One of the most common and painful paradoxes of romantic life is that the more we get to know and love someone, the more difficult it can be to summon any genuine desire to sleep with them. Intimacy and closeness, rather than fostering deeper sexual desire, can be the very ingredients that destroy excitement – whereas having only recently met a person and not feeling too strongly for them can set up awkward yet ideal preconditions for wanting to take them to bed very badly.
The conundrum is colloquially known as the “madonna-whore complex.” When phrased this way, it can sound offensive and reactionary – as if the problem only applied to one gender and might, on some level, condone or even promote the very dynamic described. Nonetheless, the phrase refers to something very important, always current, and applicable to both men and women (it could be referred to as the “saint brute complex” in the case of heterosexual women).
In a 1912 essay titled ‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love,’ Sigmund Freud drew attention to our difficulties connecting love with desire. ‘Where they love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love,’ he wrote of many of his patients. In an attempt to explain the division, Freud pointed to two facts related to our upbringing: first, in childhood, we are generally brought up by people we love deeply but cannot express sexual feelings towards (frightened as we are by a strict incest taboo); and second, as adults, We tend to choose lovers who, in some powerful (though unconscious) ways, resemble those we adored as children.
These influences combine to create a perplexing conundrum in which the more deeply we come to love someone outside of our family, the more strongly we are reminded of the intimacy of our early familial bonds – and thus the less free we instinctively are to express our sexual desires without fear or reservation. An incest taboo, which was originally intended to limit the genetic dangers of inbreeding, can thus succeed in inhibiting, and eventually ruining, our chances of enjoying intercourse with someone to whom we are not even distantly related.
A schism develops between the ‘pure’ things one can do with a partner one loves and the ‘dirty’ things one still wishes to do – but can only imagine being free enough to do with a near stranger. It can feel unbearably disrespectful to want to make love to, or, to put it bluntly, fuck the kind person who will later be preparing lunchboxes and organizing the school rota.
To begin overcoming the problem, it is important to recognize that not all childhoods are equal in their proclivity to create sexual difficulties for people later in life. A parent who is deeply uncomfortable with their own body may send out covert signals that sex is invariably dirty, bad, and dangerous – giving their child the impression that it cannot possibly belong in a loving relationship. A more integrated and mature parent, on the other hand, may indicate that they are reconciled to their desires and relaxed about some of the proto-sexual things that small children naturally and innocently do: make a lot of noise and mess, are interested in their bodies, and (at a certain age) talk a lot about poo One of the greatest gifts a parent can give to their child is the knowledge that they can be naughty and still be loved and regarded as “good.”
A lot of the work to repair the love/sex dichotomy can be done in the mind, which is unusual for something so physical. We can conceptually begin to rehabilitate sex as a serious and entirely respectable topic in which good people who love their children and their jobs and are invested in an upright life can be profoundly interested; that there need not be a conflict between a desire to be filthy and deprived at times and decorous and respectable at others. We can contain two selves: the one who wants to flog, be debased, or smear, and the one who wants to advise, nurture, and counsel. One can be both a whore and a madonna, a brute and a saint. Rather than seeking out new partners, we could simply play different roles. This would be less disruptive. A child cannot express sexuality or love to a parent, and vice versa. However, one of the benefits of adulthood is that we are no longer constrained by such a paradigm. Our lovers do not have to be only cosy co-parents and responsible sweet friends; they can also be something else that is hugely important to our mental well-being and the survival of our relationships for a time – in the most transgressive sense – partners in crime.