Sexual conservatives view sexuality as dangerous—something to be feared and controlled. Marty Klein has written a book about America’s panicky obsession with our carnality—America’s War on Sex: The Continuing Attack on Law, Lust, and Liberty—it’s wonderful. You might also check out his website at Marty Klein.
Our sex-phobic society is no problem if all you want is procreational penis-in-vagina after your wedding vows have been solemnized by the spiritual leader of your choice. Otherwise, you are in trouble, and it’s up to you to save yourself! Fortunately, you are not alone in your struggle. I believe that most people reject that prudish and destructive ideal.
Let’s talk about how society came to be so hostile to sexuality.
The social control of sexuality
We are born sexual, but how that impulse expresses itself varies from one society to the next. Society, in other words, determines much, but not everything, about how we are sexual. It’s a fascinating issue. Understanding it has helped me feel freer about my own sexual feelings and behavior.
We’ll begin by reviewing how society attempts to control our sexuality, in part by splitting sexual activities into those favored activities that are deemed healthy and moral, and those that are considered sick and immoral. There are few absolutes in human sexuality. I want you to see how relativistic all of these judgments are. It will spring you loose from your sexual assumptions.
We express sexuality in an infinite variety of ways. We masturbate alone, coupled, or in a group. We kiss, fondle, squeeze, spank, and penetrate. We partner with people who consider themselves to be of our gender, of the other gender, or who reject the concept of gender entirely. We try erotic positions garnered from the Kama Sutra or Cosmopolitan. We use vibrators, dildos, and the occasional necktie. Which of these activities are healthy and normal, and which are sick and abnormal? It depends on whom you ask. And, more generally, it depends on where and when you live.
Our assumptions about sex are culturally-specific. We assume that sex between family members is wrong. Other societies, at other times, have seen things differently, requiring the former and prohibiting the latter.
Societies change. Fifty years ago, people joked about the wedding night, when bride and groom had their first encounter with sex–usually as a disaster. Now that virginity is an endangered behavior, it’s been years since I heard one of those jokes.
We do have to control it somehow
Experts agree that sexuality has to be kept in check—to at least some extent—but how is it to be regulated? Individuals regulate their own sexuality. They choose what to do, when, and with whom, making compromises between desire and restraint. Society attempts to regulate sexuality in a variety of ways, including law, religion, medicine, and cultural norms; some of these are incorporated by individuals in their self-regulation, others are rejected.
One obvious form of self-regulation is the general assumption that partners in a marriage will resist the urge to be sexual outside of the marriage. Everyone recognizes that this is not always easy. But self-regulation occurs within the marriage itself, as the couple allow themselves to be more sexually adventurous, or hew closer to their comfort zone.
We have seen the change in social attitudes toward homosexuality, as reflected in public policy and the law, over recent decades. Homosexual sex, once illegal, is now permitted. Homosexual marriage, once unthinkable, is gaining ground. President Obama has ordered that the same-sex partners of federal employees will be entitled to the benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. These changes are obvious for all to see.
What is less obvious is that not only homosexuality, but every other aspect of our sexual lives, is given approval or disapproval through a social process. Out of the infinite ways in which we can express our sexuality, society approves of some and condemns others. But society is fickle, as the example of homosexuality demonstrates, and what was once considered sick is sometimes now seen as healthy.
So is spanking sick? Or healthy? What’s society’s judgment on that?
It depends in part on what society you’re a part of. Ronald Moglia, who is an associate professor of applied psychology at NYU, has seen how BDSM is viewed in the United States and Denmark. Both countries have BDSM clubs like the Eulenspiegel Society in New York. “It’s phenomenally different. Eulenspiegel has to be subdued and quiet, whereas the Danish group is considered a social organization and gets funding from the government, as does every other social organization. It’s got to create a difference in self-esteem.” (Brame, Different Loving, 1993 p. 14, from interview with Dr. Ronald Moglia)
Giving moral value to sexual acts
Let’s look more carefully at how we, as individuals and as a society, create the meaning and moral status of specific sexual behaviors. I’m going to start with a variety of sexual practices, then move to a more detailed of homosexuality in the next section. Once we understand how society constructs sexuality, we will be able to address the ways in which mental health professionals, who are, after all, members of society, define normality and deviance. At that point we’ll be able to understand the psychology of spanking at a deeper level. This discussion focuses on the United States, but similar processes are at work in every society.
Humans have always been sexual creatures, but the ways we express our sexuality are socially constructed and judged. In plain English, that means that society has certain ideas about what sexual ideas and behavior is OK, and what is not. (For a fascinating description of this process, see Steven Seidman’s The Social Construction of Sexuality.) A cultural understanding is embodied in what society considers healthy or sick, what it deems moral or immoral, and what it uses the law to protect or punish. As the distinguished British sociologist Jeffrey Weeks noted, “sexuality is something which society produces in complex ways. It is a result of diverse social practices that give meaning to human activities, . . . to struggles between those who have power to define and regulate, and those who resist. Sexuality is not given, it is a product of negotiation, struggle.” (Weeks, 1986, p. 26)
This struggle has been ongoing since the beginning of recorded history. As Berkowitz comments, in his fascinating history of sex and the law,
Since the earliest periods of recorded history, lawmakers have tried to set boundaries on how people take their sexual pleasures, and they have doled out a range of controls and punishments to enforce them, from the slow impalement of unfaithful wives in Mesopotamia to the sterilization of masturbators in the United States. At any given point in time, some forms of sex and sexuality have been encouraged while others have been punished without mercy. Jump forward or backward a century or two, or cross a border, and the harmless fun of one society becomes the gravest crime of another. (Berkowitz, 2012).
Berkowitz comments, “there are in fact no ‘eternal’ or ‘natural’ sex laws. What is contrary to nature for one group can be a blessing for others.” (Berkowitz, 2012)
The contemporary law of sexuality governing which behaviors are permitted or forbidden was “created by ancient peoples who legitimized their rules by claiming that they originated in heaven.” (Berkowitz, 2012)
Restricting sexuality as a mark of group identity
An important source of today’s laws stems back more than two millennia. “From about 1047 to 597 BC, a collection of contentious Hebrew tribes had held unsteady control over coastal land in Palestine, where they lived by their own religious law. The early Jews developed their legal system with a view to surviving in a region filled with other ethnic tribes, with whom they were at war; but the true accomplishment of their laws was to differentiate the Hebrews by imposing the stamp of ‘Jewishness’ on just about everything they did. Integral to that sensibility was an intense preoccupation with restricting sexual activity.”
Jewish law could have been a minor contributor to today’s sexual mores, but Judaism gave rise to Christianity and Islam. “Had Christians not gained real political power, they would be remembered as an austere sect. Their insistence on the conflict between the body (which craves sex) and the spirit (which sex destroys) would be a point of historical interest, nothing more.” But the Christians created much of Western civilization. As a result, “from the reign of Emperor Constantine to the present, the Christian notion that sexual love brings spiritual death has been the cornerstone of Western sex law.” (Berkowitz, 2012) Sometimes it brought physical death as well; during the Spanish Inquisition, “Several men were burned for having anal intercourse with their wives .” (Berkowitz, 2012)
Even after executions for deviant marital intercourse fell out of favor, the social (and medical) response to deviant sexuality continued. “Starting in about 1850 and continuing for well over a century, American physicians lawfully and forcibly sterilized about sixty-three thousand people. … Between 1893 and 1898, doctors at one Kansas mental asylum severed the testicles of forty-four masturbating male inmates and performed hysterectomies on fourteen self-abusing females.” (Berkowitz, 2012)
Science’s fumbling entrance
For millennia, the control of sexuality was a matter for the law and the church. Science entered the fray in the nineteenth century, when researchers like Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) identified variations from what they considered normal sexuality. Krafft-Ebing’s magnum opus, Psychopathia Sexualis, first published in 1886, drew on 45 case studies to construct a taxonomy of abnormal sexuality. His belief—that sexually there is a normal majority and an abnormal minority—was not proven, or even discussed. It was simply assumed. Krafft-Ebing’s conclusions, both explicit and implicit, were crippled by his ignorance about the sexual variability of ordinary people, but they remained unchallenged for many years.
Society tends to see sexuality in black and white terms, with closely linked social judgments of sickness, immorality, and criminality. In theory, a sexual act could be considered healthy and still be illegal, or sick but still morally acceptable, but examples are not thick on the ground. The general rule, therefore, is that disfavored sexualities are considered criminal, immoral, and mentally ill: all three entwined.
Vanilla sexuality unchained
“Vanilla” sexuality is whatever sexuality is customary and accepted just now. It changes! As I write this, it includes oral sex, intercourse, and other conventional sexual acts. Anal sex was once considered deviant; now it is coming on strong. Masturbation is more or less vanilla. Spanking is not. But much sexuality we consider vanilla was once criminalized and scorned as immoral.
Before we could dream of being free to write, talk about, and engage in spanking, and other forms of sexuality that are important only to a minority of the population, vanilla sex itself had to be liberated.
In 1900 masturbation was considered an immoral and dangerous act that could lead to devastating physical and emotional problems. Homosexual acts were illegal and were considered immoral. Psychiatrists proclaimed homosexuality to be a mental illness and sought, without success, to treat it.
Enter Albert Kinsey
In the mid-twentieth century, medical, moral, and criminal handcuffs still sought to control the uncontrollable, our sexuality in all of its power, variety, and glory. Alfred Kinsey, a scientist at the University of Indiana, helped loosen those handcuffs.
He cataloged the sexual behavior of thousands of people. He found diversity of sexual activity in every social, occupational, and educational group in his samples. His massive studies, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) documented a staggering frequency and variety of sexual activity.
Kinsey’s attack on conventionality
Kinsey showed that premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality were far more common than previously imagined. This demonstrated the absurdity of the prevailing moral views and penal code. Under existing laws, a great majority of American adults had violated social norms. A very significant percentage could have been imprisoned for their behavior. As Kinsey put it, “at least 85 per cent of the younger male population could be convicted as sex offenders if law enforcement officials were as efficient as most people expect them to be.” (Kinsey, 1948/1998, p. 224). Kinsey’s methods were flawed, and Kinsey himself had important moral blind spots. His fundamental conclusion, however—that human sexual behavior exhibits tremendous variability—has been replicated again and again.
Kinsey was the (rebellious) product of social mores that approved only marital penis-in-vagina sex. Kinsey tallied how often his male subjects reached orgasm by any means – penis in vagina, homosexual, masturbation, and others, calling each event leading to orgasm an “outlet.” I am sure he was thrilled to demonstrate that even for the married men in his sample, penis-in-vagina sex accounted for a minority of their lifetime orgasms. A majority derived from other experiences—with men, with women who were not their wives, and with their own trustworthy hands.
Kinsey’s impact …
Everyone knew, before Kinsey, that sexuality is variable, but many people (and most of the authorities who wrote the laws and the textbooks) assumed that marital penis-in-vagina sex was the statistical norm, and anything else the exception. Kinsey demonstrated that sexual activities hitherto scorned as abnormal were far more common than anyone imagined.
Kinsey stated that the “human animal” was naturally pansexual. His thinly-veiled implicit conclusion was that practically all of this natural sexual variability was normal, was ethical, and should be legal. Kinsey condemned sexual criminals like rapists, peeping toms, and flashers, but he argued passionately that almost all other sexuality, including premarital sex, extramarital sex, and homosexuality, was normal, moral, and should be legal.
… and his legacy
I have mixed feelings about Kinsey. His sampling methods were flawed, even by the standards of the day. He presented material from the notes of predatory pedophiles as valuable data, revealing what James Jones called “a huge moral blind spot” (Jones, 1997, p. 510). Yet Kinsey was right in important ways, and his findings transformed America’s understanding of sex.
By the time of Kinsey’s death in 1956, American society had begun a prolonged upheaval that would lead to new common beliefs about how society should be structured and what behavior should be tolerated. The civil rights movement overturned institutional racism and established equal rights for all races as an unquestioned social goal. Women gained important protections against workplace discrimination; they also achieved improved control over their own reproduction with effective and available birth control. The Americans with Disability Act opened doors for millions of people.
Spanking is a largely stigmatized sexuality, and we have much to learn from the successful struggle of gays and lesbians to banish their stigma. Let’s turn to their story.
Gay and lesbian struggle and triumph
Gay and lesbian activists used Kinsey’s findings in their crusade for tolerance, fighting against prevailing moral, medical, and legal standards. Their struggle for tolerance from society—and for self-acceptance—holds important lessons for people who are interested in any frowned-on sexuality, including spanking.
The legal struggles to legitimize gay marriage have commanded the headlines in recent years; but early on they struggled even to be able to gather for a social event without being arrested. Part of the ultimately successful strategy included reaching out to leaders in organized religion. In San Francisco, gay and lesbian groups invited local ministers to a 1964 New Year’s Eve dance. The clergy were shocked to see the police arresting law-abiding partygoers; that dance was one step toward understanding between the gay and lesbian community and an important group of moral arbiters. In 1969, when New York City police attempted to shut down the Stonewall Inn, its gay patrons staged an unprecedented riot for sexual freedom; this was one step in the long march toward rights for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) people.
The psychiatrists finally figured it out
The first edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual (1952) labeled homosexuality a mental illness. Gay and lesbian activists, armed with Kinsey’s data, challenged this classification and, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association voted to classify homosexual behavior as normal. That view is widely shared by professional associations today. The American Psychological Association, for instance, now affirms that “same-sex sexual and romantic attractions, feelings, and behaviors are normal and positive variations of human sexuality regardless of sexual orientation identity,” adding that “homosexuality per se is not a mental disorder” (American Psychological Association, 2011).
The work to reduce the legal hazards of gay and lesbian relationships, and improve the legal status of gays and lesbians (for instance, through access to marriage), is ongoing. But gay and lesbian activists have enjoyed many triumphs, including the 2003 Supreme Court invalidation of the sodomy law of Texas (and by extension of any other state) in Lawrence v. Texas. President Obama’s farewell address in January, 2017 mentioned the Stonewall demonstrations as a step toward American freedom.
The movement for gay and lesbian rights, in turn, has benefited people with a wide variety of sexualities, including bisexuals, transsexuals, and, yes, people who love spanking. Society’s evolving sexual tolerance, and science’s better understanding of sex, give you and me the confidence to undertake our journey with the knowledge that our interest in spanking is normal.
American Psychological Association, “Resolution on Appropriate Affirmative Responses to Sexual Orientation Distress and Change Efforts,” accessed at http://www.apa.org/about/governance/council/policy/sexual-orientation.aspx on January 30, 2011.
Berkowitz, Eric, Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, Westbourne Press, 2012.
Brame, Brame, and Jacobs. Different Loving: A Complete Exploration of the World of Sexual Dominance and Submission. Villard, New York, 1993.
Hirshman, Linda. Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. Harper Collins, New York, 2012.
Jones, James H. Alfred C. Kinsey: A Life. Norton, New York, 1997.
Kinsey, Alfred C. et al, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1998; originally published by Saunders in 1948.
Kinsey, Alfred C. et al, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books, New York, 1965; originally published by Saunders in 1953.
Klein, Marty. America’s War on Sex: The Continuing Attack on Law, Lust, and Liberty, 2nd edition. Praeger, Santa Barbara, California, 2012.
Seidman, Steven, The Social Construction of Sexuality, 2nd edition. Norton, New York, 2010.
Weeks, Jeffrey, Sexuality. Tavistock, London, 1986.