Spankology 101: The Psychology, Physiology, Art, History, Politics and Eroticism of Spanking
“I got so mad at my wife,” Oswald told Charlie in their Grand Ole Opry routine, “I turned her over my knee and lifted up her skirt to spank her. Then I forgot what I was mad about.”
Did Oswald go on to actually spank his wife or did he switch gears and have sex with her? It really doesn’t matter. What makes this old joke timelessly funny is that we all recognize the inherent eroticism in spanking an upturned, ceremoniously unveiled, bared butt, as well as the innate absurdity of the old-time “wisdom” that spanking will solve a real problem—or whatever it was that made Oswald “so mad.”
What is it about spanking, and/or being spanked, that turns so many of us on so much? Why does spanking have the power to revive an otherwise jaded libido and/or destroy a robust career? In an attempt to answer these eternal and evermore relevant questions, this bloggamy explores the art and science, the philosophy, psychology, physiology, theory, practice, politics, emotion, eroticism and—as one of my sex therapy clients puts it—the “slightly deviant naughtiness” of spanking.
Spanking Children for Punishment vs. Adults for Fun
First, let’s define our terms. The word “spank,” both a verb and a noun, has been a part of the English language since 1727 and appears to be onomatopeic in nature. To spank, according to Webster’s, is “to strike or slap the buttocks, usually with the palm of the hand.” Spankings may be given for the express purpose of punishment—as in spanking a prisoner or child against his or her will—or spankings may be given for pleasure—as in spanking your adult lover who enjoys being spanked, whether or not you make believe that it’s a “punishment.”
Spanking, paddling, whipping, whupping or otherwise beating children is, in my opinion, an almost universally bad idea. Why? First, because it tends to hurt, and deliberately hurting a vulnerable, defenseless child is the essence of cruelty. Moreover, spanking children teaches them, at an impressionable age, that physical aggression is an acceptable answer to problems. It gives them a deeply-wired, internal excuse for violent behavior. That is, they rationalize to themselves that their victims (from spouses to foreign countries) “deserve” it, like a bad child deserves a spanking. Even if they manage to keep their violent, punitive impulses at bay—as many do—it often gives rise to a spanking fetish.
This isn’t just my opinion. A meta-analysis of spanking studies conducted by Elizabeth Gershoff, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, found 93% agreement among child development studies (an extraordinarily high figure for consensus) that spanking leads to delinquent and anti-social behavior in childhood along with aggression, violence, criminal behavior and spousal and/or child abuse as an adult, as well as risky sexual behavior and a tendency to favor authoritarian solutions to social problems. It would be interesting to do a study on warmongering politicians to find out what percentage were spanked as children.
Apparently, spanking kids also makes them stupid. Professor Murray Straus from the University of New Hampshire tested the IQs of 806 children ages 2-4 and 704 ages 5-9; both groups were then retested four years later. The IQs of the spanked toddlers ages 2-4 dropped by 5 points, while the IQs of spanked kids ages 5-9 dropped up to 2.8 points. The IQs of kids who were not spanked stayed essentially the same. So if you want your kid to be less intelligent and more accepting of violence, spanking is the child-raising technique for you.
But there is something quite different about spanking consenting adults, even if they pretend to be children. What makes the Grand Ole Opry joke funny is that Oswald is getting ready to spank his wife; if we substituted “daughter” or “son” for “wife,” no one would be laughing, at least not in public. But everybody knows that, even if we think it’s a bit kinky, spanking adults can be fun. Moreover, therapeutic spanking with a trusted partner can help an adult who was spanked as a child to erotically transcend some of the negative effects of his or her traumatic childhood. Even if a consenting adult didn’t have a traumatic, abused childhood (and many, if not most, of us didn’t), recreational spanking can be more fun than a rollercoaster ride and a great way to channel natural violent, punitive impulses.
Therefore, I agree with Gore Vidal: “I’m all for bringing back the birch, but only between consenting adults.”
Erotic Spankings through History
How might I spank thee? Let me count the ways… The piquant, pain-laced pleasures of adult recreational spanking can range from light slaps on the rear, mixed with squeezes and caresses in the midst of lovemaking, to more elaborate, roleplay-rich, over-the-knee, panties down spankings, to a mistress or master whipping a whimpering slave’s reddened rear end with a riding crop. Serious sadomasochists might also use a cat o’ nine tails, leather or rubber whip, cane, paddle, switch, strap, belt, shoe, hairbrush, ruler, chain or Vidal’s beloved birch. On the other end of the sensation spectrum is the soft deerskin flogger which feels more like a silky waterfall, cascading luxuriantly across the buttocks, than any sort of pain.
The joys of spanking are prehistoric, even older than the human race. Bonobos, chimps and other animals enjoy playfully swatting each other’s hind quarters, sometimes as a prelude to sexual intercourse, sometimes to aggressively make a point, and sometimes just for the sheer Joie de la Fessée (as they say en français). Human cultures around the world have integrated the art of playful, non-punitive spanking into holidays and celebrations. No one is really sure where the tradition of greeting newborn babies with a welcoming spank into the world came from, though the idea is to get the kid to cry, discharging any after-birth-related gunk that might be obstructing the throat. Nor do we know precisely why each birthday is accompanied by more playful spanks to match the age of the birthday girl or boy (plus one to grow on!), though the practice may have begun with the very first birthdays celebrated on record in ancient Egypt.
One of the earliest depictions of spanking for pleasure is found in a sixth century BCE Etruscan burial site called the Tomba della Fustigazione—or “Tomb of Flogging”—after its depictions of eroticized flagellation. These may have been related to the pre-Roman holiday of Lupercalia, the original pagan Valentine’s Day which features light public spankings and whippings instead of (or in addition to) the traditional kisses and candy of our modern V-day. In Medieval times, with overt pagan pleasures denied them on pain of eternal damnation, Catholic saints and penitents indulged in auto-flagellation to reach states of mystical consciousness that bordered on the erotic. As a sex therapist, I’d surmise that at least some of these saints were “flogging the hog” and “spanking the monkey” in ecstasy as well as spanking and flogging their less erogenous zones in penance.
And it’s not just those slap-happy Italians. For thousands of years, Taoist Chinese have engaged in a similar ritual of spanking and whipping during the Spring Festivals of their lunar new year, the stated purpose of which is to get rid of “bad luck.” The Indian Kama Sutra contains multiple descriptions, in loving detail, of how to “strike” your partner’s buttocks, as well as other body parts, during sex. Tibetan monks have long whipped each other for medicinal and spiritual purposes. In Latvia, Sweden, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Czech Republic, it is customary for the young men to awaken the young ladies on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Shrove Tuesday or Easter Monday by dousing them with water and spanking them on the butt and legs with colorful Easter whips—called Pomlázka in Czech—and a Lupercalian sense of playfully aggressive good will.
In the 17th century, two German authors made their name in spanking research: the German physician Johann Heinrich Meibom, who wrote a best-selling treatise on the use of flogging as a medical and sexual stimulant, and German medical botanist and poet Kristian Frantz Paullini, whose Flagellum Salutis praised flagellation for its curative use in treating diseases as diverse as melancholia, paralysis, toothache, sleepwalking, deafness, and nymphomania, as well as for pleasure and sexual arousal.
French philosophers of the “Enlightenment” savored their spankings—les Fessées—like fine wines (or perhaps a well-sauced rump roast!), the Marquis de Sade being perhaps most extreme—having penned many of his more sadistic fantasies while imprisoned in the Bastille, where he was on the nonconsensual receiving end of such punishments. Another French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, spoke as “romantically” of spankings as he did regarding democratic government and social empowerment.
Of course, the British have long been known as major spankophiles, what with all those disciplinary nannies and schoolmasters, bad boys and naughty girls in knickers. Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), and George Orwell (1984’s horny citizenry were entertained by “Spanking Stories”) were just three of the more famous Brits who weren’t embarrassed to confess, more or less publicly, that they relished an honorably earned whack or 50 across the bare behind.
A few years later, across the Pond in Puritanical but exuberantly sexual America, fetish model Bettie Page was doing for spankings what Lauren Bacall had done for cigarettes: making them look a little edgy, but a whole lot of hot sexy fun.
Though there’s nothing new about erotic butt-whacking, lately it seems that multitudes—politicians, rocks stars, guests on my show, clients in my sex therapy practice, friends, lovers and millions of random folks I see on the Internet—want to spank and be spanked. Celebrity spankings appear to be on the rise, or maybe it’s just more acceptable to gossip about it. Madonna has long confessed to enjoying a little spanky with her hanky-panky. Actor Patrick Dempsey also freely admits to enjoying a good “spanking now and then.” Pop star Kei$ha told Paper Magazine she likes to pick guys up by buying them a drink and “spanking them.” And when Rihanna sang, “I like the way it hurts” with Eminem in “Love the Way You Lie,” she wasn’t kidding. “I like to be spanked,” naughty Rihanna confessed to Rolling Stone just before they slapped her luscious butt on the cover.
Coming out as a spanking enthusiast is more problematic when you’re in politics. Last year, one conservative California assemblyman, family-values crusader Mike Duvall of Yorba Linda, a married father of two, lost his job and derailed his entire political career over not just spanking a female utility company lobbyist 19 years his junior, but bragging about it in spanking-hot detail over a broadcast mike that he didn’t seem to realize was live.
What makes spanking so compelling that some people incorporate it into everyday culture while others destroy their careers over it? Why do some people so enjoy spanking and being spanked? Lots of reasons, which we can basically break down into two categories: physiological and psychological. It sounds simple, though often the two intertwine in the bodies and minds of the spankee and spanker, as I will now attempt to explain…so listen up—or I’ll make sure you can’t sit down!
Why Does Being Spanked FEEL Good (Physiologically)?
The butt is truly the “seat” of human pleasure, with lots of touch-responsive nerve endings that are in deliciously close proximity to the genitalia. To put it in physiological terms, spanking and other forms of butt play elicit “crosstalk” between afferent and efferent nerve tracts at the S2 spinal level (posterior superior iliac spine), where nerves supplying both the butt and the sexual organs enter and leave the spinal cord. Such crosstalk causes stimulation of the buttocks to trigger sexual arousal.
So the bottom is very sensitive to erotic pleasure, but because of all the padding—fat and/or muscle—that most of us have down there, it is not so sensitive to pain. Unlike a face, say, or a stomach, you have to whack a butt pretty hard before it really hurts. And long before he or she feels the smarting pain of that whack, a spankophile tends to feel the stimulation, the excitation, the catalyst to sexual pleasure.
For more masochistic spanking enthusiasts, the pain is part of the pleasure and the more it hurts, the better. It’s astounding how much walloping, searing pain masochistic spankees can tolerate, even relish, under the right circumstances. Indeed, the body’s biological reaction to pain is to send endorphins rising up within you, so the “bottom” can more easily handle the pain; this is why, physiologically speaking, the pain can feel like pleasure. Furthermore, in a “sensuous spanking,” pain and pleasure are felt in teasing tandem, as the spanks are interspersed with caresses, perhaps by touching the inner thighs and brushing against the genitals and anus. This kind of slow endorphin build-up can take the spankee into a trance-like “sub-space.” As the spanks get harder and the caresses more sensuous, and then back to even fiercer spanks, pain and pleasure mix into a delicious cocktail of arousal, struggle and the challenge to take whatever the spanker can give.
Personally, I love the physical sensation of a light spanking or flogging. It’s a real key in my ignition, gets my motor going, skin tingling, blood circulating and desire flowing…sometimes literally.
Why does spanking so often make the spankee seeping wet or rock hard, even when the spanking is nonconsensual and not consciously pleasurable? Increased blood flow to the pelvic region that accompanies spanking induces penile and clitoral erection and lubrication. This is why spanking enthusiasts sometimes say that their buns are “wired” to their genitals, referring to the lower inner portion of the buttocks as the “sweet spot.” Because of its proximity to the genitals, getting spanked on the sweet spot feels especially erotic. It’s also one of the reasons why young people are often mortified by their own aroused reaction to an unwanted spanking.
Assume the Position!
Another physical reason being spanked can arouse many people, whether they consciously “like” it or not, is that when one “assumes the position” for a spanking, one assumes the position for sex; at least for receiving sex. This bent over, bottoms-up stance is akin to the mammalian “lordosis” posture, which the female assumes to invite copulation from the male (in many species, on occasion, males also do this with males and females with females, proving that homosexuality is not just a human “perversity”).
Also stemming from our phylogenetic heritage as primates, another primordial sexual “releaser” is the reddening of the butt cheeks, as a result of a sound spanking. Blushing rose to bright crimson to neon pink hind quarters is the red flag of sexual fertility, especially in females. Of course, this reddening of the buns is more apparent to the spanker than the spankee.
The spankee can always see the results in a mirror. But during the spanking, the sheer mystery of what’s going on *back there*—on the side of your body that you can’t see too well and over which you feel considerably less sense of physical control, can be exciting. A big part of the joy of spanking, as with any BDSM activity, is voluntarily surrendering control (for the spankee) and wielding it (for the spanker).
Giving the Spanking
Which brings us from the bottoms-up…to the tops: The Doms, Dommes, Masters, Mistresses, Goddesses, Lords, Ladies, roleplaying Mommies, Daddies, Aunties, Nannies, governesses, schoolteachers, jockeys and drill instructors who like—or love with an enthusiasm that borders on rapture—to give the spankings, to wield the power, to feel the pleasure of those quivering buns beneath the palms of their controlling hands. Some spank professionally; others, just for fun. Still others practice spanking as an art form or spiritual path.
Just as the spankee experiences physiological pleasure, so does the spanker who may enjoy the visual appearance of the spankee, while relishing the tactile sensation of skin and fleshy muscle heating up against the palm of the hand—or the bottom of the foot.
Yes, you can spank someone with your foot. Sometimes I like to spank Max’s sexy butt with my foot while he’s going down on me. I also like to spank it with my hand while we’re having sex, stimulating him to pump me harder, like smacking a horse with a riding crop makes him gallop faster.
The Psychology of Spanking
Of course, the joys of spanking don’t just go on below the belt. Much of the pleasure and arousal is generated right between the ears and deep inside our hearts: with our erotic desires, fantasies and memories, in the G-spots of our minds.
When spanking involves roleplay, it entails “dominance and submission” (D/s)—the dynamics of power and surrender. D/s fantasies seem to be more and more in the news, pervading popular entertainment, in my sex therapy practice, around my bar and on my show, but they too are older than the human race, probably flowing through the erotic minds of our bonobo, chimpanzee and gorilla cousins. They can be crude or romantic, marvelous or dangerous. They may involve sadomasochism (S/M), bondage and discipline (B/D), spanking as roleplayful punishment, an imagined abduction, a fantasy “rape,” a “maintenance” spanking, over-the-knee paddling, whipping, flogging or caning. The setting for a spanking fantasy could be a childhood home, boarding school, boudoir, church or temple, office, party, military barracks, POW camp, the great outdoors, heaven, hell or another planet. In D/s spanking scenarios, being “bad”—whether you are the nasty Dom or the naughty sub—feels really good. It’s a trick of the imagination that turns the “good” status quo on its head in order to turn you on—and quite possibly to keep you sane.
Indeed, besides so-called disciplinary, erotic and sensual spanking, there is also therapeutic spanking, or “spanking therapy,” which is employed for its curative effects. The therapeutic power of a spanking or flogging may be primarily physical, like a good massage or brisk rubdown, but spanking therapy can also be deeply psychological, releasing the spankophile from all kinds of stress, guilt, shame and tension, much of it stemming from childhood. The best spanking therapy breaks through destructive, debilitating mental and sexual blocks, improving the mental well-being of both spankee and spanker.
In 2005, a team of Russian scientists led by Sergei Speransky found “whipping therapy” to be an effective prophylaxis against alcohol and drug abuse, depression, suicidal thoughts and psychosomatic diseases, due to the release of endorphins during and after spanking. Dr. Speransky recommends 30 sessions of 60 whip lashes on the buttocks in every session for maximum therapeutic effect. This “prescription” might sound rather sinister to spanking-sensitive ears, but if the patient agrees, enjoys and benefits, why not?
The Thrill of the Spank
Whether it’s good for the spankee or not, psychologically speaking, some people just like to give a good spanking. Power is a rush, in fantasy and reality, and spanking, even at a birthday party, gives you a certain power—the power to hurt, humiliate, heal or stimulate. Of course, power corrupts, especially in real life, where many people pursue physical power over others, often entering politics, police or military careers, “spanking” the populace with punitive laws and sadistic punishments, not to mention “spanking” smaller, relatively defenseless countries with bombs.
Others prefer to keep their power trips in their erotic imaginations or perhaps act them out through real-life roleplay. Some cultivate spanking as an art, deriving as much creative pleasure from giving a good spanking as a musician might from playing an instrument. And yes, there’s a fine line between making music and making love—and no, it’s not just because one of my favorite forms of spanking is Butt Bongo.
Dominance is traditionally considered a male prerogative, so it is most popular among young men who are relatively powerless in real-life society—perhaps by choice, though usually not—even though they have testosterone-pumping energy to spare. But more and more women are saying that they enjoy being dominant, “on top,” wielding a whip or even sprouting a penis (okay, Freud was right about some women having “penis envy”). This “penis” could be the obvious strap-on dildo, which many dominant women enjoy sporting, but the penis substitute could also be a phallic foot (as in the Bible, where the foot, leg or thigh is often used as a euphemism for the forbidden-to-pronounce male sex organ), or a hand, paddle, whip or flogger. Certainly, spanking is one arena in which women naturally dominate. Even though most adult men are stronger than the women who spank them, they submit to being spanked by women, perhaps because the first person to spank them was a woman.
Gary, one of my sex therapy clients, fits a dominant male profile: he’s a very bright, creative guy with a master’s degree in comparative literature who works as a computer salesman. Gary grew up in the Bible belt where the leather belt, as well as the paddle, the switch and other implements for “disciplinary” spanking are commonly used on children, often while belting out relevant Bible passages. Gary’s father beat him weekly, giving him hard, bare-bottom beltings that made him cry with pain and humiliation. Gary also watched his older sister receive the same abusive treatment, and he was torn by feelings of horror for her pain, excitement over her burgeoning sexuality, and relief that she was the one being punished, not him.
Such an upbringing could easily move a man toward violence and the abuse of his own children, his wife and/or other fellow humans, but Gary has managed to create a peaceful life for himself. As a teenager, he got into a few fights, but as an adult husband and father, he has learned—and continues to learn—self-control. He channels his violent impulses into playing out safe, but exciting, spanking scenes with his wife, Leah, who enjoys the thrill of submission. Together, they act out dark memories and fantasies. Leah might dress up schoolgirl-style—her signal that she wants to play–then Gary puts her over his knee and spanks her as a kind of foreplay, before they make love.
Gary still has many unresolved conflicts lingering from his rough, abusive upbringing, but he is determined never to be violent, certainly not with his own two young children. Spanking play with Leah helps him to express his feelings in a controlled way. Since Leah was also spanked as a child and went to a school that practiced corporal punishment, she too is working through her own sadomasochistic fantasies as she role-plays with Gary. For her, the critical difference between the spankings her father and school principal gave her and the ones she gets from Gary is consensuality. Indeed, in their spanking rituals, she is the one who asks for her discipline, choosing her husband’s hand, a paddle or a flogger, like a diner in a fine restaurant ordering exactly the dish she desires.
When playing consensual spanking games, it’s important for spankers to be responsible. Learn to spank properly so that you don’t do any real damage to your partner’s delicate body, and please don’t imagine that someone secretly wants to be spanked when they tell you they don’t. When in doubt, build up speed and power slowly, gradually, teasingly, especially when spanking a new partner. And always be ready to back off if your bottom cries “mercy,” or whatever safeword you’ve agreed upon.
Psychology of Being Spanked
It’s easy to see why some people enjoy spanking others, but why do some like to submit to a spanking? It’s certainly not all Stockholm Syndrome. As a therapist, I hear many more fantasies of spanking submission than dominance, from both men and women. That’s partly because private therapy is expensive, and the men and women who can afford it tend to be successful professionals who dominate and figuratively “spank” others in real life. Nature seeks a balance, often finding it through our erotic fantasy life, making otherwise dominant people long to surrender, to get spanked by someone else’s passion and power, and to give up a bit of their own.
Many harried executives go to dommes for spankings, just as their colleagues might go to the spa for a massage. They lie across the spanker’s lap or over a comfortable leather spanking bench, surrendering control for a brief period in their busy, power-packed day or week, taking a mini vacation from real-life stress and the responsibility of being in charge, perhaps a time trip back into a childhood or adolescence under someone else’s control. Since society puts so much pressure on us to achieve and avoid being “spanked” (literally and figuratively) at all costs, deep in our secret erotic imaginations, many high-achievers long to surrender, to be spanked for their inevitable shortcomings, not to mention their sins. Here again is where spanking becomes therapy, or even a spiritual pursuit.
Spank Me, Mommy/Daddy! I’ve Been Bad…
Not every child grows into adulthood, but every adult was once as child. Most of us feel some sense of longing for the so-called “innocence” of that childhood, whether we were spanked or spoiled. Cognitively speaking, being spanked tends to make us feel child-like, which can be a very liberating, exciting feeling for us as reluctantly responsible grown-ups.
This doesn’t mean that only people who were spanked as children enjoy being spanked as adults. On the contrary, it’s much more complex than that. Some of us love to be spanked just because we weren’t as children. As a sex therapist, I’ve heard thousands of stories of how being spanked as a child led to an adult spanking fetish, and I have encountered even more individuals who were not spanked as children, but enjoy the erotic rush of child-like feelings they get from being spanked as adults. They may become aroused from feeling helpless, vulnerable, punished, submissive, embarrassed, desirable, mischievous, naughty, playful or just being the center of attention.
To spank is to pay attention. To be spanked is to command that attention, even if it hurts.
A Personal Spanking Memory…or Fantasy?
I don’t remember being spanked more than once when I was a kid, but oh, that once! I was about six and, like most six-year-old girls, I loved my Daddy. He loved me too, but he didn’t tend to show his love physically. So when he spanked me that one time, I was thrilled by the attention, as well as the simple touch of his big strong hand on my excitable bottom. I remember him pulling me out of a large family dinner, after some egregious offense on my part, as my 10-year-old brother tagged along. I was wearing a party dress with a stiff crinoline slip underneath the skirt, and I remember the whole works flying rapturously up over my head as Daddy pulled me over his knee and spanked me in front of said older brother, who was laughing and cheering him on. Of course, this was extremely embarrassing, but also, I must admit, thrilling. He didn’t spank me hard; at least I don’t remember feeling any pain. If anything, my bottom just tingled with excitement. In fact, despite—or because of—my embarrassment, I was laughing along with my brother and Dad. From that point on, I much preferred spanking to other punishments. Sometimes I would beg my parents to spank me for my many various misdeeds, instead of the much more tedious punishment of being grounded or the more guilt-inducing penalty of a stern reprimand. Wisely, they never did.
Moreover, when, as an adult, I questioned my father and brother about their perceptions of my 6-year-old spanking experience, both swore up and down that it never happened at all. Of course, it’s in both of their best interests to take this position. Nevertheless, despite the vivid intensity of the memory, I really have to wonder if I made the whole thing up.
The English philosopher John Richter said, “Fantasy rules over two-thirds of the universe, the past and the future, while reality is confined to the present.” It’s no wonder our memory often “plays tricks” on us, especially when it comes to spanking.
© July 14 2011, 2016 Susan Block, Ph.D., a.k.a. “Dr. Suzy,” is a world renowned LA sex therapist, author of The Bonobo Way: The Evolution of Peace through Pleasure and horny housewife, occasionally seen on HBO and other channels. For speaking engagements, call 310-568-0066.
Spanking Gallery Photos below taken at Dr. Suzy’s Speakeasy by Alex Saglimbeni, Michael Vegas, JuxLii, Paul Blieden, Mike Paisner, Mike C, Jes Andrade, Lisa Villareal, Andy Martin, Felix Foto, Jimi Devine and MMB. Find X-rated photos at DrSusanBlock.tv
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