What Causes Spanking Fetishes? A Testable Model
by Chris Dugan

Originally published in three parts as "Origins of Spanking Fetish," on newsgroups alt.sexuality.spanking and soc.sexuality.spanking, July 1996.

Part 1

One way for a child to cope with unintegratable trauma is to eroticize it. This can give the child a safe outlet for the dammed-up energy of the repressed emotions, and temporary relief from the continual task of repression. I am convinced that some (but not all) spanking fetishes, are eroticizations of childhood traumas.

The more a child loves a parent and depends for life upon the parent, the more problematic intense negative emotions aroused by spankings may become. The appropriate emotion when someone deliberately tortures us is hatred. But for a child to consciously experience hatred for a beloved parent would create an impossible double-bind. Repression of such unintegratable emotions from consciousness is the only "solution" available to the child. Repressed emotions do not disappear, of course, and their mobilized energy must be handled by the brain in such a manner as to prevent them from reaching conscious awareness. Eroticization of such emotions and of the traumatic events which inspired them appears to be one possible neural "strategy" for coping with the overload.

A wide variety of other "paraphilias" can be explained in similar ways. For example, rubber/latex fetishists are apparently disproportionately likely to have been bed-wetters as children and to have experienced rejecting and/or punitive parental responses. The connection with rubber/latex comes in with rubber pants and/or rubber sheets used to protect the mattress from urine. Eroticization of early toilet training conflicts has been suggested as an explanation for some forms of S&M involving urine, feces, enemas, rectal thermometers, etc. Bondage could be viewed as eroticization of helplessness, and so on.

Below is an hypothesis of mine which, if correct, would account both for why some spanked children develop fetishes which appear to be eroticizations of their parents' physical punishments, and for why the majority of spanked children do not become spanking fetishists. Here goes:

The developing brain of the preschool-aged child has fewer ways to mediate emotional overload than the adult brain. For this reason, it is easier to traumatize children than adults. When a child "splits" away from some unintegratable emotion (the literal meaning of "trauma" in this context) the energy of the banished emotion must be redirected elsewhere to prevent it from reaching conscious awareness. One neural strategy for accomplishing such redirection may be the use of the nascent neural circuits relating to the child's developing sexuality as a "cushion" to absorb the redirected energy and to periodically dissipate the resultant tension via masturbation.

An alternate coping mechanism may be "acting out" behavior as a redirection of repressed aggressive impulses in symbolic, rather than actual, ways. If I am right, children who "act out" by being rebellious, violent or otherwise "bad" would be disproportionately LESS likely to become spanking fetishists because they are utilizing a different neural strategy. By similar reasoning, I would predict that a disproportionately high number of spanking fetishists were compliant "good" children in comparison with the general population.

(Needless to say, there are undoubtedly more than just two such coping strategies, since the human brain is extremely complex and subtle, and the population at large genetically variable).

Which neural strategy the child's developing brain utilizes will depend upon the nature of his or her unique, individual brain. Just as additive genetic loading at certain loci for alleles mediating tall stature correlates strongly with adult height, I predict that additive genetic loading at certain other loci for alleles relating to sexual imprinting by the environment will correlate with increased likelihood of trauma being mediated via sexual neural structures as opposed to other neural strategies (such as acting out by being a "bad" kid.)

If my hunch is correct, the same alleles which facilitate easier environmental sexual imprinting simultaneously lower the threshold for rerouting of traumatic emotions banished from conscious awareness onto the developing neural template for sexual arousal. (Indeed, these are really just two alternate ways of expressing the same basic concept: heightened imprintability or lowered threshold.) Hence, in a child with a high degree genetic loading for such alleles, when the pathway to conscious awareness for the unintegratable emotions is blocked by repression, the pathway onto the developing neural template for sexual arousal will constitute the path of least resistance.

While I am emphasizing the role of trauma here, it may not necessarily be present in all cases. I would predict that as the degree of hyperimprintability increases, the valence of the imprinting stimulus needed for development of a fetish would correspondingly decrease. Hence, in the most genetically loaded individuals it may be possible for strong but not traumatic stimuli to produce similar effects to those which only traumatic stimuli could produce in an individual with a somewhat lower degree of genetic loading.

Just as genetic loading and hyperimprintability should increase the likelihood of the development of a fetish due to the decrease in the necessary valence of the imprinting stimulus from the environment, a LACK of such additive alleles should correlate with a disproportionately LOW likelihood of development of a fetish when compared with the population at large.

To sum up: if I am correct, experimental evidence will show

(1) statistically significant degrees of allele-sharing among all varieties of fetishists,
(2) evidence that the protein products of such alleles mediate neural development of in early childhood of structures mediating sexual imagery and arousal (what Dr. John Money calls the "lovemap"),
(3) statistically significantly high numbers of fetishists who were compliant, "good" children, and,
(4) statistically significantly LOW numbers of fetishists who were rebellious, defiant, "bad" children.

Part 2

The model I proposed in the previous note on this thread easily accounts for the fact that the majority of diapered, tickled babies do not grow up to be diaper-lovers or tickling fetishists, and for the fact that most spanked children do not become spanking fetishists. I suggest that genes at a number of different loci contribute to rendering the developing child brain sexually "imprintable" by the environment. Various alleles of these hypothetical genes make greater or lesser contributions, in an additive manner, to the individual's overall imprintability. This imprintability has been selected for over evolutionary time because it enhances reproductive success; our human sexuality is neither entirely instinctual or entirely learned, so some degree of imprintability is needed for effective learning. As these hypothetical genes assort over time, most humans will receive genes rendering them moderately imprintable, just as most offspring of a tall and short corn plant will tend to roughly cluster within one standard deviation of the mean average of the two parental heights. However, just as by statistical chance a small percentage of such corn plant offspring will be very short or very tall, a small percentage of humans will be very highly imprintable or else, at the other statistical extreme, very resistant to imprinting. (The effects of such sexual HYPOimprintability might make an interesting study in itself).

It is the minority of people who are genetically loaded for high imprintability alleles who are most likely to become fetishists of one sort or another, according to the predictions of this hypothesis. This would account for why a minority of spanked children would become spanking fetishists while the majority of spanked children would not. In short, pointing out that most spanked children don't become fetishists not only fails to falsify the hypothesis, the hypothesis predicts that this should be what we observe.

I believe that "spanking fetishism" is not a single monolithic sexual orientation but several sexual orientations. Some forms of spanking fetishism probably have nothing at all to do with childhood spankings, while other forms may have everything to do with childhood spankings. In anticipation of objections from people who were never spanked as children yet developed a spanking fetishist, I have listed a number of alternate possibilities which are not mutually exclusive, and would not falsify my central hypothesis if true. Factors other than childhood spankings may include:

1) A fetish centered around the buttocks or anal region which allows the fetishist to become aroused in some way by spankings even if they were never spanked as a child.

2) A fetish centered around dominance/submission in general, humiliation in general, pain in general, or a combination. The ritual of spanking may "work" for such individuals even if they were never spanked as children.

3) Reddening of the buttocks as a primordial sexual "releaser" resulting from our phylogenetic heritage as primates. Another such "releaser" may be the resemblence of the bending over, and over-the-knee positions to female primate lordosis posture (which the female primate assumes in order to invite copulation from the male). These two hypothetical releasers may function separately or in tandem, and may have a strong enough influence in some individuals to make spanking rituals erotically "work" even in the absence of any direct childhood experiences with spanking.

4) "Crosstalk" between afferent and efferent nerve tracts at the S2 spinal level (where nerves supplying both the buttocks AND the sexual organs enter and leave the spinal cord). Such crosstalk could cause intensive stimulation of the buttocks to simultaneously trigger sexual arousal in the genitals, even in individuals who were never spanked as children. (A year ago, when I last posted this thread, a woman stated that she felt as if her buttocks were "wired" to her clitoris).

5) Increase in bloodflow to the pelvic region as a result of blows to the buttocks may also induce penile or clitoral erection in some individuals. Such individuals need not have been spanked as children.

In addition to the above, some of the spanking fetishists who say they were "never spanked" may have been spanked before they were old enough to remember, or have forgotten spankings at somewhat older childhood ages due to traumatic amnesia. Still others remember having been struck on the buttocks as punishment but answer sincerely that they were never "spanked" because they associate "spanking" with a full-fledged ritual which their parents largely skipped.

In my next note on this thread, I will seek to develop further my hypothesis about neural thresholds and repression, and how genetic preconditioning combined with childhood spanking experiences may cause some spanked children to develop a lifelong sexual obsession with the subject.

Part 3

Normally, an emotion arises from the visceral levels of the brain into consciousness. But what about an emotion which creates a traumatic double-bind in the child? Hatred of a parent arising during a spanking is unintegratable for a small child. It feels subjectively as if this feeling would literally kill the parent, upon whom the child depends emotionally and physically. The only solution is a bad solution, but it is better than no solution at all: emotional repression. (What makes an experience "traumatic" is not how upsetting or painful it was at the time, but to what degree the child was forced to split off from conscious integration of the experience by means of repression). By preventing the feeling of hatred from ever reaching conscious awareness, the child manages to cope with what is, at root, an impossible situation (Stoller, 1975). But repression exacts a toll. Some of the child's vital energy must be continually diverted to prevent the repressed emotions from reaching consciousness. This takes the form of tension and physical/emotional "armoring" which can lead to various dysfunctional tension-reducing behaviors later on such as compulsions and addictions. Also, the repressed emotions may not have access to consciousness, but still have access to the hypothalamus which governs hunger, thirst, fear and rage, behavior, sexual arousal, body temperature and a host of other visceral processes including the entire endocrine (hormonal) system (Janov & Holden, 1976). This can lead to psychosomatic illness and symptoms, and to various dysfunctional behaviors such as chronic shyness or inappropriate hostility.

No two individuals are alike, and hence no two individuals will repress emotions in precisely the same manner. To avoid getting too technical, here is an analogy for what I think may be happening. Imagine a small river or stream with a dam across it whose sluice gate is normally always open, allowing the water to pass freely downstream. This is Emotion River, and "downstream" it will eventually flow into the child's Ocean of Conscious Awareness if permitted to do so. Now supposing that as a result of a physically painful, degrading form of parental punishment, the child, on a still-unconscious level, experiences a strong wish to murder the parent in retaliation for this massive betrayal of trust by the care-giver and toxic insult to the child's dignity and bodily integrity. This would be comparable to a toxic spill "upstream" from the dam. The hatred flows downstream towards the dam like any other emotion heading towards conscious recognition (i.e. the "ocean"). But, for reasons already stated, the child cannot allow THIS emotion to reach the ocean and become conscious. So he or she closes the sluice gate and dams up the river. Prevented from flowing within its usual course the river will soon begin overflowing its banks upstream from the dam. The "banks" of the stream correspond to alternate emergency neural pathways for mediating the banished emotion. The place where the river water first starts overflowing will be the place where the bank is lowest. This is another way of saying that the threshold of this particular pathway is lowest. Once water begins flowing out of the riverbed at this spot, though, it will quickly begin eroding a new channel out of the riverbed and into the surrounding area. The more emotions are repressed, the more the new channel is "worn in" thereby increasing the likelihood that future repressed emotions will follow the same pathway. This corresponds to the increase in neural connectivity of a pathway with repeated use. The areas surrounding various portions of the riverbank correspond to various brain circuits, each of which will respond in distinctly different ways when saddled with the unusual emergency task of absorbing and mediating repressed emotions. The more emotional water flows through this new channel, the more permanent the channel becomes. In other words, once a child's "alternate pathway" of repression becomes established early in life it becomes more and more permanent with repeated use as the child grows up and as his or her brain gradually loses plasticity.

What makes one section of the riverbank "lower" in one person and a different section of the riverbank "lower" in someone else? In other words, why are people's individual thresholds different? I propose that this is the result of genetic variability between individuals and that additive genes regulate the "height" of the various sections of the metaphorical "riverbank." This means that, if this hypothesis is correct, there should be genetic correlates to different neural strategies for dealing with banished emotions. This is potentially testable via statistical genetics methods.

Although such definitive research has yet to be performed, some smaller studies of twins have shown some preliminary evidence of possible genetic correlates to fetishisms. Gorman (1964) found remarkable similarities in the fetishistic fantasies and behaviors among his sample of identical twins. Unfortunately, his study did not include a sample group of fraternal twins as a control for the effects of similarities in the rearing environment. Gosselin and Wilson (1980) found an elevated concordance for S&M tendecies in their sample of identical twins when compared with a sample of fraternal twins. However, the sample sizes were small, and further research is needed to rule out the possibility of statistical artifact.

A child who "acts out" repressed hatred will be more likely to become violent, aggressive or spiteful. This hypothesis would predict that the more such children are spanked, the more they will act out, and tragically, the more they act out, the more they are spanked - a vicious cycle. Prospanking parents typically fail to recognize what is happening and what they are doing to their child because spankings temporarily stop the offending behavior (thereby negatively reinforcing spanking behavior in the parent and giving the parent the illusion that spankings "work" on their aggressive child). Hence this hypothesis predicts that the children who are spanked the most, as a group, will grow up to exhibit the highest statistical likelihood of exhibiting violent aggressive behavior in adulthood as well. When large representative population studies have looked at criminal behaviors and childhood corporal punishment, this correlation is exactly what they have found (Straus, 1991). The more a child is spanked, the higher the statistical likelihood that they will perpetrate repeated and severe assaults on siblings; for physically abused children, (who presumably have an even heavier repression "load"), this correlation is stronger still (Straus, 1983). Spanking in the home also correlates with higher statistical likelihood of aggressive behavior against kindergarten peers (Strassberg, et. al. 1994). The more often a former child was spanked, the higher the statistical likelihood that they engaged in both violent and property crimes in high school (Straus, 1985; Gelles and Straus, 1990), and that they physically abused their spouse or children, as adults, in the previous twelve months (Straus, 1983).

This hypothesis predicts that people who were rebellious, defiant, "bad" children are statistically LESS likely to be spanking fetishists than the general population, because their "riverbanks" "overflowed" in a different area of the "river." In the case of spanking fetishists, the "lowest" point of the metaphorical riverbank allowed a new channel for the repressed emotions to flow onto what Money (1986; 1987) calls the "lovemap," a neural template mediating the precise elements which lead to sexual arousal. The young child's brain is highly "plastic" and the developing lovemap will grow neural connections in response to environmental stimuli ("imprintability"). If, due to the additive effects of specific genes, the area around the river corresponding to the lovemap is "flooded" when emotional repression first occurs, future repressed emotions will also tend to follow this same pathway and the developing lovemap will take on the shape and form of such banished emotions. If humiliation was a traumatic issue in the child's life, humiliation will become an erotic stimulus to the child in fantasy. If spankings were a traumatic issue, the fantasy of a spanking will become an erotic stimulus, and so on. Since such children are coping with repressed hatred by "acting in" rather than "acting out," this model predicts that a disproportionate number of spanking fetishists will report having been compliant, "good" children.

Tension arising from repression must be discharged. The "bad" child discharges it by acting out. The "good," spanking fetishist child discharges it by masturbation. The budding spanking fetishist will not experience as much parental disapproval as his or her more rebellious siblings, but will typically experience a great deal of guilt and shame. Negative messages about masturbation and sex in general may well contribute to this guilt, but I suggest that the feeling of shame comes from a deeper source and may typically originate well before the child is able to become aware of and internalize negative messages about sexuality and the genitals. Guilt, in my view, is not an emotion in and of itself, but rather a disguised form of fear. The fear, in this case, is the fear of loss of parental love. This could explain why so many fetishists delurking (introducing themselves, usually autobiographically) on a.s.s/s.s.s newsgroups report feeling while growing up that they were "bad" or "wrong" for having their particular fascination with spanking, even though they were never actually told that such an obsession was a "bad" thing. This latter fact is clear from the large number of delurk posts on a.s.s. in which the writer reports having thought as a child that they were "the only person in the world" with such fantasies. Clearly, if they thought they were unique, no one must have told them that "people who have sexy spanking fantasies are bad" because such an admonition would reveal that other such "bad" people do exist in the world. In some particularly sad cases, discovery of the a.s.s./s.s.s. newsgroup in adulthood was the first evidence they had ever encountered of the existence of others like themselves. This means that throughout their childhoods and into adulthood, many of these individuals must have carried around a sense of isolation, guilt and shame which could not possibly have benefitted them on their developmental journeys. I propose that this sense of shame arises because repressed hatred of the spanking parent is at the root of their sexual fascination with spanking. This hatred feels on an unconscious level like a wild animal which, if let out of its erotosexual "cage" would surely either kill the parent or cause the parent to hate and reject the child in return. The fear of losing the parent is experienced in disguised form as guilt about the spanking-oriented fantasies.

Meeting other spanking fetishists, if only on-line, constitutes a form of peer-group-therapy which, judging by testimonials on a.s.s./s.s.s. has helped a lot spanking fetishists better manage their guilt and reduce its power. But the subtlest forms of such guilt and self-loathing may never entirely disappear. For example, I suspect that spanking fetishists who accuse other people of having the same desires as themselves, as if this were some sort of crime, are acting out of a residue of precisely this kind of intractable, lingering, self-loathing.

I think that avoiding raising one's children to be spanking fetishists is a good reason not to spank children. It is not that I view some particular set of sexual semiotics as intrinsically inferior to any other. It is because I believe that at least some forms of spanking fetishism are the direct result of traumatic repression caused by childhood spankings. Hence, to say "don't spank your kids because you might turn them into fetishists" is really just an abbreviated way of saying "don't spank your kids because this can evoke unintegratable emotions of hatred which your child will be forced to repress and which they may then cope with by eroticizing your spankings and spending the rest of their lives feeling frustrated because their pool of available sexual partners is so small, and feeling guilty and ashamed because of how your maltreatment of them made them hate you back when they were helpless and dependent upon you."

The issue is, ultimately, not the prevention of fetishes, but the prevention of trauma.


Gelles, R. J. and Straus, M. A. 1990. "Physical Violence In American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence in 8,145 Families" New Brunswick NJ, Transaction Publ.

Gosselin, C. and Wilson, G. 1980. "Sexual Variations: Fetishism, Transvestism and Sado-Masochism," London: Faber & Faber.

Janov, A. and Holden, E.M. 1976. "Primal Man." New York: Crowell.

Money, J. 1986. "Lovemaps: Clinical Concepts of Sexual/Erotic Health and Pathology, Paraphilia, and Gender Transposition in Childhood, Adolescence and Maturity." New York: Irvington Pub. Money, J. 1987. "Masochism: On the Childhood Origin of Paraphilia, Opponent-Process Theory, and Antiandrogen Therapy." The Journal of Sex Research vol. 23, pp. 273-275.

Stoller, R. J. 1975. "Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred." New York City: Pantheon Books.

Strassberg, Z.; Dodge, K.A.; Pettit, G.S. and Bates, J.E. 1994. "Spanking in the Home and Children's Subsequent Aggression Toward Kindergarten Peers." Development and Psychopathology, vol. 6, pp. 445-461.

Straus, M.A. 1983. "Ordinary Violence, Child Abuse, and Wife-Beating: What Do They Have In Common?" in The Dark Side of Families: Current Family Violence Research, ed. D. Finkelhor, R. J. Gelles, G. T. Hotaling, and M. A. Straus, pp. 213-234. Beverley Hills, CA, Sage Pub.

Straus, M.A. 1985. "Family Training in Crime and Violence." in Crime and the Family, ed. A. J. Lincoln and M. A. Straus, pp. 164-185. New Brunswick NJ, C C Thomas Publishers.

Straus, M.A. 1991. "Discipline and Deviance: Physical Punishment of Children and Violence and Other Crime in Adulthood." Social Problems vol. 38, #2, pp. 133-155.

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