Oct 15

Madonna-whore complex

According to the sexual script theory, human sexuality is largely determined by culturally-prescribed scripts, or templates for behavior.  These gender-normative scripts are typically heterosexual, where men are depicted as sexually active and assertive, while favoring nonrelational sex.  Conversely, women are described as sexually passive and seeking relational sex.  Such tendencies are learned through socialization and then acted out, thereby creating further reinforcement of the conventions, making these scripts cyclical in nature.  Despite the twenty-first century‘s advances in gender roles, the stereotype that men are generally sexually eager and women are coy, if not repressed, is still the sexual norm (Garcia, Reiber, Massey, & Merriwether, 2012).  Both evolutionary drives and media messaging explain this phenomenon, which is also related to social dominance theory’s view that men have more power in the gender hierarchy (PSU WC, 2015). To further complicate matters, adhering to these traditional gender roles is associated with societal rewards and punishments (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012).

These concepts of gender and sexuality are stereotypical and fairly obvious, yet a deeper look reveals huge and complex juxtapositions for both men and women.  The terror management theory suggests that men have a profound subconscious ambivalence towards women and their sexuality because it reminds them of their true corporeal animal nature and therefore, mortality.  This concept is woven throughout many different culture’s religions and histories.  On the one hand, men spend much of their lives lusting after women, and on the other hand men wrestle with an intense fear of women.  This contradiction is unsettling and at the mild end of the spectrum can create cognitive dissonance for men, potentially leading to sexism, misogyny, and even violence and rape, in the extreme (Landau et al., 2006).

Accordingly, Sigmund Freud developed a theory to explain men’s anxiety towards women’s sexuality, suggesting that men cast women into one of two categories to allay the uncomfortable dichotomy of fear and desire: the Madonna (women he admires and respects) and the whore (women he is attracted to and therefore disrespects).  The Madonna-whore complex views women’s desirability/licentiousness and purity/maternal goodness as mutually exclusive traits.  Love is seen as clean and virginal whereas sex is viewed as dirty and shameful.  Because healthy sexuality is sublimated, it is rerouted towards the secrecy and debasement involved in pornography where the concept of slut is outwardly despised and privately craved.  This dichotomy may contributes to many relationship issues, where men generally seek to maintain the image of their romantic partner as Madonna, but may seek the whore in the form of an affair in order to achieve both opposing idealizations that are difficult to project onto the same woman (Landau et al., 2006).

Hartmann (2009) asserts that though many of Freud’s sexual theories are now considered antiquated and sexist, his psychoanalytic notion of the Madonna-whore complex is still quite viable and pervasive in modern sexual dynamics and gender roles.  Women are given so many shaming antisexual messages suppressing the understanding and integration of their sexuality, while simultaneously being valued principally for their youth, thinness, attractiveness, and overall sexual prestige by society. The female plight is just as dichotomous as the male’s: women want to be both respected (primarily) yet desired (secondarily), whereas men struggle to reconcile these concepts that they can find paradoxical, creating cognitive dissonance.  Landau et al. (2006) indicate that men’s ambivalence towards women’s sexuality is predicated on the ambivalence about their own sexuality, again a painful reminder of their mortality.

My initial aim in writing this blog was to explore the difficulties involved in women’s gender roles and sexuality, however, after further research it seems that men’s attitudes and proclivities are just as complicated.  I think these dynamics are both fascinating and frightening.  So much of how we behave sexually it seems is based on genetic and societal programming outside of our control.  But understanding these deeply rooted tendencies and conflicts is the first step in self-actualizing to consciously create the gender and sexual roles we feel comfortable with and want to portray.  Also, I think the Madonna-whore complex does affect many relationships to varying degrees, especially married couples, and those with children most of all.  I’ve seen family and friends struggle with that dynamic, probably thinking the issue was unique to them, whereas I believe it to be a much more widespread phenomenon.


Garcia, J. R., Reiber, C., Massey, S. G., & Merriwether, A. M. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 161-176. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1037/a0027911

Hartmann, U. (2009). Sigmund Freud and His Impact on Our Understanding of Male Sexual Dysfunction. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6(8), 2332-2339. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01332.x

Landau, M. J., Goldenberg, J. L., Greenberg, J., Gillath, O., Solomon, S., Cox, C., . . . Pyszczynski, T. (2006). The siren’s call: Terror management and the threat of men’s sexual attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(1), 129-146. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1037/0022-3514.90.1.129

The Pennsylvania State University World Campus (PSU WC). (2015). Lesson 6: Intergroup Relations. In PSYCH424: Applied Social Psychology (5). Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa15/psych424/001/content/07_lesson/05_page.html

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.



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