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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Sexual Attraction

Q. I am very sexually attracted to women I'm not in a relationship with, but I have trouble thinking of women I am dating in a sexual manner. I am currently in a long-term relationship with a very attractive woman that I want to have a good sex life with, but I have trouble being sexually excited when we try to have sex. I have an interest in pornography. An older boy tried to sexually abuse me when I was 5, and I grew up not seeing any evidence of a sexual relationship between my parents. Is there a specific name for this disorder where you can see women as sexual objects but not view your wife/girlfriend in a sexual manner?

A. No, there is no specific name for the pattern of sexual attraction you describe, which I would hesitate to label a disorder. However, the popular psychology literature does describe the so-called "Madonna-Whore Complex", which may have some connection to your pattern of sexual arousal and intimacy.

A good (if non-professional) description of this is provided by Pat Gaudette, a web publisher specializing in relationships and divorce: "For some men, love and sex don't mix. For them, love is reserved for 'good' women, and sex is reserved for 'bad' women. In cases of the Madonna/Whore Complex (or Syndrome), a husband's relationship with his wife may be based upon the unmet intimacy needs he had as an infant. He may unconsciously seek out a woman who reminds him of his mother so that those needs can finally be met.

"When these men marry, they will marry a 'good' woman, a virginal woman. They will love her, they will protect her, they will treasure her. But they don't feel comfortable having sex with her once they marry. It would be 'dirty', like having sex with their own mother -- the purest 'good' woman in their life. And, once their wife becomes the mother of their children, the lines blur even more between his wife and his mother. If they are like many men who separate love from sex, and 'good' women from 'bad' women, they will have sex, but it will be with 'bad' women, and it will be sex for the sake of sex, not particularly as an expression of love.

"A young woman who marries a Madonna/Whore man may not have even the slightest clue that there is something very wrong within their relationship. She may be thrilled to have found a man who places her on such a lofty pedestal, who worships her, who is so concerned for her well-being. And, during courtship, he may have been quite passionate, as, at that point, he may have been following the wisdom of 'get as much sex as you can but be sure you marry a virgin' provided so many young men when they came of age.

"A sexually inexperienced young woman may think it is her very inexperience that is responsible for her husband's low sex drive. Over time, she will question her attractiveness, wondering if there is a way to make herself more sexually appealing to him. Her attempts at sexual seduction by actions or appearance may backfire, with him accusing her of acting like a 'whore' or telling her she looks stupid or whorish. For the woman, it is a terrible blow to her self-esteem. It is a particularly cruel blow when she observes the interest her husband shows in other women."

Gaudette adds that, "In some cultures it is not uncommon for husbands and wives to lose interest in sex with each other, their marriages becoming fairly asexual, once the children are born. The behavior may be as a result of societal influence, but it has mother-madonna roots. This lack of interest in sex does not extend outside of the marriage, and in some societies it is expected that the husband will have lovers. It is less expected that the wife will also seek intimacy outside the marriage. In such cultures, divorce is less of a threat than in cultures where men and women are seen as equals."

I can't vouch for the science behind Gaudette's claims, but some of it rings true, based on couples I have seen in my practice. However, given your history, there may well be other factors that are more important than those Gaudette points to. I would strongly recommend that you seek out a professional psychological evaluation, and then consider the option of couples counseling if you see your current relationship as one you would like to nurture for the long-term.

If you should be steered toward sex therapy, be careful of the therapist's credentials. Make sure he or she is certified by AASECT, the American Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors and Therapists.

March 2003

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