Can we talk about something hush hush? What if spanking kids is also a form of sexual assault?
Hear me out on this one, okay?
I’ve shared a number of social media posts and podcasts about spanking lately, including what the large meta-analysis of 160,000 children shows: Spanking is neutral or negative, but not positive.
In other words, if you were spanked and you’re okay, that’s DESPITE being spanked, not BECAUSE you were spanked.
There are many forms of discipline that are far more effective, that do not harm attachment styles, and that better fit with the spirit of Jesus.
As I was sharing about this, though, I had several people send me direct messages about something they didn’t want to comment on publicly.
One way that spanking hurt them was that it made them sexually aroused–and that seriously messed them up.
This doesn’t happen for everyone, but it does seem to occur for some.
Here’s a comment I received from one woman:
I believe spanking violates bodily autonomy. Because how can we justify hitting children’s buttocks when we are also teaching them that NO ONE is allowed to touch their private areas with the exception of help with hygiene or medical care? Every definition of private areas I have seen includes the buttocks along with genitals. I was never taught there was an exception for spanking. Nobody wants to talk about that.
But really I’ve come to the conclusion that it could be sexual assault and parents would never know that they are sexually assaulting their kids.
Nobody wants to talk about the possibility that children could be sexually aroused by a spanking. Who wants to tell their parent they felt aroused from a spanking? I sure do not! I know I experienced something before the age of 6 that I am not able to explain or define at this time. Definitely experienced arousal as a teen when my parents adopted a mix of Michael Pearl and Denny Kenaston child training. They used a wooden paddle my dad made out in his workshop. It is extremely disturbing and confusing to feel arousal while anticipating and experiencing a paddling that also inflicted real pain. I felt like some kind of sick pervert and wondered what was wrong with me. Not something I could have admitted to my parents.
I am not the only one who has experienced this. I suppressed most of it until I went down the internet rabbit hole and looked into the stories of other survivors and victims of the Pearl’s teachings. I found some very disturbing stories and explanations of the physical effects of spanking.
She included several links in her email, and I went on a bit of a rabbit trail, reading other people’s stories and looking up the scientific evidence for what she was saying.
And, yes, this does look like a not-so-uncommon problem.
But let’s break this down, bit by bit:
Spanking, especially spanking done “in love”, teaches kids that love should hurt
Here’s how one writer processing the effects of spanking put it:
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?
Spanking can also bring on sexual feelings
In her article, she quotes Darlene Barriere, a child abuse prevention specialist, who explains how sexual feelings can be triggered with spanking
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 the child is a pubescent adolescent, this is even more pronounced. With young males, it is perfectly natural to experience an erection when they are scared, anxious or nervous. Young females can also experience what can be misinterpreted as arousal during such times. What can be even more confusing and disturbing to the young person is when their bodies betray them further by experiencing an involuntary orgasm. 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.
And this is doubly true because spanking is often done on the child’s bare bottom, which is a sexual erogenous zone. Here’s how another woman explained it in an anonymous letter to a pastor:
When I was a child I used to experience sexual feelings whenever I read a scene of corporal punishment in a children’s book; or when I saw a scene of corporal punishment in a film; I used to think about being spanked when I would play with myself as a child, and as an adolescent masturbation was always accompanied by thoughts about spanking. I never really questioned any of this until I started college. I realized that it seemed really strange that my sexual thoughts would revolve around something that was so painful and frightening as a child; I mean, sex is supposed to be focused on something beautiful, not on being inflicted with pain. I did some research and I found some answers to explain this. I discovered that there was both a biological and psychological component to the sexualization of corporal punishment; and I also discovered that there were many other people who suffered sexual side effects from childhood corporal punishment.
The biological factor revolves around the fact that the buttocks is an erogenous, or sexual, zone of the human body. The buttocks are in close proximity to the sex organs, and the nerves and blood vessels in the buttocks are also connected to the male and female genitalia. Therefore, striking a child’s bottom as a form of punishment can stimulate the nerves connected to the genitalia causing sexual arousal. When a child’s bottom is hit it also causes blood to rush to the blood vessels of the buttocks (causing redness), and since those blood vessels of the buttocks are connected to a person’s genitalia, the blood can also rush to the sex organs which of course causes sexual arousal.
During the spanking, the child may not even realize that the sexual arousal is occurring because of the intense physical pain and anxiety they are experiencing; however, the connection between the spanking and the sexual arousal can be stored in the subconscious and later manifest itself in sexual fantasies where the child imagines being spanked, hit, or humiliated in order to reach a state of sexual arousal.
Research also supports this: Spanking affects people’s sexual desires and experience of sexuality
This may be interesting–but is their research to support it?
Well, I followed some rabbit trails of links that were in a bunch of older blog posts that these people sent, and found an old article in Science Daily reporting on a presentation at the American Psychological Association’s Summit on Violence and Abuse in Relationships: Connecting Agendas and Forging New Directions held Feb. 28 and 29, 2008, in Bethesda, MD.
At it, Professor Murray Straus from the University of New Hampshire presented four studies of how corporal punishment as a child affected sexuality later in life. They measured corporal punishment on a four-part scale. Here are just a few findings:
- Being spanked as a child makes it more likely you will coerce sex from others later: “each increase of one step on a four-step measure of corporal punishment was associated with a 10 percent increase in the probability of verbal sexual coercion by men and a 12 percent increase in sexual coercion by women,” Straus says. “The relation of corporal punishment to physically forcing sex was even stronger. Each increase of one step in corporal punishment was associated with a 33 percent increase in the probability of men forcing sex and a 27 percent increase in the probability of women doing this.”
- The studies also found that people who were spanked the most were the most likely to engage in risky sex, while those who were not spanked were the least likely to engage in risky sex. Moving up a step on the four-part scale of corporal punishment meant you were more likely to engage in risky sex.
- People who were spanked are more likely to want to engage in masochistic sex–75% compared with 40%.
I found his synopsis of the findings really interesting:
“What is new about this study is a scientific test of the idea that being spanked as a child inclines people to want to be spanked when having sex, and that this is especially likely to be true when there is a combination of lots of spanking and lots of love.”
So we can’t make the argument: “Well, spanking has been shown to be bad simply because lots of people do it wrong, in anger! If you do it in love, it’s okay!”. No, actually, it’s not.
Could we start to consider the sexual implications of spanking?
Even though kids are sexually immature, they do have nerve endings in the typical erogenous zones, and can be victimized sexually. They need our respect and protection.
Now think about this: Slapping an adult’s buttocks or carressing an adult’s buttocks without consent are both considered sexual assault.
Caressing a child’s buttocks is also considered sexual assault.
Do you think we should start asking why slapping a child’s bare buttocks is not considered a sexual assault, given the research and the science behind it? This is the first time I’ve read much about this, and honestly, it’s really alarming to me. Are we prepared to look at the research? To realize what we may be doing, and to adopt a new way?
If you are, just a reminder for those who signed up for Wendy’s parenting workshop yesterday! The replay is available, and you should have it in your inbox.
(If you missed the signup, I’ll find out from Wendy if we can still give the replay; I don’t know).
But the big thing is simple: We can break the cycle. We can parent a new way. We can encourage discussions in our churches about this. And our kids need us to speak up!
UPDATE: A commenter noted that some of the dynamic we’re seeing here, where you get aroused by something that you don’t want to arouse you, is similar to my arousal non-concordance post. You may find that helpful too!
What do you think? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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