Madonna-Whore Dichotomy associated with patriarchal views and reduced relationship satisfaction for men

The “Madonna-Whore Dichotomy” describes the belief that being nurturing and being sexual are mutually exclusive options for women. New research indicates that this belief is associated with ideologies that reinforce male dominance.

But the findings, which appear in Psychology of Women Quarterly, suggest that endorsement of the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy can have personal costs for men as well.

“One of the things that I find interesting is how some people react to the female body when it is portrayed in a sexualized versus a motherly context,” said study author Rotem Kahalon, a graduate student at Tel Aviv University and member of Nurit Shnabel’s “Improving Social Relations” Lab.

“For example, why is it OK for some people (both women and men) to view sexualized women with revealing cleavages in sexualized commercials, yet when it comes to breastfeeding in public, they are repulsed. After all, it is the same breast.”

“In other words, we wanted to understand why for some people it is hard to view the ‘tender’ and ‘sensual’ dimensions of women’s sexuality as united, and what are the consequences of such a dichotomous view of women,” Kahalon said.

For their study, the researchers surveyed 123 Israeli heterosexual women, 242 U.S. heterosexual women and men, and 351 German heterosexual women and men regarding how they perceived a woman’s sexuality, whether being nurturing and sexual are mutually exclusive, and whether chaste women have more positive traits than others.

Kahalon and her colleagues found that individuals who endorsed the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy also tended to endorse ideologies that reinforce inequality. In other words, both men and women who agreed with statements such as “A sexy woman is usually not a good mother” and “Women are typically either very liberal or very conservative sexually, but not in the middle” were more likely to also express sexual double standards and sexist attitudes.

“Stereotypes men and women hold about women’s roles — whether they are positive, such as portraying women as ‘good,’ chaste, and pure ‘madonnas,’ or whether they are negative, such as viewing women as ‘bad,’ promiscuous, and seductive ‘whores’ — police women and limit their sexual freedom,” Kahalon told PsyPost.

Men, however, were more likely than women to endorse the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy.

In a previous study of 108 heterosexual Israeli men, the researchers found that the endorsement of the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy was associated with reduced relationship satisfaction. Their new study replicated those results among male — but not female — participants.

“Ironically, a dichotomous view of women as belonging to one of these two roles can have personal cost for men, as men who view women in such a dichotomous way show lower levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction,” Kahalon said.

“The positive lesson from our research, is that endorsing more egalitarian social ideologies and gender roles can predict more stable and sexually satisfying heterosexual romantic relationships. Our results suggest that reducing gender inequality, and the ideologies that support it, can be in the best interest of both women and men.”

More research is needed, however, to confirm whether the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy causes men to have worse relationships or whether men with worse relationships become more likely to endorse the belief. Future research could also examine how men’s endorsement of the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy affects their romantic partners.

“We hope that understanding the social psychological motivations underlying this dichotomous view of women could help address social phenomena, such as people’s tendency to accept the public display of women’s breasts when used in a sexualized manner (e.g., through media representations) but not maternal behaviors (such as breastfeeding),” Kahalon added.

“We also hope that knowledge of the social construction of the MWD may reduce women’s feelings of guilt or shame about their bodies and sexuality, particularly those feelings that stem from cultural expectations regarding maternal modesty.”

“Finally, we hope that our work will encourage both men and women to hold more complex and realistic beliefs about sexuality, which may allow them to experience more sexual freedom and more satisfying romantic relationships, even after the transition to motherhood (when the MWD can be especially problematic),” Kahalon said.

“Sexual therapists and clinicians who work with couples or men who experience difficulties in their romantic relationships, could also use the knowledge gained in the current investigation to create helpful interventions to change existing beliefs about sexuality.”

The study, “The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy Is Associated With Patriarchy Endorsement: Evidence From Israel, the United States, and Germany“, was authored by Rotem Kahalon, Orly Bareket, Andrea C. Vial, Nora Sassenhagen, Julia C. Becker, and Nurit Shnabe.