Since the genesis of society, female sexuality has been demonized and policed by men and women alike. Both repression and expression of female sexuality negatively categorize women in ways that are used to oppress them. Yet another iteration of this policing is the Madonna–whore complex, which is painfully evident in American society and abroad. While this disposition toward women is inherently misogynistic, it also provides insight into why and how women’s bodies are hypersexualized and fetishized—primarily trans women and Black women. 

The Madonna–whore complex is a concept first coined by Sigmund Freud. It represents the dichotomy of the Madonna—a wholly virtuous, pure, and chaste woman—and the whore—a promiscuous, seductive, and degraded woman. The issue with this understanding of female sexuality lies in its polarization and assumptions. 

First, the polarization of this concept forces women to be defined as either a slut or a virgin. This is a gross dehumanization of women—reducing them to their sexual activity denies their personhood and renders them as objects under the male gaze. Women are reduced to their bodies, sexual desirability, capacity, or degree of chastity. Second, in the Madonna–whore complex, female sexuality is viewed as something that is intrinsically degrading and disrespectful. If women choose to partake in sexual activity or posit themselves in a sexual way, they are disrespecting themselves and, by that logic, ought to lose respect in the eyes of others. 

We can see this in the rhetoric men tout when they describe the women they deem worthy of being pursued romantically. Men often say that they won’t date women who have dated multiple people, who have slept with more than two people, and who sleep with people on the first date. All of these misogynistic (and arbitrary) rules reveal that men regard women who explicitly express sexuality undeserving of respect, and place women who are perceived, as non–sexual (even if they are) on a pedestal in a dehumanizing manner. Women who embrace their sexuality become "hoes" who are "meant for the streets" and not "wifey material". 

To men, the Madonna is the only type of woman who is worthy of respect and romantic pursuit. While men are able to love women that they categorize as Madonnas, this comes along with the subsequent denigration and demonization of women who are deemed whores or sluts. Even if a woman who was once regarded as a Madonna begins to express sexuality, she becomes degraded and is moved to the category of whore. Men are able to love women they itemize as Madonnas because of the subsequent denigration and shaming of women labelled whores or sluts. 

This framing becomes especially salient when we consider the ways in which men view groups of women that are overtly hypersexualized and fetishized: Black women and trans women. In contrast to the perceived innocence and purity of whiteness, the sexualization of Black women extends back to chattel slavery through the Jezebel trope and the description of Black women as animalistic with uncontrollable sexual appetites. So, the Madonna/Whore complex not only affects Black women in the dating world because they are placed in the default category of "whore" in opposition to white women, but it also offers an explanation for the disproportionate violence that Black women face. 

Black women experience a heinous amount of sexual violence beginning in childhood—one in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18, and one in five Black women are survivors of rape. Therefore, even without explicitly expressing their sexuality in ways that white women are able to, Black women are sexualized as girls and even more so as they age. 

Another group of women that is highly sexualized and fetishized is trans women. Trans women’s bodies are objectified because of their sexualization in the media and in pornography. Such sexualization means that men regard trans women as desirable but not worthy of respect. This becomes even more dangerous when cis men pursue trans women romantically because they already view trans women as hypersexual and open to romantic advances. So, when trans women reject cis men, cis male entitlement can lead to sexual violence and even the deaths of trans women. 

The Madonna–whore complex is a framework that many people have adopted to categorize women. Its dichotomy between Madonnas and whores relies on misogynistic beliefs that female sexuality is inherently demeaning and disrespectful. It implies that women are unable to express their sexuality lest they be cast out as disgraceful whores. Even further, this complex reveals the ways in which hypersexualized groups experience higher rates of sexual violence because of this sexualization. 

Women should never be defined within the context of their sexuality. They are not objects of sexual pleasure, but rather autonomous human beings. It is up to all of society to deconstruct the belief that expression of sexuality warrants disrespect and is justification for sexual violence. In a survey conducted in 2019, it was found that 25% of undergraduate women at Penn experienced unwanted sexual contact. The way that we speak and think about women harbors tangible impacts—recognizing and fixing implicit misogyny is imperative in ending sexual violence.


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