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What is the Madonna-Whore complex? 

The Madonna-Whore complex (MWC) splits women into two categories with no in-between. Madonnas, referring to the Virgin Mary, are saintly, pure and non-sexual. Whores, on the other hand, are sexually promiscuous, and sexually desired,  but have no other value. The concept was originally discussed as an explanation for why some men found it difficult to maintain sexual arousal when in a loving, committed relationship, but has now been used to explain broader phenomenons for how women are treated in society.

 

The impact on how men view women

 

The complex is normally discussed as a phenomenon experienced by men. While Freud originally saw this as a product of their unresolved sexual complexes, modern research has linked it closely to the general patriarchy. Men who display the Madonna-Whore complex display other sexist ideas such as the sexual objectification of women and belief in sexual double standards. (Bareket, 2018)

These men may consciously place women into these categories, viewing a virgin woman as pure and good, and any woman who enjoys sex as tainted and bad. On the other hand, it can be far more subtlety experienced by men who would not consider themselves to be actively sexist. For example, a Tiktok was recently shared online with the caption, targeted at other men, ‘do you ever like a girl so much that the idea of doing anything sexual with her seems wrong.’ This is the MWC in the modern world, it is the idea that to have sex is somehow degrading a woman – therefore if you love and respect a woman, you cannot sexually desire her, and if you desire her, you must not truly love her.

Even more subtle (and yet common) is the experience of some men, who lose their attraction to their wife once they have children. This is not due to any physical changes, but because this woman is now a mother, the mother of hischildren and the love of his life, so she can no longer be a sexual being in his eyes. He now subconsciously considers her above such things. 

It is not surprising, then, that the Madonna-Whore complex can be damaging to men as well as women. Studies have found it prevents men who experience it from having full, healthy relationships, as their love and respect for their partner may be constantly at odds with their sexual desire. (Bareket, 2018)

 

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The complex has infiltrated deeper than you may think…

 

It’s not just actively sexist men that fall prey to the Madonna-Whore complex, when it’s displayed all around us, and practically sold to us, we start to conform to it in subtle ways. Media tropes, like the horror film ‘final girl’ are based on the MWC. The women who die throughout the film are sexual, promiscuous and therefore tainted and expendable. In comparison, the ‘final girl’ is pure and so intelligent and respected, allowing her to survive. We’re taught to want to be the Madonna. Once you notice the dichotomy between the Madonna and the Whore, it starts to crop up everywhere, in films, music, the conversations you have with men and even with other women. 

The sexism in the complex has also combined with racism, and often white women are portrayed as the pure Madonna, while WOC, and particularly black women, are portrayed as the whore. As uncomfortable as it is to admit, some white women attempt to use this to their advantage. We have all seen recent videos of whites women portraying themselves as a damsel in distress in order to make a black person appear threatening, or to get what they want.

The reality is that, obviously, no woman is a Madonna or a Whore. However, we still need to be careful, in the language we use and the unconscious attitudes we hold, that we are not subconsciously using these ideas to define ourselves and the women around us. As much as I would rather leave on an optimistic note, understanding these definitions of women is not as simple as a ‘girl boss’ redefining her own sexuality and that of the women around her. Overturning the influence of the Madonna-Whore complex on society requires the interrogation and challenging of numerous interacting oppressive systems.

I’m a Global Governance masters student at Exeter Uni ! I studied history until last year, and spend most of my listening to true crime! I'm the current Sex and Relationships editor for our chapter!
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