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.



Mar 15

Colorism and Social Dominance Theory

Source: Ebony.com

Source: Ebony.com

I am a Hispanic woman, but unlike the rest of my family of cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents who have black hair, brown eyes and brown or olive skin, I have ash blonde hair, green eyes and white skin. I have never experienced prejudice from peers or authorities. However, I do remember attending a party once, when I was 17, with some of my neighbors who were also Hispanic. As we walked into the house full of Hispanic kids with darker skin, eyes and hair than me, the music stopped and the room went silent. It was just like a scene from a movie and everyone was looking at me. After what felt like a lifetime, but was really just a few seconds, the silence was broken by one of my friends who said, “Oh, don’t worry, she’s cool, she’s Puerto Rican.” Sure, my family would tease that I was the “milkman’s child” and people were always intrigued when I told them I was Puerto Rican, but this experience was different. I suddenly felt awkward and self-conscious, and not because I was a typical, awkward, self-conscious teenager, but because I looked different.

Today, I have a 17-year-old daughter who is biracial. Although her biological father is half Cuban and half African American, which would make my daughter 75% Hispanic and 25% Black, her tan skin, curly black hair and African American features cause others to automatically categorize her as just Black. With a Caucasian stepfather and a little sister with blonde hair, green eyes and pale skin, my daughter is now the one who looks different from the rest of my family. As she was growing up, we made every effort to introduce her to not only my family’s Puerto Rican culture but the African American culture as well. She made friends with children of all different races, but she struggled to fit in. Her darker friends would tell her she was too light to call herself black, and she was too dark, with hair too curly and features too black to call herself Hispanic or white. That awkward, self-conscious feeling I felt for one moment at a party is a feeling my daughter felt daily for years. How is it, with the progress and continuous efforts being made to end interracial prejudice in our society, that an intraracial prejudice, known as colorism or skin color bias, can so prominently exist within minority races today? A look at US history appears to reveal it as a consequence of human behavior as explained by social dominance theory.

Social dominance theory suggests that everyone in our society belongs to a group that has a place in a hierarchy and they tend to behave in ways that will protect that hierarchy, particularly if their group has positive social value (PSU, 2015). Positive social value is defined as having a combination of high status and plenty of power and resources (PSU, 2015). One group that has been historically viewed as having a large amount of positive social value would be the Caucasian race.

There are three categories of hierarchies identified by social dominance theory, age, gender and arbitrary set (PSU, 2015). Those based on race or ethnicity would fall under the arbitrary set (Thompson, 1999).  Throughout US history, the Caucasian race has been observed protecting their hierarchical ranking through prejudice and discrimination of minority groups based on race.

The origination of the practice of identification by race and creation of racial terms, such as black and white, has been attributed to European colonists (Fredrickson, 2003; Wilder, 2010). Cheng (2003) explains that American settlers of the 17th century Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland, who were able to work and cultivate the land, were rewarded with more land. With more land to work, there became a need for more workers. British indentured servants, contracted for a short term, were imported and worked side by side with a small number of slaves from the Americas. Unlike the later African slaves, these slaves actually had limited rights, “including the ability to work land for themselves, to own property, including other slaves … to marry [and in some cases] earn or save enough money to purchase their own freedom” (Cheng, 2003). However, over time, competition for land increased and tensions grew. An argument with the governor led a wealthy settler, by the name of Bacon, to start a rebellion in 1676 and he promised slaves and servants freedom if they joined his cause. Although the success of the rebellion was short-lived, fear of a future rebellion resulted in an increased interest in African slaves who, because they were not Christians, could be treated more poorly than indentured servants. A slave code was developed through a series of Virgina laws that removed the limited rights of previous slaves and made African slaves the “primary workforce” for Virginia’s plantations (Cheng, 2003). Since the African slaves looked so different from the indentured servants, their looks, including the color of their skin “not only marked their newly created subordinate position within Virginian society, it became the justification and reason for that position” (Cheng, 2003), thereby creating the idea of race distinction.

As a result of the creation of race distinction, a hierarchy developed with white skin as superior and black skin as inferior, a concept quickly adopted by other colonies with slaves (Cheng, 2003). Time passed and soon “frequent mixing of the races (commonly through the sexual exploitation of black female slaves by white male slave owners) resulted in biracial individuals” (Wilder, 2010, p. 186). This led to the development of the “one drop” rule, a law that stated that even a drop of African ancestry was enough to classify an individual as black (Wilder, 2010) and an effort to maintain the racial hierarchy, as described by social dominance theory. However, slave owners began to treat the light skinned slaves more favorably than the dark skinned slaves, creating the development of another hierarchy based on skin tone within the African slave community for generations (Wilder, 2010). Today, research reveals that skin color bias, or colorism, is still prevalent within the African American female community (Wilder, 2010) and is found within the communities of Hispanics, Asians and other people of color as well.


Cheng, J. (2003). Africans, slavery, and race. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02-03.htm

Fredrickson, G. M. (2003). The historical origins and development of racism. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02.htm

Pennsylvania State University. (2015). Lesson 6: Intergroup relations. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/sp15/psych424/001/content/07_lesson/05_page.html

Thompson, A. (1999, November 1). Pratto says social dominance theory explains discrimination. Retrieved from http://advance.uconn.edu/1999/991101/11019908.htm

Wilder, J. (2010). Revisiting “color names and color notions”: A contemporary examination of the language and attitudes of skin color among young black women. Journal of Black Studies, 41(1), 184-206. doi:10.1177/0021934709337986

Oct 14

Benevolent Sexism Is Not Benign

By Amy Caraballo

Benevolent sexism, discriminatory attitudes in the form of caring, complimentary, or pseudo-respectful statements, is likely one of the most surreptitious forms of sexism in our world, today. Studies have found that it is an important perpetuating factor that helps maintain gender inequality (Hammond, et al., 2014). Even more troubling is that victims sometimes pass on and encourage these attitudes believing them to be compliments or signs of respect (Hammond, et al., 2014). One only has to visit the Internet meme world to find hundreds of benevolent sexist examples, many of which are circulated by the most common victims, women and girls. It is difficult to understand how victims could spread harmful stereotypes about themselves. When one looks closer, however, the issue becomes clear; the effects of benevolent sexism are so pervasive and invisible, its victims are often completely unaware they have been wronged. Instead, it seems they sometimes believe they are empowered.

When the Powerful Dominate the Powerless

Sexist Message: A woman's purpose is to serve a man's every need.

Sexist Message: A woman’s purpose is to serve a man’s every need. Credit: lovethispic.com

Social Dominance Theory suggests that groups, including societies, are built upon group-based hierarchies with a few dominant groups controlling all the resources and power. The rest are all subordinate groups, or low-level groups that have few resources and little power. These groups are typically at the mercy of the dominant groups (Pratto, et al., 2006). In the case of gender in our society, classic males are dominant while classic females are subordinate. It is not just brute force and power that keeps the subordinates in their place, either. Helping maintain these hierarchies are more subtle tools such as legitimizing myths, otherwise known as culturally held beliefs (Pratto, et al., 2006). Much like folklore, legitimizing myths are beliefs and stereotypes about the way things are in a given culture or society. It is from these legitimizing myths benevolent sexist ideas were born and continue to be maintained. Statements like “women are caregivers” while “men are providers” and “girls are dainty and sensitive” while “boys are strong and thick-skinned” are examples of legitimizing myths about genders. These ideals are conditioned at the moment of birth by the type of words children hear at home, the influences of endless media exposure, and the influence of peers (Witt, 2000). Later, when these myths are woven into compliments and caring statements, it is harder to see the malicious intent which ultimately is to keep the genders unequal.

But It Was Meant as a Compliment

“Women are too emotionally unstable to be leaders.”

It is pretty clear, to most people, that this remark is sexist. But what about this comment?

“Women are better caregivers because they are nurturing.”

Sexist Message: A woman needs to be protected by a man and should be kept in her place.

Sexist Message: A woman needs to be protected by a man and should be kept in her place. Credit: all-greatquotes.com

It sounds a bit like a compliment to women. When we look closer, however, a sexist message is noticed; women should raise children. There is also a sexist message toward men; men are not supposed to be nurturing. If your thoughts turn toward examples of people who fit these stereotypes, thank legitimizing myths for shaping how society views and pigeonholes gender roles.

Compliments Do Not Hurt Anyone


Sexist Message: Girls are too emotional. Credit: theteenagerquotes.tumblr.com

It may be true that a real compliment is honoring. Benevolent sexist remarks, however, are not true compliments. Benevolent sexist remarks help spread the stereotype of the weak, frail, and emotionally unstable female (Tannenbaum, 2013). Additionally, studies have shown that women exposed to benevolent sexist attitudes were more likely to give in to those stereotypes thus maintaining their own gender inequality (Tannenbaum, 2013).

Where Do We Go From Here?

In order to stop the legitimacy of these cultural myths we have to do better at educating the public. We need awareness about what benevolent sexism is and how prevalent it has become. We can only fight back against such sexism once we understand what it is and how to recognize when its used. We must speak up when we hear it or see it and not condone its use by remaining silent. We must teach children to recognize this form of sexism and how to respond to its wrongful messages.

We must remove the invisibility cloak of this form of sexism and see it for what it is. Only then can we begin to aspire for gender equality. Benevolent sexism is not empowering. It is not benign. And certainly it is harmful to a society that strives for equal opportunity.

Hammond, M. D., Sibley, C. G., & Overall, N. C. (2014). The allure of sexism: Psychological entitlement fosters women’s endorsement of benevolent sexism over time. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(4), 422-429. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1948550613506124

Pratto, F., Sidanius, J., & Levin, S. (2006). Social dominance theory and the dynamics of intergroup relations: Taking stock and looking forward. European Review of Social Psychology, 17, 271-320.

Schneider, F., Gruman, J., Coutts, L. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Tannenbaum, M. (2013). The Problem When Sexism Just Sounds So Darn Friendly… PsySociety, Scientific American Blog Network. Scientific American Global. Retrieved October 4, 2014, at: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/2013/04/02/benevolent-sexism/

Witt, S. D. (2000). The influence of peers on children’s socialization to gender roles. Early Child Development and Care, 162, 1-7. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0300443001620101

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