The Madonna-Whore Complex: What it Means to You

madonna whore complex

The Madonna-Whore complex is the tendency of some men to categorize women as either pious and valuable Madonnas, or as “too easy to bed”, overly sexual and worthless whores.

But before you think that’s not you, hold on for a second.
Almost every man is affected by the Madonna-whore complex. At least in part. The Madonna-whore complex has a much bigger impact on our life, dating, and sexual behavior than most people have ever imagined.

In this article, we will review where it comes from, what is it, why it exists, and what it means to you -whether you are a woman or a man-.

What’s The Madonna-Whore Complex

The Madonna-whore complex is the binary way with which men judge women as either “wife material” -the Madonna- or as “sex material” -the whore-.

As we will see, be it in extreme or milder form, this dichotomy is present in most men.

How it Originated

Freud said that the Madonna-whore complex arises from the male bonding with his mother.
A man seeks as a wife a woman who can replace his mother, and since having sex with his mother feels incestuous, he is repelled by the idea of having sex with her.

Other theories posit that it’s a cold and distant mother that leads to males’ Madonna-whore complex.

Personally, I believe we don’t need to look for convoluted theories when the real reason might be much simpler.
Evolutionary psychology postulates that it makes sense for men to divide women into categories of Madonna and whores (more on it later).
Yes, those categories are necessarily (highly) imperfect and they don’t do much good for the relationship (and for most men either).
But as Richard Dawkins would say: the selfish genes don’t care about how you feel.

Why Women Hate the Madonna Whore complex

Women hate the Madonna whore complex.

And, in part, it’s for good reason: it places a huge yoke on them to act more like Madonnas while they have to hide their more sexual and aggressive side.

Look at this example from Sex And The City:

She is afraid he will think of her as a whore and won’t marry her

Charlotte: Or maybe I do. I don’t know what I want. But I’m afraid if I don’t, you’ll dump me. And if I do, then I’ll be the up-the-butt girl. And I don’t want to be the up-the-butt girl, because I mean… Men don’t marry up-the-butt girl. Whoever heard of Mrs. Up-The-Butt? No, no, no. I can’t. I want children and nice bedding, and I just can’t handle this right now.

-Charlotte York, Sex & the City

Charlotte would like to try it, but she is afraid that she will think of him as “the whore”, and not get serious with her.
In simple words, Charlotte is worried about that the Madonna-whore complex means to her -and she might be right.-

So, yes, it’s understandable that women feel caged -and judged– by a nonsense male instinct like the Madonna-whore complex -it’s their complex, after all, what faults does a poor gal who enjoys sex have?-.

However, some women who take up arms against the complex sometimes fail to understand the actual reasons behind it and use it as a tool to shame men.
Take this example from an article on the first Google page for “Madonna-whore complex”, blaming the “patriarchy”:

It’s true that the relationship suffers, but “patriarchy” has little to do with it

If you allow me, it’s a rather typical feminist approach to focus on power and power dynamics while missing out on the true biological reasons for certain behaviors.

… But Still Obey It

In spite many women resent the male Madonna-whore complex, they still abide it.

And still seek to come across as Madonas thus, indirectly, confiming the existence of the Madonna-whore dichotomy (and contributing to keep it alive in men’s minds).

See an example here:

In spite she invited over from Tinder, she still hides her sexual intent and seeks to portray a more Madonna-like image

It Has Little To Do With Conservatism

Most people believe that it’s mostly -or only- conservative men who present a higher degree of Madonna-whore complex.

But I contend that it’s not really the case.
Conservative men are just more visible in their complex because:

  1. Conservatives are more open about it
  2. Liberal, on the other hand, hide it more
  3. Players don’t care because they won’t marry her anyway, and they tend to be more liberal

Furthermore, women who attack men on the basis of the Madonna-whore complex often do so by defining men as “conservatives” or “backwards”, which further pushes liberal men to hide and suppress their Madonna-whore tendencies.

However, when push comes to shove, you can rest assured: most men, including liberals and womanizers, prefer to marry the least sexually experienced woman.

Here is an example from Ted, a character of the series How I Met Your Mother who is otherwise portrayed as liberal and rather open-minded:

Ted is portrayed as open-minded, yet he falls for Madonna-whore

Ted: But even if I meet the girl of my dreams right this second, I’m still one night and nine months away from having a family of my own. And that’s assuming the mother of my children is a huge slut.

Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother

Ted is falling for the Madonna-whore trap.
Because a woman might want to have sex with him quickly, he labels her as a “huge slut”.
A bit harsh, isn’t it -and a bit low confidence in his own qualities, too-?

And Ted Mosby is portrayed as a rather liberal guy in that show.

Why is it that even libertines who deny Madonna-whore with words still obey to it in practice?
It’s because of evolutionary psychology.

Let’s finally dig into it.

It’s No “Complex”: It’s Pre-emptive Biology

The Madona-whore is not really a complex per se.

Being able to judge women on their openness to sex posed great advantages for our male ancestors.
I paraphrase Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, widely recognized as one of the best psychology texts:

The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy is based on the idea that if women do differ in terms of the likelihood of cheating and sleeping around, then it makes sense for men to divide them into Madonnas and whores.

And it makes sense for men to spread their genes sleeping with whores while they marry and invest in the Madonna who will never cheat on them

Robert Wright, “The Moral Animal

That’s why it makes sense for men to gauge how open to sex women really are.
Men who could accurately assess women’s “easiness” -or “readiness- to get down to sex, were more able to:

  • Impregnate the whores -quicker to bed and who required less courtship and investment-
  • Marry the Madonna -who will not squander their life investment with a bastard child-

We can speculate -remember, evolutionary psychology is speculation!- that those men who capitalized on their Madonna-whore complex maximized their investment per child and left behind more offspring.
Those offspring were also more likely to inherit the Madonna-whore complex.
And that’s why we still have it today. It’s a complex which yes makes relationships less enjoyable and which yes places a yoke on women, but which was been effective in passing on more genes. And as we’ve already: genes don’t care much for feelings.

Basically, the Madonna-whore complex was just another tool for men in the gender’s sexual arms race.
It’s an inborn system for men that makes evolutionary sense.

Now the big question is: do women really differ on the imaginary continuum from Madonna to whore? And if it (possibly) served us so well during evolution, is it still useful today?

madonna whore complex

Are There Madonnas & Whores?

Tough -and politically incorrect- question.

We saw that the Madonna-whore complex has roots in evolutionary psychology and, if it’s there, it’s fair to assume it probably served men’s interests.

The next question then is: if Madonna-whore evolved in men does it mean that women do indeed differ in their tendencies towards Madonna –femininity and nurturing- and whore -serial sexual seekers-?

In my article on why people cheat and how to find a loyal partner I dug out plenty of resources and studies proving that, indeed, women of certain backgrounds and inclinations cheat more than others -and the same is true for men of course-.
In that sense, dividing women in “Madonna” (ie.: not cheating) and “whores” does make sense for men.

Writes evolutionary psychology researcher David Buss:

Loyalty is important to men because it helps them ensure paternity. And the single best predictor of extramarital sex is premarital sexual promiscuity. 
People who have many sex partners before marriage tend to be more unfaithful than those who have few sex partners before marriage.

David Buss, The Evolution of Desire

After all, let’s not hide behind PC here: it’s pretty obvious that there are “safer” women and there are more dangerous women when it comes to cheating, swindling and running behind their men’s backs –and some women even write books on how to do it-.

However, that is not to say that “safe” or “not safe” women are necessarily all that different when it comes to their attitudes towards sex and family-life.
Indeed, dividing “Madonnas” from “whores” is an oversimplification and a form of black and white thinking.

And the reality, as usual, is more varied.
Sure, there are some women who are not interested in sex at all and there are women with little nurturing feelings, but most women simply present both sides.

Madonna-Whore Continuum

madonna whore continuum

This is a case in which a continuum might be more confusing than value-adding.
Indeed there are virtually no women who crave sex and have zero interest in a great relationship, plus zero interest in a family.
And there are virtually no women who are crazy about child-rearing and relationships but have zero interest in sex.
In a nutshell: the Madonna-whore dichotomy as two separate categories without overlap is bogus because most women are a mix of both.

However, if we had to consider the net result of the two different tendencies, then most women will cluster slightly more on the relationship-nurturing side -at least as compared to men-.
Here is the chart as compared to men, who also rarely present extremes of “100% whore”:

What a shocker, eh? Men too can be thought of as “Madonnas” or “whores”

Men Should Discriminate Women For LTR

While I exhort readers here not to be judgmental, I also encourage them to be discriminating of who they accept in their close circles -both as partners or as close friends-.

Indeed I am a big believer that men should discriminate between low quality women and high quality women when it comes to long term relationships.

Somebody said that the most important investment you make in life is never a financial instrument but it’s the person you choose to marry.
And I couldn’t agree more.

Discriminating the people you accept in your life is a good thing, not bad.

If you’re a driven man with important goals you must be discriminating of the people around you.
From your friends to your business partners you must vet people. And the person you must be the most discriminating with is the most important person in your life: your intimate partner -or “life partner” as they call it-.

However, here is the clincher: the Madonna-whore dichotomy isn’t such great tool to discriminate women.

Madonna-Whore Is Bad for Men

While I do exhort men -and women alike- to discriminate for long term partners, I recommend men should drop the the Madonna-whore because it’s simply a poor tool to discriminate women.

And it’s also a poor mindset with which to approach dating and an even worst mindset for men who want to have a great relationship -which hopefully is every single reader here-.

Here is why:

Why It’s Poor for Discriminating

People are more similar than different, and that’s true for women as well.

Sure, certain types of women are more likely to cheat and sleep around and some types of women, together with certain specific traits, are more conducive to a safer, more loyal girlfriend.

But I am unsure how the Madonna-whore continuum is supposed to help because most women have both sexual urges and nurturing feelings at the same time and the two are not mutually exclusive.

That means that if you find a woman with a high sex drives, it says little about her qualities as a mother or partner.
And the other way around is true: a submissive woman who is rather asexual and inexperienced doesn’t necessarily make for a great wife, mother or long term partner.

Why It’s Poor for Dating

A man who approaches dating with a Madonna-whore mindset will expect women to:

And he will get exactly that.
You often get what you expect, in life -and especially so in dating-.

Indeed women are wonderful when it comes to adapting, and if he is probing for Madonna qualities, chances are that she will be a Madonna for him -ie.: play him-.
The best way to learn how she really is instead is by (pretending) to completely drop the Madonna-whore.

Actually, it’s even better to play up her whore side: that’s the technique of going the lover way and you get to know her sexual side quite quickly.
Here is an example from my text flirting article:

Men are better served by teasing out her “non-Madonna” side early on

Why It’s Poor for Relationships

When the woman is forced to enact a Madonna role, she must hide her more sexual side and pretend to be someone she’s not.

He will never get to know the real her and she will never get to be her real self.
A real bond and connection are impossible when people wear such thick masks of course, and that’s, in my opinion, a life tragedy.

As an ex girlfriend of mine told me, one of the reasons she really liked me was:

I can really be myself with you

Lucio’s ex GF

Be the guy who allows her to be herself: drop -or tune way down- the Madonna-whore complex.

What It Means to Female Dating

Sadly for women, many men will never most past the Madonna-whore dichotomy.

That means that, in some cases, women will be forced to choose between a relationship with a man who sees her as a binary “good” or “evil” or no relationship at all.
Women who show their Madonna side and hide their whorish one will do much better with the following types of men:

  • Men who invest a lot (believe in old chivalry ideals)
  • Chase a lot (believes in fixed roles)
  • Are proudly conservative (conservatives wear more masks)
  • Are very religious (most religions see sex as sinful)
  • Younger (tend to idealize women more)
  • Less experienced
  • Less educated

Whether or not it’s worth it to pursue a relationship with a man big on Madonna-whore, it’s up to her.

madonna whore complex
Please, please, stop putting me into a box

SUMMARY

The Madonna-whore complex is a way of seeing women as either “wife material” -the Madonna- or as “sex material” -the whore-.

Albeit many men deny it, almost everybody acts and thinks based on the dichotomy.
As a rule of thumb, it’s not a bad thing being discerning about women’s likelihood of cheating and nurturing a family.
However, the complex is a major limiting belief which bears little resemblance to reality and which can lead most men astray.
Most women are both Madonnas and whores.
And whore-ish traits of loving sex or certain types of kinks say little about her nurturing side and her loyalty to him.

That’s why most men would do well to drop the dichotomy.
But since most men will not drop the dichotomy, most women would do well date keeping the dichotomy in mind.

Final Note: this article is not about the pathology
This article discussed the Madonna-whore complex as it’s present in almost every single man.
When the Madonna-whore becomes a dichotomy so strong that men only see girlfriends Madonnas -and cannot have sex with them-, then it becomes a pathology.
But that’s rarer, and it wasn’t the topic of this article.

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