The Madonna-whore complex is a fascinating phenomenon.

And to be clear, when we talk about the Madonna-whore complex, we’re not talking about that Madonna…

The ‘Madonna-whore complex’ is worth researching if you happen to be a male sufferer of retroactive jealousy. You may have already encountered the phrase in your quest for insight on your condition.

According to Wikipedia, a Madonna-whore 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).

Sigmund Freud wrote: “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.”

Sound familiar?

Freud argued that the Madonna–whore complex is caused by oedipalcastration 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.

Alternet recently posted a very good article on the topic which I imagine many of you will find interesting:

Dr. Patrick Suraci, Ph.D., and author of “ Male Sexual Armor: Erotic Fantasies and Sexual Realities of the Cop on the Beat and the Man in the Street” explained the origins [of the Madonna-whore complex] to Alternet:

“Historically men had a dichotomy in their perception of women. In the past, men, especially teens, had the idea that they had to marry a ‘good girl’ – a virgin. They only had sex with the ‘fast girls’ or ‘bad girls’.

They waited until marriage with a ‘good girl’ – a Madonna, before engaging in sexual activities with her. Literally, sometimes they went to a whore for their first sexual experience.

The advent of the pill changed the way women approached sex and thus men had to also change their views to accommodate women”, he told Alternet.

From then on, Dr. Suraci explained, women were as free to have sex as men were, and men no longer had to make a distinction between good and bad girls and didn’t expect to marry a virgin.

Yet, despite the effect that female contraception had on the women’s liberation movement and that we live in a post Third-wave feminism era, the dichotomy still rears its ugly head today through pop culture, slut-shaming and condemning women in society who enjoy sex as being a whore.

Equally as patronizing to feminists, is the ‘Madonna’ label whereby men put a woman on a pedestal as someone to be protected and subservient to men.

I firmly believe that retroactive jealousy in men is caused by, in part, modern man’s compulsion to put their woman on a pedestal, and project unrealistic and sometimes delusional expectations on them.

From Penn State University:

Hartmann (2009) asserts that though many of Freud’s sexual theories are now considered antiquated and sexist, his psychoanalytic notion of the Madonna-whore complex is still quite viable and pervasive in modern sexual dynamics and gender roles.

Women are given so many shaming antisexual messages suppressing the understanding and integration of their sexuality, while simultaneously being valued principally for their youth, thinness, attractiveness, and overall sexual prestige by society.

The female plight is just as dichotomous as the male’s: women want to be both respected (primarily) yet desired (secondarily), whereas men struggle to reconcile these concepts that they can find paradoxical, creating cognitive dissonance.  Landau et al. (2006) indicate that men’s ambivalence towards women’s sexuality is predicated on the ambivalence about their own sexuality, again a painful reminder of their mortality.

Heidi Priebe from Thought Catalog has some words worth considering on this topic:

The problem with the Madonna-Whore complex is that 0% of us fit fully into one category or the other. We may err on one side or the other but we’re all born with sex drives. We’re all born with a sense of compassion. We’re all a little bit Madonna and a little bit Whore. Trying to separate the world into two types of women is a game. You’re either lying to yourself or you’re losing.

I, for one, am tired of these accidental categories we’re placing ourselves and each other into – and much of it is, I believe, truly accidental. We put the people we respect up on a pedestal and we strip them of any qualities that we deem to be unvirtuous. We don’t give each other time to reveal who we actually are – we jump to conclusions and then punish one another for not meeting them. We fail to be conscious of the polarized fashion in which we manage our own thoughts and then we let them run rampant.

“She’s a great girl,” or “He’s a nice guy” quickly gives way to “(S)he would never do anything wrong. (S)he shares all my morals. (S)he is an absolute Madonna, whatever that means to me personally.” We compartmentalize our love interests into whichever categories are most convenient for us and then grow frustrated with them for defying our own system.

As I’ve written before:

When we put someone on a pedestal they have no choice but to look down on us. Not only is this unhealthy for us as men, but it is equally unhealthy for the women in our lives.

When a woman sees that you value her above all else, she starts to question your own value, and attraction dies. You can guess what happens next…

Male sufferers of retroactive jealousy wish to preserve a “pure” vision of their partner’s femininity by questioning them about their interactions with other men.

If you’re one of them, you need to realize that your partner is a human being with flaws, weaknesses, shortcomings, and a need for growth.

Of course, this should not dismiss your doubt if her values are genuinely incompatible with your own, but otherwise don’t look at her as if she “should be above” certain types of behavior.

If you’re struggling with retroactive jealousy, maybe something for you to consider.

Click here to learn more about overcoming retroactive jealousy.


Zachary Stockill
Zachary Stockill

Hi! I'm a Canadian author and educator whose work has been featured in BBC News, BBC Radio 4, The Huffington Post, and many other publications. I'm the founder of RetroactiveJealousy.com, the author of Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy and The Overcoming Jealousy Workbook, and the host of Humans in Love podcast.