The Problem with the Conservative Christian View on Spanking September 23, 2014

The Problem with the Conservative Christian View on Spanking

In a recent Slate piece, Jillian Keenan wrote about spanking as a sexual act — and how that’s why it shouldn’t be used as punishment:

… when you cause blood to rush to a child’s butt, you’re also causing it to rush to his or her other sex organs. The other time this kind of genital blood engorgement happens is during erection or arousal.

Oxytocin, a hormone that is released during arousal, can increase pain tolerance by as much as 75 percent. So I wasn’t surprised to read that some kids who are regularly spanked experience a surge of oxytocin when they sense danger. It makes sense. If a kid expects a parent to cause physical pain, why wouldn’t her brain trigger an unconscious state of arousal to release the hormone that helps mitigate that pain? Does the possibility that parental spankings trigger sexual arousal hormones along with tears make anyone else a little uncomfortable?

Her piece raises questions that have been uncomfortably simmering in the back of my mind for years. If modesty is so important to conservative Christianity, why is it okay for parents to ask their kids to bare their butts for spankings? If we want our kids to tell people “No” if they’re being touched inappropriately, why is it okay for an authority figure to hit children in their genital regions? If God is a merciful God, why is hitting a child the best way to deal with misbehavior? How can physical pain that’s not a direct result from an action (e.g., getting burned when you touch fire) be a positive learning tool?

I was spanked until I was 16 by both my mother and father. At some point my mom stopped asking me to pull my pants down for spankings, but I don’t remember when. I do remember being told not to wear jeans for spankings, though, because it would be too ineffective through the thick fabric. I never felt that spankings were sexual, but I am still prone to massive anxiety if an authority figure pulls me aside for a private talk, just because that was how my dad initiated a “correction.”

After coming out of conservative Christianity (and leaving Virginia), I’ve found, to my surprise, that few people I talk to outside of that world think that spanking is a positive parenting choice. Recent data from the University of Chicago suggests that my experience is backed by the numbers and that white, conservative Christians in the South are more likely to see spanking in a positive light than those outside of those groups:

Christian blogger Matthew Paul Turner, writing about the Adrian Peterson controversy, stated:

Today, the most notable proponents of spanking are American evangelicals. They not only preach the gospel of corporal punishment, they also impart messages that lay the foundations for abuses against children and the protection of such abuse by our legal system.

We have books about spanking. Popular Christian talk shows promote the benefits of spanking. Pastors preach and theologize spanking. Organizations like Focus on the Family offer parents resources about how and when to spank.

The ties between Christianity and corporal punishment are so strong that a large number of conservative Christians parents simple deny studies that suggest spanking does more harm than good.

There are Bible verses that back the popular Christian stance on spanking as a positive parenting tool, but the metaphorical meaning of the concept of “the rod” is one that has validly been disputed by more progressive theologians who do not believe that God endorses spanking in its current popular form. But the issue is moot, I think.

Spanking may have been endorsed in the time of the Bible’s writing, but so was slavery and women not owning property. A woman would also have to marry her rapist if he was caught. We’re in a new era here, and it is intellectually irresponsible to assume that all the things in the Bible should be so broadly applied to people here and now. The spirit of the teachings of Jesus promoted mercy, compassion, understanding, and respect for the individuality of others, and the spanking I grew up with absolutely did not reinforce any of that. As a result, I have a very hard time accepting any argument from those who say that they differentiate between spanking and abuse.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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