How one of the most common, yet misunderstood, male sexual dysfunctions can rip relationships apart.
By Jody Gummow / Alternet
“Where such men love they have no desire, and where they desire they cannot love,” Sigmund Freud wrote back in 1925. The founding father of psychoanalysis coined the Madonna-whore complex – a condition whereby men view women as either saintly, virgin Madonnas or sexual “whores.”
In essence, the effect of Madonna-whore on a relationship is an inability of the man to maintain sexual arousal within a committed, loving partnership. In his psyche he categorizes women into two groups: women he can admire and women he finds sexually attractive; the former he loves, the latter he devalues.
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 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.
As it applies in the context of relationships in modern times, Madonna-whore complex generally manifests itself after marriage or the birth of a child as Dr. Suraci explains:
“A man may think of his wife as a mother and not an appropriate sex partner. He is accustomed to having intercourse with a sexy woman and his wife does not fit the bill. She is now the mother – Madonna. Unconsciously, she may remind him of his mother who cannot be a sexual being,” he said.
However, according to clinical psychologist and sex therapist, Dr. Peter S. Kanaris, Ph.D., while Freud’s conceptualization has some merit, cultural and religious considerations also play a major part:
“In our western American culture we get a divided message that the wholesomeness of love and the ‘good girl’ woman we want to be with in a long-term relationship and perhaps marry, is anything but sexual. She is the person who is responsible and represents stability and foundation. The other aspect of our culture is salacious emphasizing the ‘bad girl’, the one that you don’t marry and is separated in our culture from the one we think seriously about in terms of a long time relationship,” he explained to Alternet.
Furthermore, religion is another factor in reinforcing that sex and love don’t really fit together in that many displays of sexuality in religious relationships are filled with disapproving messages that “Madonna type phenomena” should not be associated with anything sexual.
Moreover, the fact that many males get their first sexual images from internet porn only further unwittingly forces the Madonna/whore divide which in turn becomes a challenge in the development of male sexuality.
The added difficulty with diagnosing Madonna-whore complex is that it often overlaps with other male psychological conditions where erectile dysfunction is present or an underlying libido or psychological problem. In this regard, it is important to distinguish between this Madonna-whore complex and other scenarios affecting male sexual performance such as the situation where a man in a long-term relationship may lose his sexual desire over time. As Dr. Kanaris explains:
“Madonna-whore complex should be distinguished from situations of long-term relationships where desire seems to naturally wane, in that in the former, the problem manifests much sooner – usually around a development event such as a marriage or pregnancy or having a second child. In effect, things that happen that are symbolic of love and happiness and traditional aspects of relationships can elicit or trigger Madonna-whore complex whereas in a long-term relationship situation, you are dealing with a desire problem typically as a result of a relationship that has become stale,” he said.
According to Dr. Joel Block, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in couples and sex therapy, some of these men have a difficult time committing:
“They “stray” to keep their vulnerability in check. They are usually unconsciously fearful of getting too attached. Having a woman on the side gives them a better sense of control. With all this effort, many guys do start seeing their women, especially in long term relationships, resembling their mom”, he told Alternet.
Such behavior can lead to infidelity on both parties’ behalf as the man seeks sex with acceptable “whores” and the woman seeks physical comfort. However, Dr. Kanaris says that the disorder is exacerbated in a variety of ways, not necessarily just through affairs, but essentially manifests through the male diverting sexual energy away from the primary relationship – such as toward pornography or erotic massage.
This can create a major strain on relationships because a woman’s partner may be satisfying her in every other facet of the relationship, except sexually. Moreover, the male is presented with a major dilemma when he feels he is unable to love any woman who can satisfy him sexually and is unable to sexually satisfy any woman whom he can love.
Moreover, the matter is further complicated by the fact that despite the lack of sexual desire, the love he has for his partner or wife may endure, creating additional conflict within the man. This in turn affects the woman who is left feeling inadequate, resentful, abandoned and confused.
As Dr. Carol Elison, PhD., clinical psychologist and author of ‘Women’s Sexualities’, explained to Alternet: “The woman feels like she cannot turn her man on anymore. She feels impotent in how to turn him on and inadequate in her sexuality. Infidelity often ensues on her part as she looks for physical comfort because her man is no longer giving her sex. This happens when some outward attraction meets some unfulfilled need in the relationship. The sexy woman still lives within her, and she meets up with a man who grabs onto that,” she said.
So what is the best way to address the problem? According to the experts, it is important to realize that Madonna-whore complex is an extremely common condition, which affects individuals and relationships.
Furthermore, as Dr. Kanaris explains, most of the time the man is perplexed and has no idea why he feels the way he does, so it is important to help him identify what he is going through by working on closing the gap between love and sex which often involves bringing his female partner into the picture:
“If a person has been looking for certain types of kink for example through internet porn or outside of the relationship, then we encourage him instead to take videos or photos of his partner that are provocative to him and use the partner as that sex object to see the partner in the sexual light,” he said.
Introducing role-playing, sex toys or different sexual positions into a relationship can also put spark back into the sex-less relationship as Dr. Suraci explains:
“There are other solutions to put a spark in a marriage or relationship to destroy the monotony and routine of their life. They can go to couple counseling where they can learn new ways of relating to each other. They can embark on a courtship to discover what attracted them to each other in the beginning. A man may be able to integrate the “Madonna” and “whore” to have a full satisfying relationship,” Dr. Suraci says.
However, according to Dr. Block, recent research suggests that boredom has not been given the attention it deserves in longer-term relationships where Madonna/whore may present itself:
“Often the advice is to do new things together, that sort of thing. I believe that’s not nearly enough. What’s really needed is radical openness. Couples need to be figuratively naked with each other. Instead, as the relationship becomes more central and the others judgment takes on more impact, relationships become more cautious.
“I see these couples in restaurants. The meal has just started and they are already looking past each other. They have eliminated anything more personal for fear of being judged–perhaps based on past experience with their partner–and now their conversation is about the children and other people. BORING! What about all that emotional talk that brought them together? To stay in love and attracted you need to replicate the behavior that brought you together,” he said.