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Freudian Psychology

What's With Us and Butts?

Beyond the Madonna/whore complex to the complexity women face.

They’re just haunches, upholstered bone and meat. Yet many of us harbor an obsession with backsides and many a psychologist has had a field day wondering why we care so much about them.

Evolutionary biologists see a vestigial fascination akin to our primate relative’s fascination with red rumps, or a way to assess fertility in how high or low it hangs, or how it signals hip to waist ratio and therefore potential for biological reproductive success. Freud guessed at an anal stage and ways some of us may never have grown out of it.

I’m interested in another reason butts might fascinate us. It’s our nether region, our back forty, real estate that is in some ways the most intimate part of us and in other ways is terra incognita.

If there’s a part of your body you’ve barely met it’s your butt. Without configuring mirrors just right or years of practicing yoga bends so you can look closely behind you, you barely know your butt. It’s your private part but its privacy extends to keeping you from knowing it well either.

There’s a poker game inappropriately named “Indian” in which each player gets a card he puts on his forehead, sight unseen. You bid on whether your card is higher than your opponents’ but all you see is other people’s cards, never your own. Butts are a bit like those cards. Your butt is yours, high or low. You see everyone’s butt easily but not yours. They see yours and not theirs.

Freud coined the term “Madonna-whore” complex to describe an inability to maintain sexual arousal within a committed loving relationship, but only with degraded women. In 2009, psychologist Uwe Hartmann noted that the complex is “still highly prevalent in today’s patients.”

I believe it and would extend Freud’s concept to an even more radical, simple yet complicating distinction prevalent today. Men now and perhaps always think of women in two radically different ways. On the one hand women are human beings. On the other, they are toys or status symbols. The human/toy complex.

Men today have access to free porn in overwhelming quantity. A fair amount of that porn focuses on butts. I’d venture a guess that whatever else butts might mean to us, they are the objects that make women most like objects, the anatomy furthest from a woman’s humanhood, the part that make women most like toys.

The way to a woman’s human heart is through her eyes, ears, mind. The way to make her a status symbol object-hood is through the parts she feels are most treasured yet knows least well. If a man thinks of a woman as a treasure to be acquired, a pricey and valuable toy, then booty becomes a double entendre. Gain access to the booty and you’ve gained access to the booty.

To some extent women must see men the same two ways, as fellow humans and as objects or symbols. But let’s stick with men for now. Women deserve an honest assessment of this male quality, and by honest I don’t mean disdainful, handwringing, loathing or dismissive. Assuming that the human/toy complex is what it is, neither shrinking from or defending our two ways of looking at them, women need to be able to think systematically and neutrally about us and how to deal with our split interpretation of them. Assume our human/toy complex is vile if you must, but assume it’s real and not going away. Then consider what to do about it.

Seeing women in these two ways must confuse the bejesus out of them, raising challenging questions about the best life strategy for living around and with us.

The more a man sees a woman as an object or toy the more respect he shows but the less respect he feels. What’s a woman to do? The respect he shows must be almost irresistible (at least if he’s attractive).

Very rarely do any of us, male or female, resist respect and affirmation shown to us, despite our best efforts to discipline ourselves to think about whether the respect shown is trustworthy and authentic. A few women dismiss all flattery for their toylike features. Most appreciate and even gravitate toward it, trying to sustain it as long as they can.

Respect for a woman’s toyhood fades as she ages so it’s far from trustworthy. Women by now recognize this trend. Even the prettiest young woman sees men leaving their wives for younger women, always with some explanation. “We grew apart,” he says. But why? Often, in part because as the toy gets older the man has less incentive to continue working to grow together. His fascination with her as a toy subsidized his commitment to her and then the subsidy ends.

In more innocent times, a woman could parlay toyhood into marriage with a high likelihood that the marriage would stick ‘til death do they part and the parts do they sag. Divorce was rare and socially shameful. Women were dependent on men for income, which made it harder and more cruel to divorce them.

Men would stay post toyhood, and still do. A courtship that may have started with infatuation with the woman as toy, grows into a deeper more sustainable bond, two people seeing each other as human beings loving each other for more sustainable reasons. Still, that’s less likely to happen these days than in the past.

Earning their own income, women today are freer to leave when a man stops showing sufficient respect. But then men too feel less depended upon. Women are equals, we think, so love is between two consenting adults both free to leave should the spirit move them.

I see four basic strategies available to women:

  1. Marry young when your toyhood is in its prime, and stay married through thick and thin. Eventually both you and your partner will be so domesticated to each other that parting becomes implausible, a reason to stay together and appreciate each others humanness.
  2. Don’t marry, at least not a guy. We’re not worth it, split-headed as we are, with our crazy human/toy complexes.
  3. Partner with us but don’t count on it lasting. Have a plan B that feels good enough to shift into position as Plan A should your partner depart. Let guys come and go, but never expect that they’ll necessarily succeed in translating their obsession with you as a toy into lasting love. Have an independent life that makes you happy whether there’s a man around or not.
  4. Never respond to toy-flattery. Hold out for a man who doesn’t have the complex or no guy at all.

Of course this may not cover all the possibilities. I’d be interested in hearing other options.

And men? What can we do about our human/toy complexes?

  1. Live with the complex as unchangeable. Even celebrate it as many men do. Treat women as both humans and toys, sending often-confusing messages.
  2. Just think of pretty women as toys, sending a clear signal that that’s what you’re good for, even if it limits the women who would tolerate your company.
  3. Lead a double life, honoring women as humans in your day to day activities. Fantasizing about them as toys when you’re alone.
  4. Work to overcome the complex. Learn to treat women only as human beings, never as toys.

As I’ve grown older I’ve leaned increasingly toward options three and four. Dating when I’m single, I’ve tried to hold myself to the reliable, honorable, clean and simple standard of meeting as humans with potential for friendship. I noticed that meeting as potential friends first and foremost cools romantic potential and frustrates women. Many women want to be the object of desire, and hope to rekindle the wolf in me that I’m trying to retire.

I suspect we’re all a little confused about where to draw the line between romance and toy fetishism. The boundary between the two if there even is one is drawn through terra incognita.

Though this article may offend and insult, it’s meant to open and explore that terra incognita for all our sakes. I love the social sciences for the way they compel us to think as neutrally as possible about sensitive subjects, exploring, for example our own buttheadedness.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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