Spanking as sexualized abuse
By Jonathan J. Donahue
SOURCE: Counseling Today, May 2001
Spanking and sexual abuse are terms that aren't generally categorized together. The average person knows that sexual abuse is damaging and illegal, whereas spanking is still legal and widely practiced. As a psychotherapist working with children and families, I frequently encounter parents who spank their children, and I am often frustrated by their casual assertions that this practice is harmless and necessary.
Mental health professionals, however, seem fairly united in believing that spanking is damaging and some even suggest that spanking teaches kids that it's OK to hit when frustrated. But I believe that the damage can go well beyond that and spanking is actually a sexualized form of abuse.
To begin with, something many counselors, parents and teachers say to children to help prevent sexual abuse is that their private parts are any part of the body that would be covered if they were wearing a bathing suit. Obviously, the genitals are the areas of most concern. However, the buttocks are also covered by a bathing suit and, in general, children are taught not to touch people there or to display this part of the body in front of others.
Of course, when children are very young they need help with bathing and toilet hygiene, thus some contact from parents is necessary. But many parents spank their children well beyond the age where such intimate touch is appropriate.
And what happens when a child is spanked? This area of the body which they've been taught is private is suddenly touched forcefully by an adult. And the child is told it's OK. All of a sudden, things are rather confusing.
Carry it one step further and you have adults pulling down children's pants to spank bare buttocks. First of all, having your pants suddenly yanked down isn't much different than having your clothes torn off by a rapist. Parents commit these symbolic rapes routinely. To be treated in such an intrusive manner is to feel profoundly disrespected.
And then this protected, private part of the body is not only being exposed, but also brutally stimulated. Some adults think that humiliation should be part of this so-called learning process. They may have the child perform accompanying rituals such as having to go and get the belt or paddle to be used on them, to pull down their own pants or to count the blows aloud.
When this occurs, obviously the adult has gone beyond punishment. Indeed, I believe they've crossed the line into pleasure -- their own pleasure -- the sadistic thrill of exerting power over a weaker being.
Although pain, humiliation and fear are the victim's main responses, there may also be a certain element of excitement, though virtually unconscious in comparison to the shame, anger and helplessness that flood the senses.
This bewildering blend may manifest itself in many dysfunctional ways in later childhood and adulthood. Just look at our culture for evidence. Pick up the weekly arts newspaper in large cities and find an expensive buffet of kinky thrills to choose from. There are many clubs where one can go to be spanked, whipped or humiliated. Phone sex lines dealing with this theme abound. The "scene," as participants in sadomasochism call it, is gradually becoming more noticeable and accepted.
And while I believe that consenting adults should be able to do what they want in private, obsessions with fetishes can dilute true, sexual, emotional intimacy. And accidents do happen and people do get hurt, physically and psychologically. Ultimately, I believe sadomasochism is a cultural symptom of something being wrong -- something in our sexual upbringing. Because this dimension of the anti-spanking outlook is rarely examined, it is likely that many therapists ignore it.
It is certainly true, however, that spanking can affect children differently. The sensitivity of the victim, the comfort with touching and nudity in the family and relationship with the perpetrator all impact how this socially accepted form of punishment will affect the child.
Context is also important to consider. For example, children living in severely abusive homes may feel that being spanked is the least of their problems, and they may be right. Others have been brainwashed by their parents and other authorities into believing the beatings were necessary, and therefore the trauma is repressed. But there are plenty of other kids and adults who became embarrassed and uncomfortable in discussing this subject. The shame is just below the surface, and the memory of helpless humiliation is too intense for casual discussion.
Therapists also need to become more comfortable with this topic. It's easy to let a client's casual mention of past spanking go by without exploring details and emotional results. Many clients, consciously or unconsciously, are adept at minimizing their abuse histories and lull clinicians into believing them. Using displacement communication, the technique of speaking hypothetically about traumas and their potential effects, allows the therapist to validate such experiences as traumatic, paving the way for a client to disclose anything they may be withholding.
Indeed, mental health providers need to approach this issue of spanking with the same dedication usually reserved for more "serious" forms of sexual abuse. I believe the effects will ultimately benefit the individual client as well as society at large.
Jonathan J. Donahue is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and psychotherapist in Woburn, Massachusetts
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