In sexual politics the view of women as either Madonnas or whores limits women's sexual expression, offering two mutually exclusive ways to construct a sexual identity.
The term is also used popularly, if sometimes with subtly different meanings.
Freud argued that the Madonna–whore complex was caused by a split between the affectionate and the sexual currents in male desire. Oedipal and castration anxiety fears prohibit the affection felt for past incestuous objects from being attached to women who are sensually desired: "The whole sphere of love in such persons remains divided in the two directions personified in art as sacred and profane (or animal) love". In order to minimize anxiety, the man categorizes women into two groups: women he can admire and women he finds sexually attractive. Whereas the man loves women in the former category, he despises and devalues the latter group. Psychoanalyst Richard Tuch suggests that Freud offered at least one alternative explanation for the Madonna–whore complex:
This earlier theory is based not on oedipal-based castration anxiety but on man's primary hatred of women, stimulated by the child's sense that he had been made to experience intolerable frustration and/or narcissistic injury at the hands of his mother. According to this theory, in adulthood the boy-turned-man seeks to avenge these mistreatments through sadistic attacks on women who are stand-ins for mother.
It is possible that such a split may be exacerbated when the sufferer is raised by a cold but overprotective mother – a lack of emotional nurturing paradoxically strengthening an incestuous tie. Such a man will often court someone with maternal qualities, hoping to fulfill a need for maternal intimacy unmet in childhood, only for a return of the repressed feelings surrounding the earlier relationship to prevent sexual satisfaction in the new.