The Madonna Complex is a psychological concept coined by Freud to refer to the inability of a man to maintain sexual arousal within a committed loving relationship. The complex describes how man can be conflicted between honouring and respecting his partner, the mother or future mother of his children, and needing to freely express his sexual desires. Where the Madonna is seen as virtuous and virginal, and deemed worthy of divine respect, love and protection, Freud argues that this ideal makes it difficult for a man in a loving and committed relationship, to express his deep sexual nature without feelings of guilt or shame.
While the Madonna Complex traditionally has its focus on helping men understand their sexual desires within their committed relationships, this complex has had a deep and wounded history on the female psyche.
The basis of this concept is that it offers women only two competing identities, the whore and the virgin. Maybe it dates back to the bible which also offers us two very distinct versions of “Mary”. The Virginal Mary, who apparently birthed Christ without being “sullied” by man, and Mary Magdalene who traditionally represents the redeemed prostitute/whore.
The Madonna archetype is seen as the Divine Mother. The Good Girl. She literally produces the miracle of life through birthing her children. She’s virtuous and nurturing as she lovingly raises the innocent. She commands respect and love. She’s devoid of any sensuality or sexual desire. Such things are seen as dirty and beneath her.
The Whore on the other hand, is the bad girl. She’s the sinner and immoral. She willingly dismisses her own values in order to submit herself to mans every desire. You’re invited to disrespect her and to lose your own values and morals within her. Her own darkness allows man to reveal his own dark depths without fear of judgement. Just by her own nature man is allowed to disrespect her as she has been judged to have already abandoned herself.
The issue is that this bizarre dichotomy of Madonna/Whore has bled through almost every layer of society. Its utterly ridiculous to accept that every female on this planet only had two faces, but the marketing industry, Hollywood, music industry and even social media is massively influenced by The Madonna Complex.
Both in my previous marriage and as a dating single mother I’ve seen The Madonna Complex played out again and again. In my marriage I felt constricted to express myself sensually, and also felt the confusion of reconciling the feelings about my body after childbirth. Many women report feeling confused and even depressed as they no longer feel sexy post childbirth, and their body becomes purely functional instead of being solely for pleasure. Breasts suddenly become the foundation of life literally instead of a sign of sensuality and femininity. Women are not only faced with the new role of motherhood but are offered a serving of complicated body issues and body shaming. “8 weeks to get back your post baby body” was a headline that constantly taunted mothers in supermarkets and magazine stands. While mothers should be concentrating on their health and well-being for themselves and their child, they are instead being tortured with diets, scales and societal pressure to get back their pre-baby body. The body of the mother, with her full belly, child bearing hips, lowered breasts from breast feeding and stretch marks is not accepted as desirable or sexy. The Madonna cannot be sexually desirable.
This leads us to yet another issue; why is it that only the typical Maidens body is seem as desirable, and the bodies of the Mother or the wise Crone are shunned. Taunt flat stomachs, perky breasts that have never seen babies, flawless thighs and stretchmark free bodies are sexy. Instagram, Pinterest, fashion and gossip magazines hound us with images of the maiden being the ONLY sexually desirable figure. We don’t celebrate any other type of female figure and we are a society riddled with body issues, eating disorders and mental health issues. The Madonna is not a sex symbol.
Back to marriage, I’ve seen The Madonna Complex play out for men as well. As a divorced woman dating in my 30’s I took the opportunity to speak to many men about their own sex lives, and what goes on for them inside a marriage. I’ve heard men claim “I can’t ask my wife to perform a head job. It’s degrading”. I’ve also spoken with numerous men that admitted to seeking out the services of a paid sex worker behind their wives backs rather than ask their wives to perform vaginal, oral or anal sex.
“She’s busy raising the kids”
“She’s too tired”
“She has enough on her plate”.
“I just can’t ask that of her”.
“It seems wrong”.
Perhaps part of the issue is that we associate the concept of sex with words like dirty, sinful, abandonment (of values) etc. Even upon looking for a synonym for lustful, the thesaurus offers synonyms like ‘immoral’ and ‘shameless’. Society even comes up with a stream of crazy nonsensical names to replace words like penis and vagina (such as foofoo, pee pee, gash, muff, beaver, burger) instead of just having the natural maturity to talk about sex and genitals for what they are.
Parents cringe about educating their kids about sex and leave it up to outdated educational and religious institutes (and we’re back to the Virgin Mary and Mags the Redeemed Whore).
“We clearly have BIG issues around seeing sex as something natural, fun and healthy.”
Dating as a single parent is like living on the fringe of society. You’re suddenly available which makes other wives label you ‘dangerous goods’, but you also end up facing the pity and saviour complexes of men who think you must need saving. In the dating world single mothers widely complain about being treated as ‘easy’, ‘desperate’, and ‘needy’. And I’ve heard plenty of comments from men about targeting single mothers for an easy one-nighter. The single mother is used goods, tainted and available for market.
Even in our early dating lives we’ve all heard those comments “if you sleep with a guy on the first night, he won’t respect you”. Woman are pressured to be the good girl “he can take home to his mother”. You know, “the marrying type”. It’s practically a gross stereotype that if a girl sleeps with a guy on the first night she’s automatically deemed a slut. “Don’t expect him to call you in the morning”. How come the same standards aren’t applied to the male sex? If he doesn’t respect the girl the next morning, does he still respect himself? It’s the old argument of why do we call sexually empowered women sluts and sexually empowered men studs?
Thanks Madonna Complex.
The Madonna Complex sets some pretty crazy mixed messages for the younger female generations. In our own times we’ve seen the Lindsay Lohan’s, Brittney Spears and Paris Hiltons of the world trying to break out of the young girl mould and embrace the ‘whore’ in order to break into the million-dollar entertainment industry. Sex sells. We’ve blurred the line between sexualisation and sexual empowerment. As teenagers start to embark on the crazy hormonal journey, on one hand they become aware they need to sexualise themselves in order to be desirable, or they play into the prudish persona of the good girl. Young females often also get shamed as ‘frigid’ or as being ‘icy’ in order to be pressured into sexual activity they simply aren’t ready for or don’t want to engage in. It becomes a dangerous playing field that any parent of a daughter knows or fears far too well.
Even grown women are often shamed around sex. Woman can as much shamed for not wanting sex as they can be shamed for wanting it. Years ago, I dated a guy who had a lower sex drive than myself. While he would laugh at my sexual appetite, he would often comment “it’s like dating a man”. Stereotypically, thanks to the Madonna Complex, it’s the men who should be sexually adventurous and be the sexual hunter wooing and seducing the innocent females. So, when the female seems more sexually empowered than the man, relationship dynamics can go off skew if the man feels it to be a threat to his own masculinity. It seems we are all bound at times by the rules of the Madonna Complex.
Women may also feel the need to hide their sexual nature. They play into the ‘good girl rules’ of being mild and meek, they get told to “play hard to get”, to “look slutty but not too slutty”. From the fear of being called whores or sluts, women retreat from their natural sensual selves and shut themselves down and repress their own sexual desires and feelings. Being less of the whore means we must be more like The Madonna right? The good wife and the good mother must then give everything to her domestic life; house work, cooking and child raising and sacrifice her inner own inner needs and desires. She disconnects from her own inner seductress only to be screaming out a decade or two down the track to be seen for who she really is.
Good or bad, sinner or saint, virgin or slut, sexy or girl next door, Angelina Jolie or Jennfier Aniston – you choose. In a society obsessed with judgement and labels, The Madonna Complex demands that you must decide early on, are you the Good Girl or the Bad Girl?
The truth is why do we need to be either?
Why should we have to choose? Why should we even have to want to be both? Why can’t we just be “us”. A human in her own right who has the incredible and miraculous potential to birth life and also embrace our sensuality as a whole woman at the same time.
Enter #BreakingTheGoodGirlRules; breaking any rules that stop us from expressing our own natural truths regardless. The ‘Good Girl’ tries to shape her sexuality in accordance with what she thinks men want; Madonna or Whore.
When we step out of this role we get to own all of ourselves and the beautifully complex nature that we possess. Some days we are the mother, the sinner, the saint, the child, the seductress, the teacher, the student, the wise sage, the warrior, the child, the domestic goddess or the burner of macaroni cheese …. For me I love being able to have the freedom to express all these sides of myself without fear or judgement.
Years ago, I stopped bothering to figure out what men wanted and decided to focus on my own self, I decided to break ’The Good Girl Rules’ and stopped giving a damn about what everyone else thought. I decided to own all of myself unapologetically. I acknowledged I’m a great mother and I acknowledged my inner seductress was equally as powerful. I embraced my cellulite and stretchmarks, and I committed to my truths and in trusting my own inner compass. Perhaps it’s not so surprising and actually somewhat poetic then, when Mr Awesome entered stage right. He’s funny, witty, intelligent, sweet, huge hearted, thinks I’m an amazing mother and business woman, he loves seeing me create things and loves exploring sex as much as I do. As I owned all sides of my personality, it allows him to also do the same. Our relationship is playful and powerful. It lacks judgement and instead is full of expression, creativity and a hell of a lot of laughter. Both of us are safe to explore and express ourselves in numerous ways inside and outside the bedroom. In his own words, he’s dating the ‘full package’. Not The Madonna and not The Whore.
Verity Mansfield is a Women’s Empowerment Coach and Mentor. She is the founder of A Beautiful Truth, which supports women to break those “Good Girl Rules” so they can really acknowledge the true magnificent beauty within, to realise they are more powerful then what society dictates, and that they can determine their own self-worth and embrace the power within to live life on their own terms.
Dip Counselling. Dip Life Coaching (ICF), Cert Matrix Therapies, Cert NLP and Reiki II.