sigmund Freud

Junior Willow Barrys artistic representation of how the Madonna-Whore complex affects women.

Willow Barry

Junior Willow Barry’s artistic representation of how the Madonna-Whore complex affects women.

“If he loved anybody he would never go to bed with her. He’d go to a whore if he had to and keep the woman he loved free of all that dirty business.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

The Madonna-Whore Complex, a theory put forth by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s, details Freud’s belief that men view each woman as either completely innocent of sex, desire, and promiscuity, or completely guilty because of her participation in such activities. The former is labeled a Madonna, and the latter is labeled a whore, which function as mutually exclusive terms. Men find themselves incapable of having sex with a Madonna—she is too pure to ever be debased in such a way—and incapable of loving a whore—she is too damaged to ever be viewed as more than an object. 

According to Freud, once a woman has become a whore, the only way to regain her innocence, and therefore her respectability in the eyes of men, is to have a baby. Motherhood is viewed as something inherently righteous, so despite the fact that a woman has to have sex to have a baby, her purity is ‘restored’ when she gives birth. After the birth of a baby, men may feel that the supposed ownership of the woman’s vulva can transfer from her husband to the baby. (Think of Elvis refusing to touch Priscilla after she gave birth. “[Elvis] had mentioned to me before we were married that he had never been able to make love to a woman who had a child.” – Priscilla Presley)

In spite of my skeptical feelings about many of Freud’s more incestuous and largely self-biased opinions, (Oedipus Complex, Penis Envy, etc.), this particular theory stands out as having a distinct amount of truth. Though society’s views on sex have changed, the basic premise about the categorization and subsequent mistreatment of women is still relevant. Because the Madonna-Whore Complex is primarily about men’s view of women and not about the women themselves, Freud has more credibility to speak on the subject, a notable difference from his ideas that dictate how women feel.

This brings us to the quote from The Bell Jar. While it is a simple restatement of Freud’s hypothesis, its inclusion in a novel about depression, a novel that deals with the figurative suffocation of women in society, is more significant. The novel exemplifies the link between women’s limited choices in society and mental health concerns. The main character struggles with complicated feelings toward her own desires and her future, which only exacerbate her depression.

Today, of course, women have far more options in terms of careers and relationships, but that doesn’t make the Madonna-Whore Complex any less complicated or applicable. Motherhood is still encouraged as a way to regain dignity, although to a lesser extent. That lesser extent, however, is not enough to prevent women from feeling pressured to have children when they’re not ready, or prevent husbands from becoming less attracted to their wives after childbirth, as their wives are now ‘too good’ to sully with intercourse. Slut shaming still pervades society as well, though to a lesser extent as well, due to the destigmatizing of sex.

As society began to view sex as a more positive thing, being an experienced woman became less taboo. The division between those who are seen as pure and those who aren’t still exists, but women are becoming increasingly more comfortable embracing their sexuality. This is a massive stride in terms of equality between the sexes, but we are still nowhere close to a place where women can have a healthy relationship with love and sex.

The separation between women who can be loved and women who can be seduced has manifested itself in an increasing amount of women who sexualize themselves in an attempt to garner attraction from men. When a woman believes that she is unlovable, she may take comfort in the fact that at the very least, men would still sleep with her. This can lead to unsafe sex, where a man pressures a woman to not use protection and the woman agrees because she feels she needs the consolation of being desired. Obviously, choosing to be sexually liberal is each woman’s individual choice, but extreme self-sexualization reinforces the false idea ingrained in the minds of men that women who sleep around are fundamentally unlovable. Of course, this is not the woman’s fault. She should not lose her respectability for simply partaking in sex, but objectifying herself is still dangerous.

It is important to note that the negative effects of the Madonna-Whore Complex extend far beyond social degradation and hasty judgments. Women of color and trans women face the most adverse consequences of this view because they are not even allowed the ‘privilege’ of being labeled as a Madonna. Instead, they are seen as homogenous groups of innately sexual people. Black women have been sexualized since before the start of the slave trade in the United States, and while the assignment of all black women into the whore category is problematic on its own, the real issue is when violence starts to be perpetrated against them because of it. The same issue appears in the trans community, where pornography has objectified trans women to a ridiculous extent and has pushed the idea that all trans women are hypersexual. This leads to men feeling entitled to romantic and sexual experiences with trans women, which often turn violent when trans women reject men.

I include both groups because it is important to understand the ramification of the suppression that women in minorities face, and the number of people who continue to be affected by this. Confining any woman into one rigid category or another that dictates her respectability is bad enough, but these women are not even given an option as to how they present themselves. Their role is already decided for them because of who they are, resulting in profound violence.

Women’s experiences with romantic and sexual partners continue to be shaped by the Madonna-Whore Complex, as it is still very much pertinent to the way that men view women. Although society’s views on sex as a whole have changed, the expectations set by men for women still severely limit the expression of women’s sexuality. Women are complex people, who differ from each other, and differ internally. Not a single person fits entirely into either category, and it is unfair to expect that every woman has to abide by either of the strict definitions. A women’s character should not be, and is not, defined by just her sexuality.