Madonna–whore complex

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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]

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.[5]

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.[6] Oedipal and castration 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".[7] 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.[8] 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.[8]

It is possible that such a split may be exacerbated when the sufferer is raised by a cold but overprotective mother[9] – a lack of emotional nurturing paradoxically strengthening an incestuous tie.[10] Such a man will often court someone with maternal qualities, hoping to fulfill a need for intimacy unmet in childhood, only for a return of the repressed feelings surrounding the earlier relationship to prevent sexual satisfaction in the new.[11]

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.[12]

In the Colonial Encounter[edit]

Historically, it has not been uncommon for various and, oftentimes, oppositional political powers to appropriate the madonna-whore complex for their own respective purposes in the colonial encounter. Prominent Indigenous women, who have contributed to the shaping of their societies, have often fallen casualty to this appropriation. During, and long after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, for example, both the Indian nationalists and the British colonial powers, situated the warrior queen Lakshmibai, the Rhani of Jhansi, within the paradigmatic stipulations of the madonna-whore complex -- with the British representing her as a whore and the Indian nationalists representing her as a maternal figure. They both then used her to symbolize their respective political thinking and allegiances. Prachi Deshpande articulates the tendency that both Indian nationalists and the British colonists had to manipulate the Rhani's womanhood into a moral argument for their respective doings when she says that, while "colonial discourses presented her as an Orientalized Jezebel who justified the brutal peace that Britain established after the rebellion...' [she has emerged in] the dominant Indian nationalist a heroic mother battling for her son's patrimony, an iconic figure in the gendered representations of the modern Indian nation."[13] As Indrani Sen concludes in his account of colonial "mutiny" fiction, the rendering of the Rhani in the simplistic terms that underly the mother-whore dichotomy has deeply influenced not only the historiography of the Indian Rebellion that the Rhani staged, or the fight for independence, which she helped to initiate, but has also, and perhaps even more importantly, forever impeded the efforts of modern-day historians to make sense of the Rhani as a person [14].

This erasure of personhood that results when a woman is reduced to a mere paradox is a topic that Pamela Scully focuses on in her writings about the many ways in which the madonna-whore dichotomy has and still continues to be applied to the study of la Malinche.[15] According to Scully, popular history has traditionally either denigrated her as a harlot, who betrayed her Indigenous people for material advantage, or has celebrated her as both the figurative and literal mother of the Mexican, mestizo people.[15] Scully contends that the historiographical preoccupation with both of these representations either mischaracterize or altogether diminish her agency; while the former ascribes to her a "terrible sort of agency," on in which she had "had a choice in the matter, as if she knew about the new empire that would emerge from her work as a translator," the latter implies that she may have been a passive victim of the circumstances that the inevitable colonial project forced upon her.[15] Within these narrow understandings, Scully argues that there is very little room to consider that fact that Malinche led an imperfect life, that she went "from a noble birth to enslavement, to a forced relationship with a Spaniard, to a favored partner and diplomat of Cortes to a final marriage to a Spaniard," and that it would have been nearly impossible for her to navigate them all to a perfect outcome.[15]

Sexual politics[edit]

Naomi Wolf considered that the sexual revolution had paradoxically intensified the importance of the virgin-whore split, leaving women to fend with the worst aspects of both images.[16] Others consider that both men and women find integrating sensuality and an ideal femininity difficult to do within the same relationship.[17]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Alfred Hitchcock used the Madonna-whore dichotomy as an important mode of representing women.[18] 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".[19]
  • 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.
  • In American Horror Story: Asylum, set in a mental asylum during the 1960s, a time when the field of psychoanalysis was in chaos, the repressed character Dr. Arthur Arden, as portrayed by James Cromwell, is fixated 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 (a.k.a. the Madonna), screaming "Whore!" at it accusingly. Earlier in the series, Arden had shown to subscribe to Freudian theory regarding feminine sexuality.
  • Pamela Thurschwell highlighted "the range of Dylan's women, which may often begin with a fine line in madonnas and whores but which often go on to undercut each other in spectacular reversals".[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. 
  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. 
  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. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (PFL 7) p. 251
  7. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (PFL 7) p. 251
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ P. A Sacco, Madonna Complex (2011) p. 48
  10. ^ Neville Symington, Narcissism (1993) p. 99
  11. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (PFL 7) p. 251
  12. ^ Feinman, Clarice. Women in the criminal justice system. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994, pp. 3–4, ISBN 978-0-275-94486-5.
  13. ^ Deschpande, Prachi (2008). "The Making of an Indian Nationalist Archive: Lakshmibai Jhansi, and 1857". The Journal of Asian Studies. doi:10.1017/S0021911808001186. 
  14. ^ Sen, Indrani (2007). "Inscribing the Rani of Jhansi in Colonial 'Mutiny' Fiction". Economic and Political Weekly. doi: Check |doi= value (help). 
  15. ^ a b c d Scully, Pamela (2005). "Malintzin, Pocahontas and Krotoa: Indigenous Women and Myth Models of the Atlantic World". Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History. 
  16. ^ Naomi Wolf, Promiscuities (1997) p. 5 and p. 131
  17. ^ Robert Bly/Marion Woodman, The Maiden King (1999) p. 203
  18. ^ 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. 
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ Quoted in N. Corcoran ed., Do You, Mr Jones? (2002) p. 269

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.

External links[edit]