Corporality, part II: When love is pain

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.

24 thoughts on “Corporality, part II: When love is pain

  1. This lines up with my expirience. Spanked as a kid and I always thought it was weird for feeling that way. I like being spanked as an adult. I talked about it with my frends and the ones who got spanked as a kid are the ones who like it now. Seriously every single one Ive talked to. I don’t talk about it unless I feel like the other person is a hundred percent safe though so you’d mostly never know in my case. its really hard to talk about.

  2. Miss Katie, what is your alternative to spanking since, childless though you are (sorry, feeling snarky), you are willing to dismiss it? Nagging? Quiet times? Sitting in a corner? On your bed alone in the dark? Taking toys away? A sticker chart? All of these can be done without love, cruelly, and in a way intended to teach the child NOT that Jesus is the only one who can deal with the sin in their heart that is the impetus for their disobedience but rather good behavior equals material rewards and bad behavior equals isolation, parental rage, and getting things taken away.

    There is a way to spank and there is a way not to spank.

    By the way, I don’t remember the pain of getting spanked, though of course I remember not liking it. But I do remember the love, the hugs, the reassurance. But you can bet your ass I remember the times my parents lost their temper, whether or not a spanking followed.

    And getting spanked as an adult? Blech.

    1. I wouldn’t say that I am against all corporal punishment, all the time, for any reason, period. As I mentioned in my prior post about spanking, I think it should be done very, very carefully (as any punishment should, you’re right). This post isn’t pulled from experience childrearing, although on some level I do feel like I’ve raised children given how much younger my brothers were (up to 12.5 years) and how often I did have to deal with their behavior. But it is pulled from, shall we say, informal exit interviews. I know a ton of now-adult people who were spanked and a ton who weren’t. I think spanking has huge potential to be done badly, and if it’s done badly, it’s more likely to damage your kid. And by “badly” I don’t even mean abusively, per se, as I discuss in this post. Although abuse is kind of a gray area. I know people who would not say they were abused as kids, but who were spanked severely enough (by Christian parents) that they started having homicidal fantasies about it. That’s obviously not OK. And I think parents excuse imperfect spanking by saying things like “I’m doing this because I love you” and “spare the rod” etc, when really, they’re doing it because they want a certain immediate outcome and it’s the easiest way to get it. I think it’s dangerous psychologically to convince your kids that love = pain, or pain = love, and that’s (to a limited extent, anyway) what corporal punishment does, at least if you’re telling children that you’re hurting them because you love them. Frankly, if I ever have kids, I will never tell them that I’m hurting them because I love them. I will tell them that e.g. I’m sending them to time-out because they are not behaving in a way that’s good for everyone else in the room. Which is what I did with my brothers and the kids I babysat.

  3. I should add this: “conservative” does not equal Christian. I cannot imagine a scenario in which spanking produces the results God intends if God is not involved. I don’t care how crazy or outlandish it sounds, but spanking is for Christians. I think spanking should be limited to (a) thoughtful Christian parents who believe that God alone is the instrument for instructing the heart (b) parents who were not abused as children and (c) who are willing to learn not to react in anger.

    This is a strange post of yours. What brought it on?

  4. You didn’t have the right to spank your brothers or the kids you babysat. That wasn’t your job.

    “…I will never tell them that I’m hurting them because I love them. I will tell them that e.g. I’m sending them to time-out because they are not behaving in a way that’s good for everyone else in the room.”

    But not tell them that it is wrong? That habits formed now have eternal consequences? That if all I do is redirect you you risk not learning important differences between what is allowable and what is not because God takes these things seriously?

    I don’t find spanking the easy way out, as you suggest. It’s much, much, much harder than, for example, giving my child what he wants when he asks for it. Or scolding him again and again and again for the same offenses. Or nagging the hell out of him. Or shutting him in his room.

    1. I don’t think that dealing with cookie-stealing (for example) by saying “God sends thieves to hell, and this spanking is a taste of hell” is a good way of dealing with either theology or cookie-stealing. It’s making God into a Grimm-brothers-style boogeyman with a big black sack that bad children go into. You can tell children to “do unto others” and still teach Christian theology. And they will understand that and probably think more about the consequences of their actions than if you just tell them “don’t, because God said no.” There is no larger logic to that, except maybe that you are God’s strongarm.

      Maybe you don’t find spanking easy; I just have heard people say they do it because it’s easier for them than other forms of punishment for quick behavior modification.

  5. That is not at ALL what I am suggesting. Surely you don’t think that I believe that kind of nonsense. If you do, you know less about me than I supposed.

    I want you to consider that you may not have been exposed to anything more than garden variety teaching on spanking. (Which sounds arrogant. I’m not saying I’ve been taught the gold standard about such things. I just don’t know.) Spanking is not punishment. God does not punish the Christian. (My sister’s pastor put it deliciously: It is a theological impossibly.) We don’t punish our children. If we are not using spanking or other forms of discipline to instruct our children we are failing.

    I’ve heard parents say things like, “Time out works better because my kid hates it so much.” This strikes me as wrong-headed. We’re not supposed to be executing certain methods just because our kid fear them or hate them

    And sure, WHACKING your child on the butt is easy. Super easy. Slapping their face would be even easier. It’s a quicker reach, right? If you are interested in making your child fearful of physical punishment and THAT’S IT, spanking is easy.

    How about setting them on their bed until they calm down. Then talking to them about what they did and their need to obey and remember who is in charge (harmony), encouraging them that Christ can help them with their disobedience, defiance, etc. Telling them what you are going to do, doing it, then hugging them and reassuring them. THAT is hard. It takes time.

    And yes, spanking is odd and makes people uncomfortable. So does communion. How weird is it that we can experience Christ with a little bread and wine? Isn’t is possible, at the risk of being unorthodox or heretical by comparing spanking to a sacrament (egad), that God uses a passing physical pain on the cushiest part of our body in the same way he uses other physical things to impart spiritual blessings? Isn’t it clear in scripture that sex is mystical when God is present? (And still mystical without God’s presence except that it yields mixed results at best.) That the Eucharist is holy because God is present? So just maybe, when done in faith and obedience to God, God’s spirit can achieve a mysterious work in the heart of a child, with some spankings?

    I am not an expert, I mostly fail at parenting, and the whole thing scares me to death.

    But I don’t think what you’ve offered in this post is an argument against spanking (sorry). But it’s provocative, I appreciate it, and I will keep thinking about it.

  6. No, Kate, I would not assume that you spank abusively, in anger, or really anything else I’ve mentioned as negative. Some people do, though, and they use exactly the arguments you do. And… of course I’ve been exposed to more than garden-variety theology of spanking. I just think it’s contradictory. You don’t punish, you instruct? What’s the difference, in this context? Why do you need pain if it’s mere instruction? Of course I agree that parents need to talk through stuff with their kids and discipline their kids too. But the steps you’re describing still seem contradictory. First you tell them: God is love, and God forgives you when you’re bad without needing to punish you. Second: You’re bad and I need to spank you, and the fact that you’re repentant or not is immaterial. Third, after the spank: I forgive you and love you.

    Contradictory? Yes, I think so, especially to a child. And I think this is partially why you get so many adult Christian people who base their whole theology on what is unholy and how people should always get what’s coming to them. Which is so weird to me, given the theology of grace.

  7. I should stress that I know excellent parents who spank their kids, and I totally respect their parenting style. However, there are small, unintended things I see in the kids that I believe are a direct result of spanking, such as immediate whaling on any object (such as a doll) that irritates them.

  8. What is your evidence that spanking is producing that behavior? They spank and their kid hits their doll? Kids who don’t get spanked don’t hit things?

    Part of my point is that the alternatives to not ever spanking are not attractive, but mostly I think spanking is a matter of obedience.

    What other method do you suggest? It is very, very difficult to reason through everything with a toddler. And disobedience is a problem. It’s undoubtedly a problem your parents experienced. You might have talked them out of spanking you but they weren’t punishing you so you would brush your teeth, right? They were setting up a pattern of obedience to a loving authority is my guess. Brushing teeth is small potatoes, but you were not in charge. And you defied them.

    1. Of course it’s impossible to say for sure that them getting spanked is why they’re exhibiting spanking-like behaviors towards their dolls, but a number of studies have been attempted looking at the link between adult aggression and child imitation, such as the Bobo doll experiment: and spanking, in particular, is supposed to lead to more aggressive behavior:

      And for more discussion on this topic from a Bible-believing mother of four that I really think you would get along with well, check out

  9. Oh, also, I want to point out that someone did get punished. God doesn’t punish you, He punished Christ, but the path to obedience is still the path of safety and happiness. We’re not being punished by God for our sins but He still corrects us and sometimes it’s much, much worse than a spanking, right?

    I’m not saying I understand it all or how it all plays out, but never spanking is not, in my judgement, biblical. I do think Proverbs makes a case, in more than one instance and with great solemnity, that the use of the “rod” is the instrument God uses. I sound like a fundy, but I’m not.

  10. Kate, this jumped out at me: “How about setting them on their bed until they calm down. Then talking to them about what they did and their need to obey and remember who is in charge (harmony), encouraging them that Christ can help them with their disobedience, defiance, etc. Telling them what you are going to do, doing it, then hugging them and reassuring them. THAT is hard. It takes time.”

    I and several other people I know and grew up with experienced PRECISELY this sort of spanking. All of us are BDSM spanking enthusiasts as adults and only about half remain Christians. The plural of anecdote is not data, and I certainly don’t expect that your mind is changeable on this topic. I have never met anyone who spanked on Biblical grounds whose mind was.

    I’m just suggesting that when your kids are adults, you never jump to conclusions if you ever find yourself overhearing certain sounds while staying in the same house with them and their spouse and that you certainly never, ever read their diary or check out their internet history. You may very well not like what your parenting methods have wrought, when the time comes.

  11. This site has a lot of good info showing that spanking is not Christian.

    I started with the beginning of the linked posts, but there are many others on the main page.

    Also, I notice advocates of spanking always ignore a few major issues a)spanking/hitting the buttocks can cause injury to surrounding areas, including the spine and kidneys & b) that area is not just “cushy”, it’s also a major erogenous zone and intimately connected to the genitals. The surprise isn’t that some children who are spanked grow up to be interested in spanking/BDSM; it’s that far more don’t.

  12. As an almost 58 yr old grandmother, I find the ‘need’ for scientific checking into whether one should hit a child or not .. simply unbelievable. I learned that you don’t hit ANYONE period. Especially a defenceless, smaller human being ie a child.

    I find the idea that any Christian would think that hitting a child was right also unbelievable. Christ – never told us to hit our children. Not once. He warned us about angering them – and I know for sure that spanking ie hitting a child does that. He also told us to treat one another as we would like to be treated. And most of us do NOT want to be hit. We don’t hit our friends or colleagues. We don’t hit our partners or husbands/wives. No – we talk, explain etc.

    Why would you spank a toddler, because they don’t really understand [ and won’t know why mummy is hurting them because their brains really cannot process this] when for example the locals here don’t hit ME when I don’t understand them fully because I am not yet fluent in Portuguese? Perhaps we should then hit special needs children/adults?

    From the first time my parents hit me, they lost my love, respect and trust. I don’t, and will never love, respect or trust anyone who hits me – and I would NEVER want any child to learn to do so with anyone who hits them either! I learned only fear, pain, anger, hate and resentment, and that my parents didn’t love me. And no, that post spanking nonsense of a pep talk ‘Oh we love you’ meant NOTHING to me as they had just hit me. Something I never did as I knew one didn’t hit anyone much less someone you love. Having them try to hug me after hitting me just sickened me to my stomach and confused me totally. I learned that they lied too. “WE don’t hit’ Really ?? I was always a quiet, well behaved child – and yet my parents still spanked me, because in the 50’s and 60’s that is what parents did. Shame, because it destroyed our relationship forever. Yes, I cared for my mother until she died – but I never felt close to her ever.

    I am GLAD some of you find it ‘hard to spank’ – so you should, I would worry if you didn’t. That ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you’ that parents say is their conscience – you don’t feel that when you teach a child right from wrong, and help it grow up with gentleness and patience.

    As a parent, I never hit my children, and they are wonderful, kind, gentle adults with children of their own who also are not hit. I didn’t want to teach my children violence. I didn’t want them learning not to get hit – but not the lesson, and didn’t want them getting more sneaky. I didn’t ever want them thinking that Jesus would have me hit them, because he doesn’t.

    I think you understand by now, that I don’t agree with hitting anyone, that I DO think even one swat is abuse [mild but abuse never the less] and who is FAR from happy with anyone spanking children. BTW, I am a Brit and now live in Europe where most countries banned hitting children many years ago – and we live in a pretty peaceful place – where children are not hit but are respected and the respect is given back, where they are cared for and helped to grow in an atmosphere of peace and love – and it shows.

  13. Kate asked what else to do if not spank, and listed several other punishments that are not corporal. I’d like to point out that there are methods of discipline that are not punitive at all.

    I have been following Hand in Hand Parenting, which is a secular resource, but not therefore something to just dismiss. The listening tools — special time where I pour attention into my child as I follow her lead in play for a scheduled time, play listening where we roughhouse and get laughing with physical games, stay listening which is like a time-in where I listen warmly and with connection while she cries, rages, flails, and otherwise works the yucky feelings out of her system, and setting limits with empathy — along with some listening partnerships for me to work through my own feelings with another adult — have made great progress in my family. Sure, she’s still a kid who gets off track sometimes. But these tools help us stay allies instead of adversaries, provide a great sense of safety and warmth, including necessary boundaries (this is not permissive parenting), and promote real respect, consideration, grace, flexibility, confidence, and healing from fear.

    There are other non-punitive parenting programs out there, too. It sounds unbelievable — we grew up thinking that paying special attention to a misbehaving child just encourages the misbehavior. But if we remember that misbehavior comes from a sense of disconnection, deep hurt, insecurity, or mere hunger or tiredness, it makes much more sense to pour in love (not permission, not excuse — supportive, limit-settting, empathic, warm love) than to punish.

  14. Firstly, many thanks to Marcy for proposing some alternatives.

    It’s been, what, two months since this thread started? I followed some of the links and found a combination of two of them so compelling I am re-thinking everything I know. This one:

    and this one:

    So, Alexandra, miracles happen.

    There are a couple of things that still bother me. Katie, you were pretty middle of the road about it, but the general tone of the comments is: If you get spanked, you’re into bondage. I guess I can’t help but feel that you’re into bondage if you’re into bondage. People get molested and they don’t always molest. Girls are breastfed and they don’t all suffer from breast fetishes. I feel like there must often be other factors that we don’t or can’t know about. And what we do as grown ups, while hugely affected by what happens to us as children, is about our choices as much as anything. So that bothers me.

  15. Kate, does your comment ‘So, Alexandra, miracles happen.’ mean that you have now stopped spanking your children ? If so, I thank God. I really do. Jesus Christ never ever had told us to hit children. ‘Thy rod and staff comfort me’ Of course they do, because they GUIDE me .. they don’t hit me.

    If one can sit a child down and talk with it explaining what it did wasn’t right or acceptable – THAT …. is discipline, which means to teach. One doesn’t need to hit it – any more than a husband ‘needs’ to hit his wife. If … hitting taught us right from wrong, if it truly were ‘godly’ to help us then … why isn’t it good enough for adults whose sins are WAY greater than any childs? Why, for example, don’t we say our sorries to God, and then go and get His minister ie a pastor, minister or priest to spank us ??

    I thank God my own church NEVER told us to hurt children this way, and in fact warned us to be kind and gentle and filled with grace towards them !

  16. I’ve just browsed this threat about a year after its posting. I’m an adult who suffered all my life since age 10 with a masochistic spanking fetish. I sought some therapy to make sense of it all and during the course of it open up repressed memories of my spankings from my mother. I was too young at the time to know the feelings I was having with the ritual clothing removal by my mother but today know it was sexual arousal. The Christian community still is following old Biblical interpretations about spanking but where in those instructions does nudity and sexual exposure come it? This is how children develop sexual attractions to spanking, mixing sexual exposure with punishment! Please Christian parents especially opposite gender the child, THINK about it!

  17. The ritualized parent forced partial disrobement of the clothing, the nudity and sexual exposure all created what at the time was unknown to me, sexual arousal. This is where punishment gets sexualized! I sought therapy to understand this life long damage to my sexuality by my Christian mother, yes and she told me she love me and didn’t like to do this, but even as a child I could see in her body language she enjoyed it. The flip side to a masochistic spanking fetish is a sadistic spanking fetish. My mother had one, spanking creates both! Parish the thought a Christian parent understands Gods words instruct to spank their child and they because of their own sexualization of spanking get rewarded sexually in total secrecy to spank their child! A spanking fetish starts with the often ignorant incest found in the manner parents sexually expose their child for spanking them!

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