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A while ago, I remember scrolling through Instagram and seeing a TikTok that my friend reposted that brought up the Madonna-Whore Complex (MWC), which I had previously never heard of. The video featured clips of men confessing how they were unable to perceive women sexually when they genuinely liked them because it “felt wrong”. If you’ve never heard of this term, the Madonna-Whore Complex is a psychological dichotomy coined by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. According to this theory, men separate women into two distinct categories: the “Madonna,” the pure, chaste, and “good” woman devoid of sexual feeling, whom can be loved but not sexualized; and the “Whore,” the sexual, promiscuous, and “bad” woman whom can be sexualized, but is not worthy of being loved. It is impossible for a woman to share both qualities– she must fit into this fixed binary, and that will ultimately reveal whether she is worthy of being loved or sexualized. 

While it has been suggested by psychologists that this complex is rooted in unresolved sexual complexes within a man’s relationship with his maternal figure, feminists suggest that the MWC is a manifestation of the patriarchy and is used to oppress women. Polarized representations of women as either “pure” Madonnas or “promiscuous” Whores can be traced from ancient Greek mythology to the Bible and continue to be prevalent in both Western and non-Western cultures to this day. 

In Piero della Francesca’s painting Madonna del Parto, the Virgin Mary– representing chastity and purity– is pregnant with the son of God and is preparing to go into labor. As the mother of the son of God, Jesus Christ, she is the epitome of the “Madonna” archetype that women had to aspire to be. However, the Virgin Mary is the central paradox in Judeo-Christian doctrine. She is both a virgin and a mother, and this impossible contradiction has been imposed onto women for millenia. Women are expected to remain pure and yet are also expected to fulfill their prerogative to become mothers. However, in order for women to be able to become pregnant and give birth, they must possess sexual feeling. 

The root of this issue is that men view sex as a degrading act that is inflicted upon “whores”– women who are deemed as unworthy of love or deserving of this “degradation.” To have sex with a woman they love feels wrong because they subconsciously believe that sex is inherently demeaning to women due to internalized stigmatization of sexuality. Indeed, sex can be corrupted and weaponized to inflict patriarchal violence, such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and non-reciprocal sex portrayed by pornographic media. 

Feminist scholars have argued that the MWC reinforces unequal gender roles, limiting women’s autonomy by defining their sexual identities as fitting one of two rigid social scripts. The MWC pressures women to preserve their virginity and to abstain from sex or be perceived as unsuitable wives or mothers. Sexual objectification is another patriarchal manifestation to reassert men’s dominance and perpetuate women’s inferiority; the MWC serves to justify which women (the “whores”) deserve to be reduced to an object, abused, or even murdered. Studies even show that men who sexually objectify women demonstrate more propensity to sexually harass women, acceptance of interpersonal violence against women, and support of men’s superior social status.

The Madonna-Whore Complex can even damage heterosexual relationships when men are incapable of seeing their partners as both loving and sexual, leading to affairs and sexual frustrations in relationships. Particularly in cultures with beliefs that forbid sex before marriage, it can be difficult for men to reconcile that their pure, undesecrated “girl” is a woman with sexual desires that she wants to have met. In motherhood, the dichotomy works in reverse. After giving birth, women’s genitalia becomes the source of life itself, something related to their child rather than sex and pleasure.

In a day and age when too many people claim that feminism has outlived its usefulness because women are now “equal” to men in society, it seems contradictory that such archaic, misogynistic views still remain prevalent today. Women are much more than the limiting scripts that the patriarchy forces us to perform, and it’s about time that women can express their sexuality without having to compromise their worth as human beings in the reflection of an omnipresent male mirror.

Dalilah is a prospective English and American Studies dual major at Williams College. She loves books, autumn, shoegaze and dream pop, and daydreaming her life away. If you'd like to talk about feminism or rant about U.S. foreign policy, feel free to hit her up in IG (@dalilahmontesino).
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