Double standards

The Madonna-Whore Complex is a Freudian concept in which a man seeks out a mother figure romantically, and is subsequently unable to view his partner sexually. He develops a dichotomous view of women, where they fulfill either an intimate role or a sexual role, but never the two together. The term has been used by feminists to describe a double standard that applies to women, but rather than by individual men, it is by a male-dominated society. Women are placed into one category or the other, and are castigated for transgressing the boundaries of that category. Cyndi Lauper even wrote a song about it called, unsurprisingly, Madonna Whore. The chorus goes like this:

Every woman’s a Madonna, every woman’s a whore
You can try to reduce me but I’m so much more
I don’t want to be your mother, won’t be shoved in a drawer
Cause every woman’s a Madonna, every woman’s a whore, that’s right

Now an interesting characteristic of social theories is that the subject of analysis is able to respond to the analysis, as Cyndi Lauper showed. However at the same time that Lauper calls herself a whore in a defiantly feminist song there are anti-prostitution feminist groups. And as women have apparently become more overtly sexual the concept of raunch culture emerged, which criticised women for turning themselves into the sexual objects that men had been turning women into through history. This argument hinges on women actually objectifying themselves, turning themselves into a one half of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. I think most women are like Lauper, they aren’t objectifying themselves by being overtly sexual, but rather trying to be something more than how they have been perceived.

While feminists usually see the Madonna-Whore double standard as something that applies particularly to women, restricting their sexual behaviour in ways that men’s behaviour isn’t, there is a similar dichotomy that applies to men. This is the Nice Guy-Bad Boy dichotomy, where men who are caring and empathetic aren’t seen as sexual, while overtly sexual men are seen as predatory and emotionally distant. The Nice Guy-Bad Boy dichotomy reflects the differences between how men and women are seen in society, a whore is often seen as used and degraded where a bad boy is seen as aggressive and creepy.

The obvious question to ask is, how do men respond to this analysis? I think men still tend to fit themselves into one or the other side of the dichotomy. This shouldn’t be all that surprising since the concept hasn’t been challenged to the extent that the Madonna-Whore concept has, as part of an organised civil rights movement. It’s common to see the “nice guys finish last” sentiment used in resignation, such as in the seduction community. While this can come with the ideal of creating a person who is more than the person they were, it often falls into the trap of the insincere, creepy and even predatory bad boy role.

A less obvious question to ask is, what if a man wants a mother figure? Or if a woman wants a father figure? Clearly Cyndi Lauper doesn’t want to be a mother figure, despite saying she is a Madonna. Yet the desire to have a nurturing relationship with a sexual partner that, at least in times of vulnerability, mimics that of parent and child seems quite widespread. It’s fascinating in this context that lovers often revert to a babytalk when talking to each other as way of building intimacy. In BDSM these desires are dealt with through daddy/mommy play, where power dynamic between parents and their children are recreated between adults through role play. The sexual nature of the play is of course very interesting because it breaks the barrier that creates the Madonna-Whore Complex. But is this a good thing? Or is it depraved? Or is that just another double standard given the babytalking that many couples do?


3 responses to “Double standards

  1. Pingback: Playing games « machina carnis

  2. Clarisse February 19, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Huh. How often do lovers revert to babytalk? I haven’t seen or experienced a lot of that. I think it would make me wrinkle my nose …. Though I guess I have had one or two parters who expressed interest in playing the “daddy game”, but never had any desire to pursue that myself.

    I think the feminist critique of women who objectify themselves is strongest when it deals with women who do it because they think they have to / should in order to attract male attention … cf. this post of mine, in which I talk about how just seeing porn used to feel like pressure:

    I clearly remember the sexual anxiety from my undergraduate days. For one thing, I had no real idea of what my sexual needs were; I knew they weren’t being met, but I tried not to think about it because I didn’t even know where to start, so thinking about how I wasn’t getting what I wanted just made me feel awkward and confused, like I’d failed as a liberated woman, plus I thought my boyfriends would resent me if I said something like “I’m not satisfied and I need to explore more, though I have no idea what direction to go in — will you help me?”,** and anyway I figured that the sex I was having was good enough. I mean, at least I was having sex, right? At least I had a boyfriend, right? And since I’d been deemed Worthy Of Having Sex And A Boyfriend, my first responsibility was to Please My Man, right? I clearly remember feeling sick and hurt whenever I watched porn because I knew it wasn’t what I wanted, and yet I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends — who I knew were watching porn, and were all watching the same porn, because everyone knows all men watch the same porn, right? — I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends were happily “settling” for me, if those images were what they chose to get off to when they were alone. I couldn’t believe that I would still be desirable to a man who was used to porn. I couldn’t believe that a man wouldn’t secretly be let down by me in bed, because I couldn’t “match up” to women in porn. And I therefore felt like there was a cage of social pressure closing around me, stifling me: telling me that I had to “perform” like women in the porn I saw, whether I liked it or not; telling me that the only way to be good in bed was to act the way porn women did, even if it didn’t feel like that behavior was right for me at all.
    ( )

    The weak point in the critique comes when it tries to deal with women who are 100% okay with objectifying themselves, acting like mainstream porn stars, etc etc — most feminists flip out and/or start accusing women of “false consciousness” at that point, which is ridiculous.

  3. machina February 20, 2010 at 5:15 am

    Apparently about three quarters of “adult friendships and romances” use babytalk according to a study.

    Bombar and Littig (1996) established the occurrence of this phenomenon in adult friendships and romances, and reported on its relationship to attachment style. In their study, roughly 75% of respondents reported using SBT in adult relationships, with the highest incidence occurring in romantic relationships.

    Examples of secondary babytalk provided by study participants include “Hewo! I wuv you, Jellybean,” “I love you lots and lots, bunches and bunches!” and “Give me a hug, my little sweetie” (Bombar & Littig, p 146). Frequency of SBT was positively correlated with relationship seriousness, satisfaction, love, and degree of sexual involvement, leading Bombar and Littig (1996) to conclude the more often partners utilize SBT, the more secure they felt about the relationship and had a stronger and more intimate attachment to their partner.

    This held true for both men and women; Bombar and Littig (1996) found no significant gender difference in frequency of use of SBT. Their findings suggest individuals who use SBT with friends or romantic partners were overall more secure and less avoidant in their style of attachment (Bombar & Littig, 1996).


    When it comes to objectification, it’s hard to talk about how feminists discuss things because they jumble different ideas together. You have the idea of objectification, where someone is reduced to an object to suit someone elses purposes, say a fuck toy, but then you have “lookism” where people are judged according to their looks. You can judge someone on their looks without necessarily objectifying them, but when a woman is judged on her looks feminists will regularly call it objectification.

    Related to objectification is the Male Gaze and Othering. I think in broader philosophical terms, the idea is that the perception of a Look or Gaze from an Other creates in the mind of a subjective person a concept of themselves that is part of some objective reality. Wikipedia describes this in its entry on existentialism, which gives a neat example by Sartre,

    Sartre’s own example of a man peeping at someone through a keyhole can help clarify this: at first, this man is entirely caught up in the situation he is in; he is in a pre-reflexive state where his entire consciousness is directed at what goes on in the room. Suddenly, he hears a creaking floorboard behind him, and he becomes aware of himself as seen by the Other. He is thus filled with shame for he perceives himself as he would perceive someone else doing what he was doing, as a Peeping Tom. The Look is then co-constitutive of one’s facticity.

    Another characteristic feature of the Look is that no Other really needs to have been there: It is quite possible that the creaking floorboard was nothing but the movement of an old house; the Look isn’t some kind of mystical telepathic experience of the actual way the other sees one (there may also have been someone there, but he could have not noticed that the person was there). It is only one’s perception of the way another might perceive them.


    I think the concept of the male gaze began with Laura Mulvey’s criticism of Hollywood. This is where I guess things started to get jumbled together, here’s Wikipedia again,

    In the era of classical Hollywood cinema, viewers were encouraged to identify with the protagonist of the film, who tended to be a man. Meanwhile, Hollywood female characters of the 1950s and 60s were, according to Mulvey, coded with “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Mulvey suggests that there were two distinct modes of the male gaze of this era: “voyeuristic” (i.e. seeing women as ‘whores’) and “fetishistic” (i.e. seeing women as ‘madonnas’).


    Interestingly the voyeuristic gaze is seen as sadistic.

    Mulvey distinguishes between two modes of looking for the film spectator: voyeuristic and fetishistic, which she presents in Freudian terms as responses to male ‘castration anxiety’. Voyeuristic looking involves a controlling gaze and Mulvey argues that this has has associations with sadism: ‘pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt – asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness’ (Mulvey 1992, 29). Fetishistic looking, in contrast, involves ‘the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous. This builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself. The erotic instinct is focused on the look alone’.


    So we’re back to the Freudian Madonna-Whore Complex, and a complex and jargon-laden analysis. Not surprisingly it’s easy to get confused, especially on the blogosphere where everything is fairly casual and people start throwing these terms around in anger, jealousy or frustration.

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