Trigger warning for Hurts Me More Than You series: posts in this series may include detailed descriptions of corporal punishment and physical abuse and violence towards children.
Additional trigger warning for Lynn’s story: descriptions of sexual arousal due to corporal punishment.
“Whoever spares the rod hates his son” Proverbs 13:24
“For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives.” Hebrews 12:6
From my earliest memories, love and pain have been inter-mingled. Hugs, kisses, painful blows, and stinging words blur one into the other. As a child I was taught both explicitly and implicitly that love and pain are opposite sides of a single coin.
One cannot exist without the other, because, children are so very, very bad.
In our Christian, homeschool family, multiple spankings a day were a normal part of life for me and my four siblings. Dowels, wooden spoons, belts and those slender, flexible, rods used to open and close mini blinds were all instruments of punishment. Our pastor taught a lot about “biblical discipline”: the spanking should hurt (a lot); you should never hit your child in anger; you should not hit them anywhere but the buttocks; your child should feel loved and reconciled afterward.
He also taught that “biblical discipline” sometimes leaves “little marks” even hours after the punishment is inflicted. He assured his congregation that this does not amount to abuse.
However, even these harsh teachings failed to line up with what I experienced at home.
My dad almost always spanked us in anger, often smacked us in the face (giving me a bloody lip on a few occasions) and occasionally used his large carpenter’s fingers to flick us repeatedly on the head until we screamed. Sometimes the spankings would go on for what seemed like forever. The one time my mom tried to intervene, my dad screamed at her to leave. She later apologized to the whole family for being an unsubmissive wife.
The worst part of the abuse was not the physical pain, but the constant anxiety. I couldn’t protect my siblings, and I couldn’t be perfect enough to avoid deserving punishment, so I lived in fear of the next mistake. My dad loved the fact that he could produce such fear. He would sometimes stomp up the stairs shouting, “Let the beatings begin!” carrying a heavy wooden mallet from my great grandfather’s farm. He never hit us with it, but he enjoyed seeing the terror in our eyes. He delighted in telling stories of how he had hurt or scared other children. I believe my father is a sadist.[i] Perhaps it shouldn’t be at all surprising that he raised a masochist.
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t aroused by images, descriptions or fantasies of being spanked, hit, or beaten. However, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that the physical sensations I had been experiencing since I was a small child had anything to do with sex.
I was very young when the fantasies began—no older than six or seven. I lived in a world full of pain (but not pain worthy of anyone’s attention), so I dreamed of the only different worlds I could imagine. In one, I was in an orphanage, or had been kidnapped, or was a slave. I was terribly mistreated. Unlike what I experienced at home, the abuse in my fantasies was obviously bad enough to justifying running away or someone else coming to my rescue. I wanted desperately to be rescued.
In the other fantasies, there was finally someone who punished me out of love, the way my pastor said they should—someone who genuinely hated causing me pain, but did it because they loved me so very deeply. This was always a man whom I admired, trusted, and desired to please (unlike my father). I always felt deeply ashamed of my need to be punished, but willingly subjected myself to his loving blows. In these fantasies I felt safer, happier, and more loved than I ever did in real life. This was the closest thing to emotional intimacy that fit into my worldview.
I thought I was imagining the way my father was supposed to treat me.
When I entertained these fantasies, my body always reacted to the images of being beaten or shamed. I thought this is how everyone’s body responded to fear and shame. Both of my fantasy worlds seemed so much better than my reality that I loved them. But I also felt guilty for experiencing pleasure from scenarios that were so similar to what I hated most about my own life. Real life spankings were terrifying, painful and humiliating. Why did I willingly relive them over and over and over again? Still, it never entered my mind to think that my physical reaction was not a normal response to fear, guilt and shame. My family never talked about sex. My mom gave me the barest of details when I was 14, but I had never even heard of sexual arousal, much less had any idea of what it might feel like.
My first clue that my reaction was abnormal came when I was a sophomore in college. The first time my boyfriend put his arm around my shoulders, I felt the same physical sensation I had always experienced when thinking about being punished. I was surprised, but I chalked it up to being slightly afraid and feeling incredibly guilty for letting him “go too far.”
Later, I experienced my first orgasm while having a nightmare about being spanked. I wasn’t entirely sure that what I had felt was sexual, since I was still almost completely clueless about sex, and there was nothing overtly sexual about my dream as far as I understood at the time. However, I began to suspect that something was wrong.
After I got married and became sexually active, my suspicions were confirmed. I became incredibly conflicted about sex. I loved the physical sensations and feeling so close to my husband, but the only way to climax was to allow the images of abuse to flood through my mind whenever I started to feel aroused. I could fight them off, but doing so took so much mental energy that it distracted me. When I did allow them to come, the enjoyment was always mixed with revulsion at the imagines in my head. By this time, I had come to believe that my parents’ “discipline” was actually abusive and that the idea that someone must hurt me to truly love me was a lie.
I hated feeling aroused by those images. I had no idea how to maintain a healthy sex life.
Today, six years into marriage, I still struggle. I already deal with nightmares about not being able to protect myself and my siblings from my dad. I don’t want to have daydreams of the same. However, I have been in therapy for the past nine months, and I hold on to hope that perhaps one day I will be free of the chains.
I strongly believe that frequent spankings and the message that love requires causing pain to the object of one’s love—both of which are so prevalent in conservative homeschooling circles—played a significant role in the development of this disorder.[ii] After all, who could ever think that repeatedly hitting a child on an erogenous zone of the body would not have a sexual impact?
I cannot be sure that I would have had the same reaction if the spanking in my family had not been as abusive as it was, or if I had not tried to imagine the “loving spanking” that my pastor promised. Personally, I don’t think any of the supposed benefits of are worth the risk.[iii] However, even if it isn’t interpreted sexually, the message that “someone who doesn’t hurt me doesn’t love me” is an extremely toxic.
It prepares young victims who already believe the lies that every abuser is waiting to tell them.
[i] I am using the term “sadist” loosely. I know that my dad enjoys causing fear and pain to children, but I don’t know the nature of that pleasure. While I suspect that it is sexual, I have no direct proof of this.
[ii] When arousal from physical pain or humiliation, or fantasies of such things, causes significant distress to the individual, it is considered a paraphilic disorder.
[iii] I personally think that hitting any person of any age on any part of their body is wrong unless it is in self-defense or the defense of someone else.