One of the things I dislike the most about the way some Christians spank their kids is the idea that it models God’s love for us, because he “chastises those he loves.” Because this means that as a child, you’re thus indoctrinated with the idea that you will receive pain when you’re bad, and that in fact, it is a sign of great love to be physically hurt by those in authority over you. It means they are paying attention to your flaws, and making sure you don’t show them in public. There is little to no room for grace, and because the parents are flawed, they may hurt you even when you don’t really deserve it either.

But if you wouldn’t accept that in a boyfriend, why would you accept it in your theology? Or your parenting style? If you’re raised thinking it’s OK to be hurt by those who love you, and that, actually, you should be hurt by those who love you, don’t you think this might have unintended consequences?

I’m not just talking about being complicit to abusive adult relationships. Because adults aren’t (usually) physically punished in front of kids, I think it’s reasonably unlikely that kids who are spanked a few times will equate getting punched in the mouth with appropriate adult discipline. Although if you’ve been told your whole life that you should be hurt when you deserve it, I think it’s possible. I mean, how often does an abused woman justify this horrendous behavior with “I had it coming” and thus fail to get out of the abusive situation?

More likely, however, is a lasting psychological confusion about physical aggression and love. This probably won’t sit well with advocates of the occasional spank, but violence and abuse prevention educator Darlene Barriere writes that “Among professionals, it is generally understood that spanking CAN indeed create a fetish for it. I’m not suggesting that all children who are spanked will grow up wanting to be spanked for sexual purposes. Nor am I suggesting that only those who were spanked will grow up with this fetish; the issue is far more complex than to simply say one or the other. But spanking can definitely leave a child with sexual imprinting for a variety of reasons. When a child experiences fear or anxiety, the physical sensations he or she feels during that time are very close to those of sexual feelings. The brain can easily confuse the two… When a child grows up believing that love hurts or must be in some way painful for it to actually BE love, that child may enter into adulthood looking for painful relationships. In combination with the former, this is a recipe for creating a fetish.”

I know, this sounds exceedingly Freudian, and, in fact, one of Freud’s early colleagues had exactly this history. Because this is a complex, sensitive and even taboo topic — people rarely want to consider that even well-intentioned, “loving” spankings can have such side effects — there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of concrete research on it. There is some, but it is difficult to really study, for obvious reasons. It is impossible to create any kind of double-blind scientific study where all other factors are removed. However, one study of over 14,000 students reports that “75 percent of students who had been spanked a lot by their parents were sexually aroused by masochistic sex. In contrast, 40 percent of students who had never been spanked were interested in masochistic sex.” That’s a pretty significant difference.

Of course, you could also look at anecdotal evidence and the elevated regional correlation between masochistic porn consumption and childhood spanking. If you did, you might learn, for example, that “Retention of porn membership [for a BDSM website] is significantly longer for red states and the amount of content viewed, and the length of sessions in the member area is also significantly longer for red state members,” as noted by a recent article on pornography statistics and voting records. And, yes, red states are more likely to be OK with childhood spanking as well. It’s a tenuous and creepy correlation, I know, but it does make sense on a purely psychological level. BDSM is basically the sexualization or ritualization of hyper-authoritative roles, complete with physical punishment for those who fail to do as they are told. Bend over, and you’re going to get three swats. No, you can’t put your hands back there to protect yourself. Do what I tell you, or it’s going to be worse. If such language is supposed to be a sign of love when you’re a kid, why would it stop being a sign of love when you’re going through puberty, when you’re an adult? I’m guessing that people who are conservative in nature are less likely to enact this in real life, but I’m also guessing that on some level, they like the idea, if they’re consistently visiting those porn sites.

The first time this correlation occurred to me was a few years ago. I was using a conservative Christian guy’s work computer to log on to the internet, and I hit the initial w in www. The first suggestion that popped up based on his internet history was for a masochistic porn site. At this point (believe it or not) I had never seen porn of any kind, and it was a complete shock to me how much the memes seemed like an extension of aggressive hierarchies and a desire for corporal punishment, complete with the detached, bossy language that often comes with real-life hierarchy and real-life corporal punishment. I started looking at his internet history to see how often he looked at that stuff. A lot, apparently. And I started to wonder: what if masochistic behavior isn’t in contradiction of some people’s conservative Christianity? What if it’s a weird extension of the things they’ve internalized from it? I knew he’d been spanked as a kid, and was also a fan of strict male headship.

I think most Christians would be horrified with this suggestion, as well they should. The have the best intentions in the world in seeing themselves as dictators of justice to an unruly mob of offspring. They want to raise good, law-abiding kids. No decent parent is inclined to wonder if calm, even distribution of discipline may somehow instill a lifelong penchant for calm, even distribution of discipline. That’s almost nauseating. But just because it’s nauseating doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen sometimes.