The Madonna Whore complex: Wifey material or for the streets?

By Bailey Fleming (they/she)

Illustrated by Liz Yu (she/her)

Most of us have our hookup stories - the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s only when I look back on mine I think to myself, ‘You put yourself through that?’ It started like this: he pursued me as a hookup, sweeping me off my feet by calling me hot and sexy. It was once he got to know me that things changed. Upon discovering that I was a multi-faceted person who is smart and even knows how to cook, he told me I was no longer hot, but cute and ‘wifey material’. This baffled me until I learnt about the Madonna-Whore Complex.


The Madonna-Whore Complex, first coined by Sigmund Freud, is a theory that observes a split with men in their affectionate and sexual forms of desire, causing a lack of arousal when in a committed relationship. It suggests that men can only see women as sexually attractive and desirable, or individuals who are worthy of being respected, loved, and committed to. Within the theory, these ideas are mutually-exclusive; women can only be seen as one or the other. It clicked for me how prevalent this theory is in today’s society. You’ve heard terms like for the streets or wifey material , categorising women as sluts or pure based on how they are perceived regardless of sexual activity. This dichotomy confused and interested me. Why can’t women be sexually liberated individuals who also deserve respect and commitment? The theory made me reflect on my past experiences with men and how I too have played into it subconsciously.


On a surface level, some of us curate our appearance based on how we want to look that particular day - I know I do. An endless array of eclectic aesthetics are available. Want to look like a sexy, promiscuous girl boss? Wear less. Want to be taken home to meet the family? Wear more. Of course, inherently there is no issue with dressing or acting how you want to be perceived. However, when we let how we want to be perceived be dictated by male validation, we have a problem. Take Cassie from Euphoria . She was taught from a young age that her body and attractiveness were all she was wanted and good for. This evolved into her, as a young woman, sleeping with men who had no respect for her, not for her own empowerment or even enjoyment, but because she thought it was the only form of validation she was worthy of receiving. She is told, “Any guy who says he's interested in you beyond just fucking you, is full of shit.” It becomes apparent in the show how detrimental this sentiment is to her and to women in real life. It seems like everything we do makes us either the Madonna or the Whore.


The ‘Madonna-Whore Complex’ is not a belief system but built from societal expectations. It categorises women into black and white boxes whilst allowing men to operate in the grey area with more freedom. Because it is taught to men from a young age, women, therefore, experience it from a young age. However, there is room to grow for men and women who have bought into this complex. For men, it can be as easy as listening to women and not being so quick to dismiss them. As this theory is a product of the patriarchy, the responsibility of ridding this phenomenon should fall on the shoulders of men. Men need to do some self-reflection and use their privilege to empower women. There is a capability to relearn how we view women, detaching their fundamental traits from the needs of men and this binary notion.