I am writing today about a very important issue that must be recognized in working towards the abolition of corporal punishment in the American school system: gender discrimination in how corporal punishment is applied and perceived. Studies have consistently shown that the vast majority of school paddlings are administered to male students, and boys are far more likely than girls to be paddled for any given misbehavior. At the same time, there seems to be more concern raised over the paddling of girls than of boys, especially when it comes to paddlers of the opposite sex.
To a great extent, these disparities reflect our historical sexism with regard to corporal punishment, and they remain even more pronounced in other parts of the world. There are currently several countries that “spank” only male lawbreakers. This is not to say that such abuse of women is unknown, but in the vast majority of the cases, it is men who bear the brunt of judicial corporal punishment.
In southeast Asia, for instance, states such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei practice caning. Caning involves a male prison guard lacerating the criminal's buttocks with a bamboo rattan that has been soaked overnight in brine or salt water. The maximum number of strokes a criminal can be given is 24 (a number which like the practice of caning itself was established under British colonialism.) Young men in Singapore are caned for all sorts of crimes--not just violent ones. They may be caned for possession of firearms, fireworks, or narcotics, entering the country illegally, or overstaying their visa by more than ninety days.
When a prisoner is caned, a physician must be on hand in order to ensure that he survives--though sometimes, unfortunately, he will not. Men who are caned take several months to recuperate, and permanent scars will be left on there body until the day they die. All this information is available on the World Corporal Punishment Research website (www.corpun.com).
In some of these countries, particularly Singapore, men and women generally have equal legal and social standing. Singapore has female judges, prosecutors, and female police officers, and women serving in their military. In fact, according to newspaper reports, the deputy prosecutor who prosecuted Michael Fay was a female. These countries are not primitive cultures by any means. Women and men are on equal footing, as they should be, yet women are exempted from corporal punishment regardless of what law they have broken. This double standard was highlighted just recently when a Thai transvestite was arrested in Singapore for drug dealing and sentenced to 15 lashes with the rattan. His sentence was remitted after an examination revealed that, thanks to a sex-change operation performed in Malaysia, he was now a she (even though his passport identified him/her as a male.) Women simply cannot be caned under any circumstances. This attitude is also prevalent in school systems in the Far East, where boys are likewise beaten all the time while girls remain exempt.
The origin of women’s exemption from corporal punishment has a historical basis. In England, in 1805, Parliament passed the Whipping of Female Offenders Act. Basically, this made women exempt from any form of judicial corporal punishment. The rest of Europe quickly followed suit, and the idea that women and girls should never be struck (at least not by order of the state) also crossed the Atlantic. This philosophy was soon implemented in the school systems as well as the prisons of both Europe and the United States. (Check out World Corporal Punishment Research to see how this is happening to men and boys the vast majority of the time). Behind this reform was a general push to treat women with an extra measure of compassion in the criminal justice system. Particular concern for female modesty was another factor in this exemption, and it was also believed that sparing women physical punishment would have a civilizing effect on society (true enough, although the folly was in not recognizing that likewise sparing men would yield the same benefit).
Britain in particular propagated this absolute ban on caning women and other restrictions (e.g., that a criminal should be caned no more than 24 times and that a condemned man could not be caned) as they colonized most of the world. That is why English-speaking countries in Africa that were former British colonies, like those in southeast Asia, cane only males. Previously in these countries, both women and men were beaten, although a lighter cane had been used on women in Asia. The British policy was likewise reflected in the school systems of places like New Zealand and Australia: only males were caned, with very few exceptions, right until the outright abolition of school corporal punishment.
One effect of reserving corporal punishment for males was the perception in the 19th century notion that beatings were a way to promote masculinity! It was believed that the pain would toughen young males up, thus “making men out of them.” A cult of machismo sprang up around physical punishment, and in many parts of the world, including many parts of the U.S., some still believe being beaten is necessary to ensure manliness. This is why in many fraternities men are beaten during hazing, whereas sororities very rarely do such things. Since corporal punishment has through history been applied primarily to boys, it simply continues on that way.
Some people try to justify this disparity by claiming that boys, by nature or otherwise, simply cause more trouble than girls do. During my three years as a schoolteacher, however, this was not what I observed at all; I just noticed that only boys were apt to be beaten for whatever trouble they caused. My father and mother, both educators themselves, have reached the same conclusion that paddling is used inequitably on boys. To give you an example, I once worked with a kindergarten teacher who supported paddling, as many teachers unfortunately do. She told me she had five or six boys in her classroom who had each been paddled four or five times. I had a hard time imagining that no girl ever engaged in the same misbehaviors for which these boys were punished, yet girls in the same class were never paddled. When at some point I told this teacher that girls and boys both caused just as much trouble, she actually agreed but said, “Well, the boys are louder about it, though.”
When I attended middle school, I had a certain teacher homeroom teacher that also taught math. I recall that one day he dismissed the girls, then took a yard stick and spanked many of the boys as they left the room (though I fortunately was not struck). I also once saw this teacher take a male student who would have been about 13 years old at the time over his knee and spank him in front of the entire classroom. This boy was extremely humiliated, as the redness in his face made obvious. (I found out later that this teacher was convicted of sexual assault and had his adopted daughter taken away.)
In an case, paddling does clearly discriminate against males. It always has and always will for as long as it continues. Although paddling is universally wrong and should therefore be ended regardless, pointing out how unevenly it’s applied can be a useful challenge to the perception of hitting children as something good and just.
As we take account of the harm in this practice, it also needs to be said that paddling boys carries all the same risks as paddling girls--even though some people seem to have much stronger misgivings about the latter. For instance, the prospect of sexual abuse via spanking or of sexual fixations/complexes resulting from it is one of the best reasons for not subjecting children to this form of punishment. It seems, however, that particular objection is made to exposing our daughters to these hazards, with less concern about our sons. We should be equally averse to either case.
Some have pointed out parallels to spanking pornography as a reason our daughters should not be paddled in school. Not just because it’s unseemly, but also out of concern it might unintentionally “prime” some girls to one day accept spankings for pay (on camera or otherwise). However, what of the dominatrix? That is even a more prevalent motif in our society.* Given that children from a young age can pick up on the sexual aspects of corporal punishment and that such punishments are happening 80-90% more to boys--and mostly from female teachers in elementary school--then don’t our sons run at least the same risk of having their sexuality adversely impacted?
By the same token, many who point out sadism as a possible factor driving male teachers to paddle female students fail to mention that sadism could likewise be motivating female paddlers with male students--or for that matter, same-sex paddlings. Why not be wary of all these scenarios? For my own part, when I was teaching at an elementary school, I knew a certain woman teacher who seemed to greatly enjoy paddling the fifth-grade boys in her class. One day she asked me to come into her classroom to pick up a box for her. I saw her paddle sitting in her closet and could not help but notice there were about nineteen signatures on the paddle. Seventeen male signatures and two female.
As true feminists we must acknowledge that women, like men, have the potential for sadistic attitudes and behavior. There are plenty of historical examples. Catherine de Medici, for one, would often have naked servant girls brought before her and beaten for her amusement. Then there was Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614), also known as “The Blood Countess of Transylvania” (although she actually lived in Hungary). This woman sadistically murdered 600 young girls before she was eventually imprisoned in her own tower. Some of the worst abuses of the Holocaust were at the hands of female SS guards. In Europe, when people were whipped in public (back before it was limited to men and moved inside prison walls), women had special front row seats reserved for them to enjoy the spectacle.
At one time, women were actually believed to be the more sadistic of the two sexes. It used to be common in Europe for wealthy families with young children to hire a governess, which is basically a surrogate mother who takes care of the children. This practice was eventually curbed, however, out of fear that these women would beat the children in their charge for sexual gratification. (While people frequently invoke the Marquis De Sade’s abuse of young girls in discussing sadomasochism, you don’t hear much about the aunt of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The latter man in 1870 wrote Venus in Furs, which describes the compulsive whippings she would inflict on him as a child, and which sexualized him to flagellation.) It’s obvious that sadism and masochism can manifest themselves in men and women alike--not simply one or the other. Just as we may be harboring male sadists in our education system, we may be harboring female sadists as well.
Sadism aside, the bottom line is that violence is violence; it is not morally worse or better depending on which gender it happens to, or which gender inflicts it. Is it any less of an outrage for a young boy to be painfully humiliated and “trained to submit” than for a girl to be so treated? Women and men--and by extension, boys and girls--are equal under the law. They deserve the same amount of legal protection from abuse. It is sexist to argue that hitting people is more or less wrong according to gender.
As a former teacher, I can assure with all honesty that corporal punishment is not used in a fair, gender-neutral fashion. It also tends to discriminate against black students, a fact which many have protested, yet there is little protest over how unequally it falls upon boys. To overlook this disparity is wrong. It is sexist. It amounts to gender discrimination. Let’s protect all our children from humiliation and violence.
* In a simple Yahoo search experiment, I typed in the word “dominatrix” and got 2,310,000 hits. Typing in “men spanking women,” I got 3,080,000 hits. For “women spanking men,” I got 3,140,000 hits.
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