Madonna–whore complex

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The saintly Mary, mother of Jesus, also referred to as Madonna.

In psychoanalytic literature, a Madonna-whore complex is the inability to maintain sexual arousal within a committed, loving relationship.[1] First identified by Sigmund Freud, under the rubric of psychic impotence,[2] 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).[3] Freud wrote: "Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love."[4] Clinical psychologist Uwe Hartmann, writing in 2009, stated that the complex "is still highly prevalent in today's patients".[3]

The term is also used popularly, if sometimes with subtly different meanings.


Freud argued that the Madonna–whore complex was caused by a split between the affectionate and the sexual currents in male desire.[5] Oedipal and castration anxiety fears prohibit the affection felt for past incestuous objects from being attached to women who are sensually desired: "The whole sphere of love in such persons remains divided in the two directions personified in art as sacred and profane (or animal) love".[5] In order to minimize 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.[6] 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.[6]

It is possible that such a split may be exacerbated when the sufferer is raised by a cold but overprotective mother[7] – a lack of emotional nurturing paradoxically strengthening an incestuous tie.[8] Such a man will often court someone with maternal qualities, hoping to fulfill a need for maternal intimacy unmet in childhood, only for a return of the repressed feelings surrounding the earlier relationship to prevent sexual satisfaction in the new.[5]

Another theory claims that the Madonna–whore complex derives from the alleged representations of women as either madonnas or whores in mythology and Judeo-Christian theology rather than developmental disabilities of individual men.[9]

Sexual politics[edit]

Naomi Wolf considered that the sexual revolution had paradoxically intensified the importance of the virgin–whore split, leaving women to contend with the worst aspects of both images.[10] Others consider that both men and women find integrating sensuality and an ideal femininity difficult to do within the same relationship.[11]


Tiziano's Sacred and Profane Love.

Tiziano's Sacred and Profane Love (1514, the sacred-profane title is from 1693) has several interpretations. The clothed woman has said to be dressed as a bride[12][13] and as a courtesan.[12][14] The nude woman seems at first sight to be an allegory of profane love, but 20th-century assessments notice the incense on her hand and the church beyond her.

Hitchcock and Novak in Vertigo

James Joyce widely utilized the Madonna-whore polarity in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.[15] His protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, sees girls who he admires as ivory towers, and the repression of his sexual feelings for them eventually leads him to solicit a prostitute. This mortal sin drives Stephen's inner conflict and eventual transformation towards the end of the novel.

Alfred Hitchcock used the Madonna–whore dichotomy as an important mode of representing women.[16] 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".[17]

The Martin Scorsese films, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, feature sexually obsessed protagonists, both played by Robert De Niro, who exhibit the Madonna–whore complex with the women they interact with.[18][19]

Madonna holds an impersonator wearing her Like a Virgin bride dress in 2008.

The singer Madonna played with both identities, especially in her earlier career. Madonna herself declared: "I have always loved to play cat and mouse with the conventional stereotypes. My Like a Virgin album cover is a classic example. People were thinking who was I pretending to be—the Virgin Mary or the whore? These were the two extreme images of women I had known vividly, and remembered from childhood, and I wanted to play with them. I wanted to see if I can merge them together, Virgin Mary and the whore as one and all. The photo was a statement of independence, if you wanna be a virgin, you are welcome. But if you wanna be a whore, it's your fucking right to be so."[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kaplan, Helen Singer (1988). "Intimacy disorders and sexual panic states". Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. 14 (1): 3–12. doi:10.1080/00926238808403902. PMID 3398061.
  2. ^ W. M. Bernstein, A Basic Theory of Neuropsychoanalysis (2011) p. 106
  3. ^ a b 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. PMID 19493285.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ a b c Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (PFL 7) p. 251
  6. ^ a b 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.
  7. ^ P. A Sacco, Madonna Complex (2011) p. 48
  8. ^ Neville Symington, Narcissism (1993) p. 99
  9. ^ Feinman, Clarice. Women in the criminal justice system. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994, pp. 3–4, ISBN 978-0-275-94486-5.
  10. ^ Naomi Wolf, Promiscuities (1997) p. 5 and p. 131
  11. ^ Robert Bly/Marion Woodman, The Maiden King (1999) p. 203
  12. ^ a b Jaffé, David, ed. (2003). Titian. London: The National Gallery Company/Yale. p. 94. ISBN 1-857099036. The painting was listed as #10 in this exhibition, but did not in fact appear)
  13. ^ Brown, Beverley Louise (2008). "Picturing the Perfect Marriage: the Equilibrium of Sense and Sensibility in Titian's Sacred and Profane Love". In Bayer, Andrea (ed.). Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 239–242. ISBN 978-1588393005.
  14. ^ Brown, 240
  15. ^ Wegner, Taylor (2018). Gender Performance and Identity Formation in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. p. 118.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Gordon, Paul. Dial "M" for Mother: A Freudian Hitchcock. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008, pp. 89–91, ISBN 978-0-8386-4133-0.
  18. ^ TAXI DRIVER - Commentary by Martin Scorsese & Paul Schrader, 18 minutes in, retrieved 2021-05-11
  19. ^ Ebert, R. (1976, 7 March). Interview with Martin Scorsese | Interviews | Roger Ebert.
  20. ^ Voller, Debbi (1999), Madonna: The Style Book, Omnibus Press, p. 18, ISBN 0-7119-7511-6

Further reading[edit]

  • Freud, Sigmund (1957). "A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men, pages 165–175". The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. XI. London: Hogarth Press. pp. 179–190. ISBN 978-0-7012-0067-1. On the Universal Tendency of Debasement in the Sphere of Love

External links[edit]

  • Rotem Kahalon; Orly Bareket; Andrea C. Vial; Nora Sassenhagen; Julia C. Becker; Nurit Shnabel (May 2, 2019). "The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy Is Associated With Patriarchy Endorsement: Evidence From Israel, the United States, and Germany". Psychology of Women Quarterly. 43 (3): 348–367. doi:10.1177/0361684319843298. S2CID 155434624.
  • Orly Bareket; Rotem Kahalon; Nurit Shnabel; Peter Glick (November 2018). "The Madonna-whore dichotomy reflects men's support for patriarchy but reduces their sexual and relationship satisfaction". Sex Roles. 79 (9): 519–532. doi:10.1007/s11199-018-0895-7. S2CID 149053299.