|| Spanking as Sex Abuse
by Tom Johnson
Tennesseans for Nonviolent School Discipline
Spanking has a unique duality and potential for ambiguity. This creates a serious hazard for minors who are legally fair game for corporal punishment--not only at home, but also at school and other settings where adults may claim in loco parentis status. No small number of teachers, coaches, clerics, babysitters, moms' boyfriends, etc. have, under the guise of "old school discipline," spanked kids for their own gratification.
Sometimes the victim's parents are naively on board with the spankings, perhaps citing or hoping for improvement in their child's behavior. And if ulterior motives are suspected, our nation's lax child abuse laws can leave victims and concerned parties unsure of their rights and without adequate recourse. On those occasions when spanking actually leads to criminal charges, defense attorneys have had remarkable success playing the discipline card.
For some predators, spanking serves as a grooming technique to erode boundaries or intimidate a child, paving the way for more clear-cut violations. For others, spanking is an abnormal sexual desire-based end in itself.
It's important to reflect not only on the horror but also the psychological harm of these crimes. In addition to PTSD, loss of innocence, impaired trust, and possible family turmoil or grief for relationships lost, it's not unusual for victims of sexual abuse to experience feelings of guilt and shame about what happened to them. These feelings can only be made worse by the idea of punishment--which is essential to a spanking, after all. One might literally hear "You should be ashamed!" in the process. Despite the vindication of having certain spankings reclassified as "bad touch," it won't be simple for a child to cast off the notion that he or she deserved them for being naughty, rebellious, sinful, bratty or whatever. For one thing, abused children often have love for and a sense of loyalty to their abuser, comparable to Stockholm syndrome, which makes it preferable to believe the abuser was in the right. For another, the message of disapproval wasn't just expressed in words but transmitted through the body with painful blows. Science tells us that physical punishment can have a deep and lasting influence on a child's developing brain (while at the same time elevating the prospect of medical problems in adulthood).
What's more, victims of sexually abusive spanking, even if mercifully exempted from corporal punishment going forward, may have their trauma continually refreshed by secondhand exposure to the practice. Odds are they'll occasionally witness it, hear a child threatened with it, or get accounts of it from their peers, extended family, the media, etc. If nothing else, they'll be aware that spanking is a common form of discipline and that a lot of people strongly agree with it, or at least don't think it's a big deal. For these victims, this custom is more than just a trigger. It's also a constant reinforcement of the narrative that links being spanked with "being bad," where the child has little claim to sympathy and is more apt to draw scorn, with derision perhaps mixed in.
Some victims, whose attribution of sexual intent is backed up by authoritative judgments, or at least some fairly compelling evidence, can expect to be taken seriously. But for those who have only their own intuition that there was something untoward or creepy about one or more spankings they received, coming forward is a lot dicier. They may reasonably fear their perception will be scoffed at, pathologized, or made out to be a vicious lie. No wonder they keep it to themselves--which the "disciplinarian" in question may in fact be counting on.
There's been ample discussion of spanking in relation to physical abuse. Here are some news articles that illustrate the nature and scope of the problem, along with links to a website and a Facebook page where many more have been compiled. There are some in which sexual intent is not decidedly present, yet which nonetheless hint at how corruptible this brand of child management is.
School Head gets 18 months for spanking girl pupils
Bus driver charged with spanking teens
Charges against a high-profile evangelical pastor
Principal fooled everyone-- How Wadsworth hid his pedophilia
Man reveals abuse he suffered at hands of former teacher and church deacon
Jailed ex-Liverpool teacher and lawyer: Student wanted to be spanked 54 times
Former Little League coach pleads guilty to spanking players
Attorney says therapist violated client's privacy
Regrets of a Spanking Sitter
www.spankingcanbesexualabuse.org, hosted by Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (whose work is cited in this 1987 column by Nat Hentoff).
"Spanking Can Be Sexual Abuse" FB page (includes items more recent than those on the website)
Although spanking has long been a major blind spot in child sexual abuse awareness, one thing arguably helping to correct this is the #MeToo movement. Its extraordinary outpouring of accounts of sexual misconduct has included instances of unwelcome spanking (or talk of it). Here are some that appeared in the news media over the past year:
What It Means When Women Say "Me Too" (see paragraph 3)
'I was absolutely humiliated': Alabama reporter who was spanked by boss tells her story
Utah County commissioner accused of sexual harassment was previously investigated for spanking female students while he was a high school club adviser
Ex-Artforum Publisher Knight Landesman Moves to Dismiss Lawsuit Brought by Former Employee Amanda Schmitt
After spanking case, here's why Drake should lead national effort to revise tenure to protect students
There Are Still More Questions Than Answers In The Hugh Freeze Scandal (see paragraphs 23-25)
Some student handbooks identify spanking as a form of sexual harassment (example here, item 6 on second page). The requirement in many school districts that corporal punishment be administered by someone of the same gender as the student would seem moreover to be a tacit recognition of sexual connotations in opposite-sex paddling. People who have been trained at school as well as at home to associate authority with spanking are all the more likely to submit to the same kind of "chastisement" if proposed to them by employers, police officers, pastors, or judges.
While there's reason to hope that our society in a generation or two will be wiser regarding the potential for sexual exploitation via spanking, progress remains very slow. The blurred lines and blunted sensibilities that collectively persist when it comes to corporal punishment are well documented (for a sampling, see PTAVE's page entitled "We already have laws against child abuse, don't we?")
A great deal of information has been presented on an unsavory topic, and the implications are as far-reaching as they are disturbing. The goal has been to make an appeal that people will want to shine some much-needed light on the problem and to help get a national conversation started about this veiled form of sexual abuse that's so seldom acknowledged.
Tennesseans for Nonviolent School Discipline