Note: This article was first published in the Winter 2003/04 issue of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
Whores & Madonnas
By Maureen Canning-Fulton, MA
A friend of mine, who knows about the therapy I do with female patients in the area of sexual dysfunction, had sent me a movie review. He wanted to know how I would react to it. The review was of The Magdalene Sisters, a film by Scottish director Peter Mullin that had debuted in London in February 2003 and opened in New York in August. The review by Mary Gordon, a distinguished essayist and novelist, ran under the headline, "How Ireland Hid Its Own Dirty Laundry."
The film follows three young Irish girls who, in 1964, are sent to one of the Magdalene Asylums, institutions founded in the 19th century, primarily in Ireland, and run by nuns. They housed girls who got pregnant outside of marriage or who were considered too sexual, too flirtatious or even too active. With the legal consent of their fathers, they were incarcerated in these asylums, which doubled as laundries.
The kind of outrageous injustice that sent the women there is shown in the opening scene at a raucous Irish wedding. A young woman named Margaret is lured away from the party by a cousin who rapes her upstairs. He returns to the festivities and continues to drink with the other men.
When Margaret comes down, she is flushed and disheveled and so clearly upset that a girlfriend shows concern. We see their lips moving as Margaret tells her what happened. The friend accosts the young man, shouting at him, and then goes to an older man for help.
Margaret just sits there, her eyes darting as the gossip makes its way around the room. It becomes increasingly obvious that Margaret, rather than the young man, is being singled out as the problem. She's the one who will be punished, not the rapist. The next day, Margaret is packed up and shipped off to one of the Magdalene laundries.
Always exploited and, in many cases, sexually abused, Margaret and the other victims work, unpaid, seven days a week, 364 days a year, with only Christmas off. Most of the laundries had closed by the 1970s, but the very last did not close until 1996; 30,000 women had passed through their doors.
In her review of The Magdalene Sisters, Gordon writes, "Didn't any of the women who escaped or left legitimately (any adult male relative could rescue them) tell anyone - a family member, a friend, a sympathetic confessor - what they had endured? The answer seems to be no, and the explanation lies in the particular flavor of Irish shamed silence. The moral horror of the Magdalene laundries is that the abuses perpetrated were not the outgrowth of simple sadism or even of unmindfulness, but of the belief that they were intended for the victims" own good."
The grotesque and terrible injustices suffered by these women, while all different, reveal that they were victims not so much of deep, unflinching religious beliefs, but of a deep-seated contempt for and fear of - female sexuality.
When I read this article, I was personally touched. It reminded me of my own Irish Catholic heritage, and how my mother was so ashamed of her sexuality. On another level, I was reminded of the widespread malaise in our country that makes women either whores or Madonnas; it is one of the poisonous results of America's shaming of female sexuality.
I remember when we were growing up in the ´70s, all of the girls were getting bikinis, wearing halter tops and baring their midriffs. I really wanted to be part of that scene and to be part of my peer culture. My mother absolutely refused. I had to beg her to get a two-piece swimming suit, because, for my mother, bad girls do those kinds of things - good girls don't.
Speaking to my mother's history and culture, the review of The Magdalene Sisters addresses the Irish belief that women's sexuality is shameful, and the fact that men control the issues of women's sexuality. They control it to the exclusion of a woman's own humanity.
In America today, women's sexuality is afflicted by what I call the "Madonna-Whore Split." There are good girls and bad girls; and sinful girls should be shunned. The Madonnas are the childbearing wives and daughters. We put them on a pedestal, and we can't think of them as being sexual and "sexy," because we need them be pure and virginal like the Madonna herself. Then we have the whores: the girls "we can play with." These girls are promiscuous and sexual, and we think of them as wrong and bad. And by calling them wrong and bad, we make them scapegoats and transfer our sexual shame to them. We think they are kinky curiosities, seducers and nymphos. These labels dehumanize them. Our contact with them is physical only or based in pornographic imagining - there is no intimacy. We think they are beneath us, while it is we who have paid the price of grandiosity by denying their humanity and our own lust. We cannot have them in our everyday lives. In our everyday lives, we want Madonna, and our women have learned to be Madonnas - all at a terrible cost.
In other words, we have J-Lo and Britney Spears acting that out for us, becoming sexual caricatures. In our culture, they become icons, but we do not let the sexuality that they imply, and which we affirm with their celebrity, take place in our own bedrooms. That would be shameful.
In our culture, the burden of sexual shame is most brutal to the women whose Madonna-hood has been forced upon them by the male dominance of sexual mores, as so vividly portrayed in The Magdalene Sisters.
I see this all the time in my practice; women come in who have the "Madonna-Whore Syndrome." I ask them if they have ever had an orgasm, and they tell me they never have. I ask why. They tell me they don't enjoy sex. I ask if they have ever masturbated, and they tell me no. They don't know how to masturbate, and the idea sounds dirty and shameful. They tell me they are afraid to try.
Some women who come in are the other extreme: women who have acted out and are the bad girls. They feel shamed and dirty. Often they are depressed because of this shame, because of their inability to embrace the human reality of their sexuality and to know how they have been abused.
We have been conditioned to deny the human totality of our sexuality. This is no less a delusion than denying our reason, compassion, hunger or need for friendship and intimacy. So sex becomes this horrible split between the pure and the sinful. Why is it that many women cannot have fun with their sexuality? Why is it they cannot freely orgasm? Why is it they cannot feel good about their bodies? It is because of the shame. Because good girls don't do that.
We Americans are not really looking at this cultural shame; we are not really addressing what goes on in women's bodies, minds and souls, and what they want sexually. Because most women don't know. They have been shamed out of their sexual gift, and this shaming away of female sexuality is epidemic.
Certainly the women I treat are not getting a sexual education rooted in the fullness of their perfect-imperfection - that acceptance of the truth about their humanity that enables self-esteeming sexual vitality. I don't think we are aware of how we have scapegoated women and how we have not allowed them to be the full sexual human beings they were created. The Magdalene Sisters will powerfully compel us to such necessary reflections.