Oh, the cheek of it Liz Hurley and her friends like to smack each other for fun. And so, it seems, do thousands of others. But why? CHRISTOPHER MIDDLETON gets to the bottom of it.
The news that Elizabeth Hurley is partial to a bit of spanking has sent a warm glow of excitement across the cheeks of her admirers. As well as unveiling a whole new range of career opportunities the face of Estée Lauder, the bottom of Andrex Supersoft the story has come as a revelation to those who thought spanking was the sole province of naughty old Home Counties colonels and girls in jodhpurs.
According to Los Angeles, a Hollywood-based magazine, Hurley belongs to a group of racy English expats nicknamed the Viles, for whom spanking beats the pants off other party games. Of an evening, when they're all premiered out, the Viles apparently go round to each other's houses and take turns to bend over a sofa, baring their glutei maximi to the others. The object of the game is for the spankee to guess the identity of the spanker. You can imagine the fun they have.
Come Christmas, the Viles all return en masse to England and regroup for their annual party, hosted by Hurley's big pal Henry Dent-Brocklehurst at Sudeley Castle. And, of course, this bash would be incomplete without an obligatory round of the Spanking Game. "Silly and naughty," is how Hurley describes it. "For people who don't take themselves too seriously," says Dent-Brocklehurst.
For people who've been to Eton, too, says Cynthia Payne, the celebrated former madam, whose experience led her to the conclusion that most spanking enthusiasts have a public school background. "You can tell they got a taste for it along with all the cold showers," she says. "A lot of the time they like to dress up in school uniform, too."
Nevertheless, it's not just toffs who like a firm hand on their behind. According to the anthropologist and author Ted Polhemus, the pleasure that can be derived from a spanking session is available to all.
"The pain triggers the release of opiate-like chemicals in the brain that have the effect of producing an endorphin high," he says. "The person who seeks to re-create it on a regular basis can be categorised as an endorphin junkie."
According to the psychologist Dr Glenn Wilson, it may not be matron who first gets boys interested in smacking, but mother. "My theory is that your critical experiences before the age of three go into determining what will be your sexual turn-on as an adult," he says. "And although you might not actually enjoy being spanked as a child, the vividness of the experience will impose itself on your blueprint and in later life you will want to re-create it. (Emphasis added.)
"Another school of thought says that the appeal of bottom-smacking goes back to the days when we were apes, and having a red bottom was a mark of sexual attraction."
Ah, so that's why Hurley's production company is called Simian Films. These days, though, spanking is spread across a much wider social spectrum than just apes and aristocrats.
"There's a lot more of it going on than you might imagine," says Dr Patrick Magee, a sexual-behaviour expert based at the Bolton Institute. "There is even some evidence that the role-playing and dramaturgic elements of spanking can have calming, therapeutic effects upon the people who engage in it."
Perhaps this is why so many high-flyers indulge. Emma and Michael are city lawyers who met at a client's drinks party last year. "Michael and I went out on a few dates," says Emma. "He seemed like your regular kind of guy hard-working, intelligent and into football and the opera. One day I was dressing a salad in the kitchen. I leant over to reach for the olive oil and felt a sharp slap on my backside. It definitely wasn't just a friendly pat. That was when he first admitted he was into spanking. I suppose he could have worse foibles."
James, a merchant banker, recalls being invited to a party by a colleague. "Everyone seemed to know one another," he says. "So I was the only one to look shocked when it was suggested that they take turns to spank me. At first I refused, but the whole room began booing and hissing. I decided it was easier just to get on with it. It was incredibly humiliating for me, but they all seemed to enjoy themselves mightily."
While most spankers prefer to use their hands, others invest in specialised equipment, made by the likes of RGL designs, a company based in Nelson, Lancashire.
"A lot of people go for a big leather paddle," says Martin Page, RGL's managing director. "Spanking with the bare hand can often be quite unsatisfactory. Basically, the woman doesn't hit the man hard enough for him to feel it, and when she does, she's liable to damage her hand in the process." Page has more than 19,000 names on his mailing list.
Spanking is now big business: scores of firms in Britain sell mail-order "light corrective" equipment. There's Fetters in London, Wendy Jane in Cambridgeshire, and, if you are in Plymouth, why not stop off at Westward Bound for all your spanking needs? But it is in North America that the sound of spanking is at its loudest. There is even an Academy of Punishment in Menlo Park, California. So institutionalised is rump-whacking that, rather like hairdressing salons in Britain, the businesses all have jokey names. In Chicago, therefore, you can buy equipment at the House of Thwacks; and in Vancouver, you can stay at the picturesque Payne Manor.
Hurley and friends aside, the signs are that spanking is now making its mark on mainstream UK society. This year sees the release of a British film called Preaching to the Perverted, all about the rubber and bottom scene. It's directed by Stuart Urban (An Ungentlemanly Act) and stars Tom Bell, Sue Johnston, and the dark-haired actress from the Peugeot 106 ad (Julie Graham) as a PVC-clad dominatrix.
So discerning have Britain's bottom-smackers become that there is now even a sort of Which? guide to the best spank-practitioners, called Domina Directory. You can also buy any number of glossy magazines on the subject, one of which, Skin Two, claims 30,000 readers per issue. Now that smacks of success.