Madonna–whore complex

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.

Causes

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 representations of women as either madonnas or whores in mythology and Judeo-Christian theology rather than developmental disabilities of individual men.[9]