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In psychoanalytic literature, a Madonna–whore complex is the inability to maintain sexual arousal within a committed, loving relationship. First identified by Sigmund Freud, this psychological complex is said to develop in men who see women as either saintly Madonnas or debased prostitutes. Men with this complex desire a sexual partner who has been degraded (the whore) while they cannot desire the respected partner (the Madonna). Freud wrote: "Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love." Clinical psychologist Uwe Hartmann, writing in 2009, stated that the complex "is still highly prevalent in today's patients".
In sexual politics the view of women as either Madonnas or whores limits women's sexual expression, offering two mutually exclusive ways to construct a sexual identity. The duality implies that women must assume subservient roles, either as madonnas to be protected or as whores to be punished by men.
The term is also used popularly, often with subtly different meanings.
Freud argued that the Madonna–whore complex is caused by oedipal castration fears which arise when a man experiences the affection he once felt for his mother with women he now sexually desires. In order to manage this anxiety, the man categorizes women into two groups: women he can admire and women he finds sexually attractive. Whereas the man loves women in the former category, he despises and devalues the latter group. Psychoanalyst Richard Tuch suggests that Freud offered at least one alternative explanation for the Madonna–whore complex:
This earlier theory is based not on oedipal-based castration anxiety but on man's primary hatred of women, stimulated by the child’s sense that he had been made to experience intolerable frustration and/or narcissistic injury at the hands of his mother. According to this theory, in adulthood the boy-turned-man seeks to avenge these mistreatments through sadistic attacks on women who are stand-ins for mother.
According to Freudian psychology, this complex often develops when the sufferer is raised by a cold and distant mother. Such a man will often court someone with qualities of his mother, hoping to fulfill a need for intimacy unmet in childhood. Often, the wife begins to be seen as mother to the husband—a "Madonna" figure—and thus not a possible object of sexual attraction. For this reason, in the mind of the sufferer, love and sex cannot be mixed. The man is therefore reluctant to have sexual relations with his wife for, according to his unconscious mind, this would be incest. He will reserve sexuality for "bad" or "dirty" women, and will not develop "normal" feelings of love in these sexual relationships. This introduces a dilemma where a man may feel unable to love any woman who can satisfy him sexually and is unable to be sexually satisfied by any woman whom he can love.
Another theory claims that the Madonna–whore complex derives from the representations of women as either madonnas or whores in mythology and Judeo-Christian theology rather than developmental disabilities of individual men.
In popular culture
- Alfred Hitchcock used the Madonna-whore dichotomy as an important mode of representing women. In Vertigo (1958), for example, Kim Novak portrays two women that the hero cannot reconcile: a virtuous, blonde, sophisticated, sexually repressed "madonna" and a dark-haired, single, sensual "fallen woman".
- In American Horror Story: Asylum, set in an insane asylum during the chaotic psychoanalytic field of the 1960s, the repressed character Dr. Arthur Arden, as portrayed by James Cromwell, possesses a fixation on a seemingly innocent and virtuous nun. When she later sexually propositions him, he bitterly defaces and then destroys a statue of the Virgin Mary (aka the Madonna), screaming "Whore!" at it accusingly. Earlier in the series, Arden had shown to subscribe to Freudian theory regarding feminine sexuality.
- In Sex and the City Season 3, Episode 16 "Frenemies," Charlotte explains that Trey is now sexually interested in her but still can't perform, Sam convinces her it's a classical Madonna-whore-complex. After a meeting with her sorority sisters convinces Charlotte that she is becoming truly sexually adult, she grows determined to transcend her Madonna-limitations. 
- Kaplan, Helen Singer (1988). "Intimacy disorders and sexual panic states". Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 14 (1): 3–12. doi:10.1080/00926238808403902.
- Hartmann, Uwe (2009). "Sigmund Freud and His Impact on Our Understanding of Male Sexual Dysfunction". The Journal of Sexual Medicine 6 (8): 2332–2339. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01332.x.
- Freud, Sigmund (1912). "Über die allgemeinste Erniedrigung des Liebeslebens" [The most prevalent form of degradation in erotic life]. Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen 4: 40–50
- Denmark, Florence; Paludi, Michele A. Psychology of Women: A Handbook of Issues and Theories. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 493–94, ISBN 978-0-313-26295-1.
- Feinman, Clarice. Women in the criminal justice system. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994, pp. 3–4, ISBN 978-0-275-94486-5.
- Tuch, Richard (2010). "Murder on the Mind: Tyrannical Power and Other Points along the Perverse Spectrum". The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 91 (1): 141-162. doi:10.1111/j.1745-8315.2009.00220.x.
- Gay, Volney P. (2001). Joy and the Objects of Psychoanalysis: Literature, Belief, and Neurosis. SUNY series in psychoanalysis and culture. Albany: State University of New York Press. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-7914-5099-4.
- Gordon, Paul. Dial "M" for Mother: A Freudian Hitchcock. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008, pp. 89–91, ISBN 978-0-8386-4133-0.
- Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XI: "A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men", pp. 165–175; "On the Universal Tendency of Debasement in the Sphere of Love", pp. 179–190; London: Hogarth Press, 1957, ISBN 978-0-7012-0067-1.
- John A. Speyrer. The Madonna/Whore Complex: A Primal Theory Interpretation, The Primal Psychotherapy Page