One song lyric that lives rent-free in my head is “a lady in the street, but a freak in the bed.” I mean, I’m aging myself here but I know a lot of us remember dropping it low to Yeah! By Usher back in the day (and also last night after half a bottle of wine).
What does it mean to be a lady in the streets? A freak in the bed? What does it take to be desired and respected? And why do I have to be both – or either?
One thing was immediately communicated to me by these words: as a woman I had to navigate a very thin line between virgin innocence and whorish sexual availability to be considered desirable to men and society. This is what psychoanalysts have dubbed the Madonna-Whore Complex.
The Madonna-Whore Complex
Basically, men see women as either saintly Madonnas or debased whores/prostitutes. First noted by Freud (and one of the only things I can give the bastard credit for), he described it as: “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” Basically meaning that men love and respect women who are pure, innocent, and virginal. BUT they do not desire them sexually. Meanwhile, men derive ultimate sexual desire from women who are sexually available and promiscuous. BUT they fundamentally can never love or respect them. Thus, two categories divide women: Madonna or whore, pure or tainted, respected or desired.
Women must walk this fine line in order to be both desired AND respected. They have to balance their social value (embodied in their chastity/ability to mother) and their sexual value (as sexual objects available for male consumption).
Take my girl Sandy from Grease. She’s a classic example of the Madonna-Whore Complex in action because her ENTIRE CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT ARC revolves around transforming herself into the ultimate sexual fantasy to finally win Danny over and be desirable in his eyes. Hence, a “lady in the street but a freak in the bed.”
This is why “body count” is still a thing! As men’s body count goes up, so does their social capital (their worth in the eyes of society/other men). For women it’s the exact opposite, as their social capital goes down the more sexual partners they’ve had. Now while this hasn’t been everyone’s experience, especially in our more sexually liberated era, this has been the reality for women throughout history, and these attitudes are deeply embedded in all of our institutions.
So with all of this bearing down on us, what can we do as womxn to fight back?
Honestly, since it’s an institutional problem, the best hope is to mobilize and empower at individual and community levels. The first step: be aware that this is our reality. Even if you have not experienced this yourself (yet) you DEFINITELY know someone who has.
It’s not individual, it’s systemic. Community change does start at the individual though! Live each day to unlearn the internalized misogyny you carry with you. Educate yourself in new ways so that you can rewire your brain, and eventually, society.
Check your language!
A great first step is to correct the language you use and the thoughts you have. The first place I started to practice this was on social media. Every time I saw a woman or a celebrity posting sexy pics, I would instantly think something terrible. Like, “wow ok what a slut/she’s just doing that for attention/this is why men don’t respect women like that.”
This was a great place to start evaluating my language and thinking because it was so immediate and raw. As I navigated my own sense of desirability to society/men, a place deep in my psyche was dictating my judgement. I would even find myself thinking things like this about myself:
Getting more into makeup: “I look like such a slut, they’ll never respect me or take me seriously.”
Scrolling through Insta: “Wow she’s so pretty, I’m so jealous, I’d never look like that . . . but at least I’m not whoring myself out on social media for attention”
Picking out an outfit for a date: “I shouldn’t wear something too revealing, he’ll think I just want sex or that I’m ‘easy’ or something . . . but I also want to get laid so maybe a little bit of boob?”
I feel pretty confident that all women have had these kinds of intrusive thoughts at some time or another. So when you find yourself thinking something like this, think about the language you’re using, and the intent behind it. Then reframe!
What can this look like?
Empower yourself to unlearn your internalized misogyny and rewire your neural pathways through reframing, repetition, and consistency Try cutting yourself off when you start to go down a bad thought and rewrite the narrative:
Getting more into makeup: “
I look like such a slut, they’ll never respect me or take me seriously.” You are making yourself beautiful on your own artistic terms, for you and no one else! My self respect and social worth has nothing to do with the number of people I’ve slept with!
Scrolling through Insta:
“Wow she’s so pretty, I’m so jealous, I’d never look like that . . . but at least I’m not whoring myself out on social media for attention” Wow, she’s so pretty! While this isn’t a way that I would feel comfortable displaying my sexuality (and that’s okay!), it’s so empowering to see women being sexy on their own terms!
Picking out an outfit for a date:
“I shouldn’t wear something too revealing, he’ll think I just want sex or that I’m ‘easy’ or something . . . but I also want to get laid so maybe a little bit of boob?” Damn I look good! He can assume whatever he wants about me, because I know what I want from this date (free food and sex) and I feel confident that I don’t want to waste my time with someone who makes assumptions about my worth based on my choice of clothing!
Most importantly, forgive yourself. Women are shamed, shame themselves, and feel guilty or dirty for just existing and being a person. Forgiveness, patience, and neural rewiring are great practices to help you start unlearning and reframing the ways that you think about yourself and the world. You can be “a lady in the streets” AND “a freak in the bed” – desired and respected – without having to be so because a man says so.
About the Author
A graduate of UC Berkeley, Elizabeth Mason earned her degree in Gender and Women’s Studies. Currently, she is pursuing a master’s degree in Asian American Studies at SFSU. She is continuing to focus her studies on intersectional womxn’s politics, health, and sexual wellness. Her main interests include identity politics and their intersection with issues surrounding womxn’s healthcare and sexual liberation. She looks forward to the day when all womxn are empowered socially, politically, and – most importantly – sexually. She is on Instagram @elizabeth.mason.