We yearn to understand why we are the way we are, especially in emotionally-laden areas like sexuality.
We wonder: Why am I interested in spanking? Why do I want to spank or be spanked? These are natural, universal questions.
If you have a theory about why you are interested in spanking, and it makes you feel good, that’s all you need. But if you are curious about what other people think, especially the people who claim to be experts, here is a summary.
Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am a family doctor, not a mental health specialist. Another disclaimer: there is a lot of jargon in this discussion. So feel free to click to another page if you don’t want to get into the weeds.
Freud versus the world
I divide mental health specialists into two groups. One group’s beliefs are drawn from the peculiar theories of Sigmund Freud, and their most exalted form of therapy is Freudian psychoanalysis. I call them the analysts. They are very interested in what makes you tick, because they believe that they serve you best by helping you gain insight into the cause of your problems. This understanding is your best weapon against the problems themselves. Fifty years ago, almost every analyst in the United States was a medical doctor who specialized in psychiatry. Now, there are many analysts who are not doctors. But all believe that Freud, while imperfect, was right about the fundamentals of our psyches.
The other group is everyone else, however trained, and of whatever theoretical persuasion. It includes psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurse therapists, pastoral counselor, and others. People in this practical group reject Freud’s ideas, and their chief goal in working with you is to help you cope better with life as you experience it in the here and now. They are less interested in theory than in what works, which is why I call them the pragmatists.
Back to our question: why are you fascinated by spanking? An analyst will have a ready answer for this; a pragmatist may not, and not because he or she isn’t well trained.
If you seek help from a pragmatist, they will probably not care very much about the origin of any of your problems. Their goal is to reduce your burdens—to improve your functioning in school or on the job, to foster better relationships, or to improve your sexual function. As Dworkin says, “Short-term therapists tend to take a client’s self-described problem at face value; they believe using common sense and good humor to fix a client’s problem—in the fashion of a friend—is a legitimate goal of therapy. They think significant psychological change can occur in the experience of day-to-day living by simply behaving or thinking differently” (Dworkin 2012). The pragmatists don’t dwell on your past unless there is a clear link to your current problems.
Freud blames your childhood
In contrast, most analysts, following Freud, believe that an adult interest in spanking is invariably caused by your being physically punished at a time in childhood of active psychic sexual development. Analysts also believe that past experiences are the key to understanding the present, and that you can change from maladaptive to effective behavior only after you understand the source of your problems. Most analysts consider a strong interest in spanking to be a significant problem in and of itself.
Analysts therefore see the origins of your interest in spanking as an important issue. To my knowledge, most of the people who write about analytic treatment consider spanking to be as an indistinguishable part of the sexual practices commonly known as BDSM. When the theoreticians speak of BDSM, they intend their comments to apply to spanking as well as other forms of BDSM. I therefore take their comments about BDSM as equivalent to their opinion about where your spanking interest originates.
…and so does E.L. James
The analytic hypotheses about spanking, with their Freudian foundations, are sometimes reflected in contemporary life. Popular culture laughs at mild spanking as a harmless kink, but presents a strong interest in spanking as abnormal. E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey (James, 2011) illustrates this well.
This bestseller presents Christian Grey, the heroine’s lover, as trapped in an emotional twilight. He was physically abused as a child, and an older woman forced him into a BDSM relationship when he was a teenager. As a result, he grew into an emotionally crippled adult. Much of the book depicts Grey’s struggle to overcome his unhealthy obsession and learn to experience normal, BDSM-free, sex and love. James thus echoes Freudian pronouncements that anyone who engages in spanking is recapitulating early experiences of suffering and loss of control, and must outgrow this fixation to be happy.
In Fifty Shades, James suggests that a man who wants to be cured of his obsession with BDSM could just find a good woman to love him, instead of spending years with an analyst. Freud would beg to differ. But James and Freud agree on the origin of an adult fascination with spanking, and I consider each equally untrustworthy.
I know of no attempt by an expert to rebut the Freudian conviction that adult spanking is the product of childhood sexual trauma. Yet there is reason to believe that this Freudian theory does not apply to you and me. I’ll explain my reasoning, and you can judge for yourself.
What might a therapist say?
If you seek help from a therapist, of any school, it is because you are in pain. You might be depressed, anxious, or confused; unhappy in school, in work, or in love; too distant from your family or too intimate with drugs and alcohol; unable to get an erection or reach an orgasm.
Pragmatists are largely indifferent to the cause of your problems, and consider hidden childhood events irrelevant to the practical goal: to get you feeling and functioning better. If you disclose your interest in spanking to a pragmatic therapist, he or she will want to know what role spanking plays in your life. If your relationships are enriched by spanking, the therapist is likely to say, “Good for you,” and move on. If the spanking is causing problems, the therapist will work with you to ameliorate those problems. The cause of your interest in spanking doesn’t matter.
Pragmatic therapists don’t care why you love spanking. They consider the cause irrelevant.
Analysts think they have the answer…
In contrast, analysts believe that causation is critical. To an analyst, it is a matter of faith that if you have difficulty as an adult, that proves that you had issues as a child. From your present problems, the analyst deduces their childhood antecedents and your current, hidden, motivations. Because your motivations are unconscious, you are unaware of them, but the therapist sees them clearly.
So if you disclose your interest in spanking to an analyst, he or she will probably speculate about how your interest arose. I say “probably” because analysts have unlimited latitude to conduct each patient’s analysis as they see fit; this reflects the unscientific foundations of analytic therapy (for more on this, see Webster, 1995).
This methodological indeterminacy allows analysts to incorporate their individual beliefs and prejudices, no doubt sometimes unconsciously (!), into their therapeutic practice. An analyst who has no spanking interest of his or her own, and who finds your interest in spanking frightening or disgusting, is likely to deem it an important problem to be addressed during your treatment.
The situation will be different if your analyst finds spanking arousing. This may lead to a much more supportive approach to your spanking interests, or negativity if the analyst is frightened by his own interest in spanking. There is, of course, no empirical research on how an analyst’s personal feeling toward spanking influences his or her psychotherapeutic approach with a patient who is interested in spanking; but analytic theoreticians consistently assert that the analyst’s own reaction to what the patient says is an important part of the analysis.
There are bound to be other individual differences in how analysts approach your interest in spanking. But psychoanalytic theory is adamant that an adult interest in spanking is abnormal, and that it’s the analyst’s duty to find out why you are interested in spanking.
Sometimes the answer appears obvious. Were you sexually abused as a child? Then your interest in spanking is a reaction to that. Was your mother over-controlling? Then if you want to spank, it’s a way to try to regain control. If you want to be spanked, that’s a way to replay and try to overcome the powerlessness you felt as a child. And if you want to both spank and be spanked? No problem! You have issues with power and you’re ambivalent about how you want to re-enact them.
…they think they have an answer for everything…
You may believe that you had a happy childhood and conscientious parents. Most analysts will argue that if your parents had done a good job and your childhood had been normal, you wouldn’t be interested in spanking now. Therefore you had problems, and your interest in spanking is a valuable clue to their nature. You may, for instance, feel an unconscious need to be punished. For men, this could be a result of their childhood feeling of rivalry with their father and desire to sexually possess their mother. Freud created this bizarre theory; it’s called the Oedipus complex. Freud believed that women had a parallel complex, wishing to get rid of their mother so they could possess their father (the Electra complex).
You may object that this theory is ridiculous and that you experience spanking as a sexual drive akin to your desire to engage in intercourse or oral sex. In theory, the analyst could agree with you; there are schools of analytic thought that would take your view seriously. Often, however, your objection will only egg the analyst on, who will explain patiently that your dismissal of this theory suggests that it hits the nail on the head. This is the elegant (and maddening) Catch 22 of the analytic method: if you question the analyst’s interpretation of how your unconscious works, your objection, now re-labeled “defensiveness,” proves that the analyst is correct.
…whether they are right is another question
In this manner, and with variations reflecting the analyst’s school and the patient’s circumstances, every analyst can find an explanation for every patient who is fascinated with spanking or being spanked. After decades of imaginative thought by hundreds of analysts treating thousands of patients with an interest in spanking, the analytic profession is confident: your interest in spanking is the result of childhood abnormalities in emotional development. Any spanking that you engage in as an adult is an attempt to deal with your arrested development, and will only make your adult problems worse.
Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and some small part of the analysts’ theory may be true, and helpful, for some patients. I do know some people who suffered trauma as children and are preoccupied with spanking as adults. But for most adults who are interested in spanking, this is simply untrue.
The error in the analysts’ reasoning is their conclusion that what is true for some of their patients is true for all patients, and, beyond that, that it applies to people who are not patients at all. The fisherman knows more about sardines than falcons.
Joel Paris: reformed analyst
Joel Paris was trained as an academic psychoanalyst. In his remarkable book, Fall of an Icon: Psychoanalysis and Academic Psychiatry, he describes his gradual disillusionment.
I had been trained to believe that personality disorders were mainly the result of an unhappy childhood. Therefore, the job of the therapist was to discover these connections and explain them to the patient. Relationships between past and present problems in a patient’s life create what psychiatrists call a ‘psychodynamic formulation.’ In this exercise, current conflicts are understood as a reaction to and repetition of past events. As a young faculty member, I quickly became a master of the formulation game. It was tempting to demonstrate my virtuosity to students, impressing them, much as I had been impressed by my own teachers. Over time, however, I began to wonder if being clever was the same as being right. It is all too easy to find childhood traumas in people’s histories. I could probably pick anyone off the street, with or without symptoms, and pinpoint a few. Analytic theory also had fudge factors (such as repression and denial) to account for troubled patients who stubbornly insisted that their childhood had been happy. (p. 147)
Does childhood trauma explain our adult selves? Here is his take.
Many patients report childhood adversities and trauma. Yet, if one keeps an open mind, one observes others with the same symptoms who report nothing unusual about their early life. Moreover, patients with minor problems can report the same childhood experiences as those with severe problems. The impact of adversity depends on the individual. Research strongly confirms this conclusion. For example, only 20 percent of people who have been sexually abused as children experience serious problems later in life. People with terrible childhoods can turn out to be normal adults, and some people with serious problems have had a normal childhood. (p. 150)
Paris thinks that our lives are not explained by the straightforward narrative imposed by analytic theory.
Since Freud, analysts have been telling dramatic tales about the life-long consequences of childhood events. Most people prefer simple explanations, and these ideas are appealing. … The true course of human life is complex and chaotic. No connections can be taken for granted and nothing in development is straightforward. (p. 151)
Robert Stoller went out into the world
The only analyst I know of who used people who were not patients for his research into BDSM is Robert Stoller. He left the comfort of his office to talk with people in the community who were interested in BDSM. He went to local BDSM clubs and interviewed their owners and employees, who were professional dominants and submissives.
Stoller thought that, because these people did not feel sick or in need of professional help, they represented typical people with kinky sexual preferences. I grant that these people did not feel they were sick and in need of professional help. But they are completely unrepresentative of the people who enjoy spanking in the midst of busy, ordinary lives.
Stoller is careful to note how limited his sample is, careful not to generalize beyond the people he interviewed. But Stoller doesn’t know about, and his work does not mention, the nurses, ministers, and paralegals who enjoy spanking. For these people, spanking is a wonderful part of their lives. Some of them haven’t a clue that there are actually clubs where you can pay to be spanked, and they certainly have no interested in becoming patrons.
Limitations of Stoller’s work
Stoller’s work contributes to our understanding of the lives of BDSM club owners and employees. But it cannot inform us about the people he did not interview, and there is no reason to believe that the background and emotional makeup of the smaller group provides insights into the lives of the larger. His theories tell us nothing about why you and I are interested in spanking.
Yet Stoller is cited as an important contribution to analytic theory about the origins of an interest in spanking—theory that an analyst is at liberty to apply to you. The analyst is also likely to draw on theories developed during the course of treatment of people whose spanking interests were in fact problematic.
If you’re interested in spanking, Stoller and the other analytic theoreticians have thus created a collection of theories that create for you a pathologized present based on a fictitious past. This is the analysts’ position.
The pragmatists and analysts are natural enemies, competing for patients and money, and deprecating each other’s methods and outcomes. If a professional group were to oppose the analysts’ theories about the causes of spanking, it would be the pragmatists.
The pragmatists don’t give a damn
But most pragmatic theorists never enter the debate, because they simply don’t care. If you as a patient ask a pragmatic therapist why you are interested in spanking, a reasonable answer would be, “Nobody knows—and anyway, it doesn’t matter.”
I have not surveyed the field with care, but my impression is that only a few pragmatists have addressed the question of spanking’s origins, and that a significant fraction of these authors are personally involved in spanking or related activities. Their personal involvement may give them valuable insights, but other pragmatists do not seem to have embraced their position. There is, to my knowledge, no widely accepted rebuttal to the analysts’ theories about spanking’s origins. There is also no evidence that the pragmatists agree with the analysts.
It’s up to you
When the experts cannot agree about why you are interested in spanking, it’s up to you to make a choice. I suggest that if you find a theory that helps you understand your life, that’s great. The theory may be unproven, but if it helps you, I don’t care.
But if there’s a theory that brands you as defective, reject it. An expert who asserts that everyone’s interest in spanking must be due to a specific cause is ignorant. A therapist who claims to have discovered the cause of your interest in spanking, and blames it on unconscious processes that seem unreal and childhood experiences that you don’t remember, isn’t helping you. He is writing science fiction. Find another therapist.
Few things in the complex world of human sexuality have a single, consistent explanation. For a parallel problem, look at analysts’ attempts through the years to find a universal explanation for homosexuality in overbearing mothers and distant fathers. Those theories have been debunked. They were wrong about homosexuality, and they’re wrong about spanking.
Nobody knows why one person becomes gay and another straight. No researcher has explained why an individual is aroused by a particular gender, body feature, or personality characteristic. We are not sexual in the abstract; our libido is channeled into specific desires, and no scientist has shown how or when this channeling takes place.
The challenge of explanation is redoubled by the fact that spanking itself is not a single activity. People can be attracted to spanking for sexual and nonsexual reasons. A sexual interest in it take many forms, and it can emerge at any age: some people remember being fascinated by spanking when they were in kindergarten; others do not discover this interest until they are in their fifties (Kolmes, 2006, p.312). Surely there is more than one process at play. That’s not surprising with a force as powerful and poorly understand as sexuality. We just don’t know how our sexuality is formed.
From a mystery
Let’s enlarge our focus from spanking to the larger question of why we are who we are more generally.
Lydia Maria Child, the nineteenth century activist and novelist, speaking of her own fearlessness, once said, “Whence came it? I did not acquire it. But the ‘whence? how? whither?’ of our inward life must always be answered, ‘From a mystery; in a mystery; to a mystery’” (Child, 1883, letter to Convers Francis from 1838).
130 years later, our inward lives remain largely unknown. We serve ourselves better by accepting that mystery than by enduring explanations that diminish and injure us.
Fortunately, although we are curious, we do not have to know whence our interest in spanking springs. It is enough to know that it is part of our humanity.
References and further reading
Child, Lydia Maria, Letters of Lydia Maria Child, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1883.
Dworkin, Ronald W, “Psychotherapy and the Pursuit of Happiness,” The New Atlantis, Number 35, Spring 2012, pp. 69-83.
James, E.L., 50 Shades of Grey, Vintage Books, 2011.
Kolmes, Keely, Wendy Stock, and Charles Moser, Investigating Bias in Psychotherapy with BDSM Clients, 50 Journal of Homosexuality 301-324 (2006).
Paris, Joel. Fall of an Icon: Psychoanalysis and Academic Psychiatry. University of Toronto Press, 2005.
Seidman, Steven, The Social Construction of Sexuality, 2nd edition. Norton, New York, 2010.
Stoller, Robert. Pain and Passion: A Psychoanalyst Explores the World of S&M. Plenum Press, New York, 1991.
Webster, Richard. Why Freud was Wrong: Sin, Science, and Psychoanalysis. Basic Books, New York, 1995.
Weeks, Jeffrey, Sexuality. Tavistock, London, 1986.