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17 February 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 10:56am

The Madonna-whore complex is still alive in straight men, denying women basic humanity

When men learn to separate the idea of personhood from the idea of sex, it enables the darkest of violence to occur.

By Megan Nolan

Amid a number of troubling allegations circulating in recent weeks about the actor Armie Hammer (which he denies), one comparatively innocuous quote stood out to me. It lodged in my mind and quietly disturbed me – not because of what it might reveal about the actor’s behaviour, but because it seemed to speak to malign sexual tendencies I have experienced and observed myself. In 2013 Hammer gave an interview to Playboy, in which he said that he was once a “dominant lover” but that this sexual impulse had been curbed since he got married. “I liked the grabbing of the neck and the hair and all that,” he said. “But then you get married and your sexual appetites change. And I mean that for the better – it’s not like I’m suffering in any way. But you can’t really pull your wife’s hair. It gets to a point where you say, ‘I respect you too much to do these things that I kind of want to do.’”

Hammer’s admission to the magazine – given, he later claimed, while drunk – is an unusually, unintentionally blatant illustration of what is sometimes known as the Madonna-whore complex: when heterosexual men find women either loveable or erotic, but never both together. When this occurs, women can only ever be either saints or sluts. As Freud put it: “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” The man who suffers from this complex finds it is impossible to sexualise a woman once he has come to love her. Once a woman has been integrated into his life in the role of respected partner, she loses her sexuality and must be treated only as a source of benevolent maternalism. She lacks the threatening and chaotic element that is erotic power. And just the same, he is unable to feel affection for the woman who does incite his desire. He cannot ascribe complex humanity to someone capable of arousing this reaction in him.

Now, one of the unfortunate downsides of long-term partnership for people of any gender is that the longer and better you come to know one another, the less intense your sexual desire for them is likely to be. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule – but I think it’s fair to say that a couple who have been together for 15 years, for instance, will probably have a relationship that is less characterised by their mutual sexual drives than it was when they first met. There are plenty of ways to address this natural waning if it is important to keep sex a primary part of a partnership, but it is an issue that most of us will grapple with at some point.

[see also: How OnlyFans became the porn industry’s great lockdown winner – and at what cost]

But the Madonna-whore complex is something beyond the erosion of desire – and it’s specifically gendered. It’s in that age-old idea that there are “girls like that” who are available, or even desperate, for sex, and then there are good girls who are to be married. Good girls will submit to sex when it is appropriate but they will never seek it out or, ideally, enjoy it at all. This idea is less inherent in the formal structures of society than it once was, but some men still see women in this binary way, drawing a clear line between those they love and those they allow themselves to eroticise. Many girls learn that boys will be earnest, sentimental and pleading with them before they have slept with them, but become aloof and superior once they have – able immediately to mentally disregard the fallen woman as worthy of contempt.

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I once briefly dated a man who told me he used two dating apps – one, of the ordinary variety, was used to find potential girlfriends, while the other, with an emphasis on sex and kink, was strictly hook-up only. What happened, I wondered, when he met a woman he liked on the kink app? Would he take her on a real date, instead of keeping her relegated to drunk, 2am “U up?” texts? He was puzzled by this question and seemed unable to imagine that he would meet someone he liked on that app. He and I had met on the valid, normative dating app (thank God I was one of the lucky ones in the running for the title of Girlfriend!) but unknown to him, I was on the second app too. So what was to become of me, who had slipped through the net of propriety?

The worlds of kink and BDSM must – and generally do – privilege consent above all other things. These are spaces and concepts which can be tremendously freeing for people who struggle with sexual shame, or they can just be a lot of fun for like-minded individuals. But when BDSM gets caught up in the Madonna-whore complex like this, it suggests something deeply disturbing: that the violence that is supposed to be consensual, imaginative role-play is built on a foundation of actual and intended contempt. What about all those women before the wife, the women that a man can bring himself to be physically forceful with in bed? If love and respect for a partner who has been placed on a pedestal prevents him from being dominant with her, what does it imply he felt towards the ones who preceded her? It suggests, in short, that basic humanity is denied to those women – and if they’re not really human, then anything goes.

It is upsetting to think that many women are unable to enjoy a rich, full sexual life with the person they love and are loved by, but it is even more upsetting to consider the dehumanisation of those women who are deemed the appropriate receivers of violent sexualisation. Online, I sometimes see responses to awful stories of rape which express dismay and surprise that the perpetrator did not simply hire a sex worker instead of taking sex by force. This idea suggests that sex workers would be the appropriate receptacle for rage and disturbed sexual impulses; and that some women exist simply to be used as a release valve for the inevitable atrocities of the male libido. When men learn to separate the idea of personhood from the idea of sex, it enables the darkest of violence to occur.

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This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth