Wellness

Conversations With My Sex Therapist: Am I A Madonna Or A Whore?

Writer Emma-Louise Boynton has turned to sex therapy to tackle certain issues she has around sex personally. But a culture of shame still exists around sex for women generally, as she explores in this week’s column.

By Emma-Louise Boynton

31 July 2021

Come on, Emma. If you could decide between your fictitious partner having slept with 150 people before you, or two, you would always go for two.”

No I wouldn’t, I replied. Why would I care how many people someone I was dating had slept with previously, providing we were in mutual agreement and respect regarding how we stood in our relationship now?

My friend, I told Aleks, had been lamenting the fact his current girlfriend had had a colorful sexual history before they’d gotten together. They were now in a monogamous relationship and she hadn’t cheated on him or given him any reason to suspect she would. To all intents and purposes, they were happy. And yet, he couldn’t shake his disapproval of her sexual history, nor forget about it.

Why did he care? I asked.

It made him question her self-respect, he said. Moreover it bothered him that she didn’t seem able to acknowledge her error in judgement, to own up to the fact that she’d behaved ‘badly’ in the past. In essence, he felt uncomfortable with the fact she’d been sexually ‘loose’. He admitted he was being hypocritical, but couldn’t help how he felt.

I pondered this conversation uncomfortably for days after, marvelling at the sexual puritanism being espoused by a friend I knew had long taken a very casual approach to his own bedroom exploits. When it came to his girlfriend, he seemingly wanted someone less-touched, more ‘pure’.

A Christian Hangover

He’s a staunch atheist I told Aleks, and yet his approach to sex seems to reflect a hangover of religious moralism, one which frames sex as ‘sacred’ but only really insofar as women are concerned.

Throughout the Old Testament men are told they can sleep with whoever they like (in Deuteronomy, for example, its says men can have more than one wife; in Exodus, even for a married man, sleeping with an unmarried or unbetrothed woman is not deemed adultery) whereas women must be faithful. And while the adulterous woman is often used as a motif of sinfulness, there is no equivalent for men.

So today, I told Aleks, I want to talk about sex and shame. Because that conversation with my friend has made me think a lot about the asymmetrical burden of judgment that sex still holds for women, and the role that shame can play in making us police our own actions in accordance to values we may not even overtly agree with.

Specifially, I continued, I’ve been thinking back to all the dates I’ve gone on in previous years when I’ve steadfastly held onto my then-rule of ‘no sex before a third meeting’ because I haven’t wanted to appear promiscuous. I didn’t want to seem ‘easy.’

For a guy I was dating to respect me, I felt I needed to show him I wasn’t ‘that kind of girl’ - you know, the kind of girl who’d ‘spread her legs’ on a first meeting, the sort of girl my friend was now judging his partner for having been. What I wanted or desired had been irrelevant.

Madonna Versus Whore

“Are you familiar with the Madonna versus whore complex?” Aleks asked. “It’s a dichotomous trope conceptualized by Freud in the twenties, denoting a polarized understanding of women as either good, virginal ‘Madonnas’ who are to be married, or bad, promiscuous, seductive ‘whores’ who are to be f*cked.

"’Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love,’ Freud said. A woman can either be sexually desirous and erotic or she can be pure and lovable. She cannot be both.”

It feels so old-fashioned, so outdated, yet the Madonna-whore trope remains familiar.

I asked numerous friends how they felt about sex on the first date. While most acknolwedged they knew they shouldn’t care what anyone thought of them if they wanted to have sex straight away, they too worried about being judged. “Part of me feels free and spontaneous (when I have sex on a first date). But the other part feels guilty and vulnerable”, said one.

“My friends at university used to really judge me when I slept with someone ‘too quickly,’” said another. “They worried I’d build a reputation for myself as being slutty. I still did it, but I always felt really aware of the cultural baggage that surrounded my actions”.

“Emma, men often say they don’t like girls who are too easy,” my mum helpfully reminded me when I brought it up with her.

“A woman can either be sexually desirous and erotic or she can be pure and lovable. She cannot be both”

The Power Of Shame

“Shame is the most powerful tool for policing sexuality”, Aleks continued.

“The function of shame as an emotion is to encourage us to connect with our tribe and prompt us to avoid behaviors that might get us ‘excluded’ from the clan. Shame is how a culture enforces its values and the way in which these values subsequently become a part of people’s sense of self. We internalise certain norms and then police ourselves and our actions in order to avoid feeling the shame and guilt associated with breaching them.

“And obviously these values aren’t neutral, they are rooted in patriarchal ideology.”

I was reading about this the other day, I responded, and came across a quote from Simone De Beauvoir that articulates so aptly the brutality with which shame functions in relation to women specifically. “The adolescent girl” she writes, “learns that as the shamed subject of the Look (aka the male gaze) , her sex condemn(s) her to a mutilated and frozen existence.”

You don’t need to grope or assault a woman, she seemed to be insinuating, to make her feel humiliated, to make her doubt herself and question her autonomy. The insidiousness with which constant sexual objectification chips away at her self-worth does that automatically.

At the heart of the Madonna versus Whore dichotomy, I thought aloud to Aleks, is the sexual objectification of women. It’s just another example of how we see women in purely sexual terms - as desirable because they’re virginal and pure or unlovable but f*ckable because they’re sexy.

Your Body Is A Sex Object And Don’t You Forget It

I thought back to the recent decision by the The European Handball Federation to fine the women’s Olympic team for refusing to wear their ‘uniform’ bikini bottoms. They opted instead for shorts like their male counterparts and were subsequently fined €1,500 (£1,295) for “improper clothing”. It follows just a few months after the dispute around whether school-children as young as four should be forced to wear ‘modesty’ shorts underneath their school uniform to avoid any unwanted attention while they cartwheel through the playground.

Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, supported the idea, although he noted that more needs also to be done to tackle the culture of misogyny and harassment that makes such seemingly ludicrous an idea a topic of conversation.

Both incidents, I reflected to Aleks, reinforce the same message to women and girls alike, that your body is a sexual object, one that should either be revealed or covered up. It’s your responsibility to monitor how it is being seen. Your responsibility whatever happens as a result.

“Exactly”, responded Aleks. “When I was studying to become a sex therapist I did a lot of research into how objectifcation effects women on a day-to-day basis - how we internalise the male gaze so that we end up seeing ourselves through an external perspective.”

“According to Fredrickson and Roberts, this can lead to women constantly monitoring their behavior, which in turn, as we’ve discussed today, can increase opportunities for shame and anxiety, not to mention mental health issues that disproportionately affect women, including eating disorders and sexual dysfunction.”

Reclaiming The Nuances Of Female Sexuality

Our session was coming to an end, yet I was still wondering how women are meant to remove shame from sex and extricate ourselves from the objectifying glare of the male gaze.

The singer Halsey has exemplified one approach, I noted to Aleks, by way of her recent album cover If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, which depicts her sat on a giant gold throne with a baby on her lap while one of her breasts is exposed. She explained her choice of imagery on Instagram, writing “It was very important to me that the cover art conveyed the sentiment of my journey over the past few months. The dichotomy of the Madonna and the Whore.

“The idea that me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can co-exist peacefully and powerfully. My body has belonged to the world in many different ways the past few years, and this image is my means of reclaiming my autonomy and establishing my pride and strength as a life force for my human being.”

Ultimately, sex, I conclude to Aleks, has to be removed from any sort of moral framework, doesn’t it? Providing it is consensual and protected, the terms of engagement clear, it is just sex.

Maybe my sexual freedom is thus to be found in more readily exploring the nuances of my sexual desires, in my embracing being both Madonna and Whore.

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The Short Stack

The next instalment of Emma-Louise Boynton’s series on sex therapy.

By Emma-Louise Boynton

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