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July 15, 2021

“Sex/Life” on Netflix: the Modern-day Madonna-Whore Complex?

“Sex/Life,” brought to us by Netflix, is an exploration of one woman’s sexual experiences in her current married life versus her premarital existence.

(The show is currently the number one viewed show on Netflix UK.)

Whilst “wafer thin,” there is a semblance of a storyline underneath the soft porn façade—that of a woman desperately pining for the passion and excitement given to her from her previous risk-fuelled, sex-crazed former lover, yet not wanting to lose the security, nurture, and commitment of her current one.

Neither man offers her both.

The wannabe psychoanalyst in me whilst watching could not help but draw parallels to what was playing out on screen to a theory I had read much about. The Madonna-Whore dichotomy in all its glory was jumping through the screen at me, not in the Freudian sense, but in all its modern-day glory.

In psychoanalytic literature, the Madonna-Whore complex is simply defined as the inability to maintain sexual arousal within a committed, loving relationship.

Back in the corset popping 1900s, Sigmund Freud first identified and documented the Madonna-Whore complex during his extensive psychoanalysis work on sexuality and the unconscious mind. He identified, in layman’s terms, that men saw women in two simple categories: as saints or sinners.

Saints (Madonna’s), being motherly, nurturing, wholesome, pure, angelic, virginial creatures, and the Sinners (Whores) who are of the wild, easy, free-loving, untamed, passion-crazed, sexually provocative variety.

His findings concluded that often men he treated wanted to be committed with the former (Madonnas) in marriages, partnerships, and cherished as their mothers, sisters, and confidents—but wanted to sleep with the latter (Whores). And never did those two archetypal examples of womanhood combine.

In many of his clinical settings, research shows that Freud associated this complex in men with those who suffered with “physical impotence”—the condition in his theory was a dissociative disorder, which neurotically played out in the splitting of sexuality into two dimensions—tender and sensual. The tender providing more emotional attachment and less physical sexual intent. This “dysfunction” in Freud’s opinion was down to an unresolved neurotic fixation. This fixation, in most cases, was caused by the man’s relationship with his mother.

According to an article in Psychology Today, the complex occurs as a result of maltreatment by the mother and fear of incest. When a mother abandons, neglects, verbally, emotionally, or physically abuses, or is emotionally distant from her infant or young child, the child feels so hurt that he will eventually repress many of the memories associated with the mother’s behaviour.

To cope with the pain, fear, and anger, the avoidant child will stay away from intimacy and situations that can cause the memories and the negative emotions to reappear. Subconsciously, the child will be looking for something to fulfil his emotional needs. At the age at which he starts looking for a romantic partner, he will be looking for someone who reminds him of his mother.

Therein lies the problem, right? Because at the stage, this person who has already developed this avoidant attachment style finds this woman, she adopts “Madonna status,” and according to Freud, that then taps into a natural fear of incest that is also developed in early childhood. That fear then seeps into the relationship at a subconscious level and the sexual nature of the relationship changes. It becomes platonically based.

It was one or the other.

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

But is this just an excuse?

Ever met a guy who is married “but looking”—with no intention of leaving the wife or the mother of his children, yet sexually on the prowl because his desires aren’t being met? Yep! Me too. This is exactly the kind of guy that in 1900 would have been sat on Freud’s couch gratefully receiving this diagnosis, which offered him a “viable excuse” to well…cheat.

According to research, men who perceive women’s nurturance and sexuality as mutually exclusive endorse patriarchy and show lower relationship satisfaction! Shock! Horror!

Though the Freud theory is nowadays considered antiquated and sexist, his notion of the complex is still quite viable in today’s gender roles and dynamics. We also no longer recognise this complex as Freud’s prognosis of “sexual psychical impotence,” but by the more recognised title of attachment disorder with a basis in childhood trauma.

Nowadays, women are slut shamed whilst simultaneously being ranked and valued in society by their appearance, body shape, and attractiveness. This contradictive narrative only enforces the Madonna-Whore dichotomycreating in its wake a big, fat pile of cognitive dissonance.

And whilst this complex does exist in some format, it is not and should not be used as an excuse to sow your wild oats because your baby momma no longer has time to tickle your fancy in between night feeds. That is not a disorder—that is just being a selfish prick.

In modern day relationships, this complex can transcend gender, and it is exactly where our “Sex/Life” main character, Billy, finds herself, in this “not-so-thrilling” Netflix series. Her husband is the Madonna and her ex is the Whore.

As for Billy (our leading protagonist), she is both—and thank f*ck for that! Because despite Freud’s research, most of us are. Our core nature may have been repressed and damaged over the years by the patriarchal grinding mill, but deep down within the feminine lies a complex fusion of tenderness, nurture, sensuality, passion, and sexual desire.

We are a vessel of overlapping elements of both the Madonna and the Whore and we need to embody and embrace it all.

“I have always loved to play cat and mouse with the conventional stereotypes. My ‘Like a Virgin’ album cover is a classic example. People were thinking who was I pretending to be—the Virgin Mary or the whore? These were the two extreme images of women I had known vividly, and remembered from childhood, and I wanted to play with them. I wanted to see if I can merge them together, Virgin Mary and the whore as one and all. The photo was a statement of independence, if you wanna be a virgin, you are welcome. But if you wanna be a whore, it’s your f*cking right to be so.” ~ Madonna

~

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