Trigger and adult audience warning: This article discusses corporal punishment, unwanted sexual thoughts and experiences, trauma, and self-harm.
In my childhood years, my parents were firm believers in using a thick, heavy wooden paddle (or a series of strong hand smacks from Dad) to keep their children in line.
I have forgiven my parents. They were trying to do the right thing, and so afraid of messing up their kids by not being hard enough on them. However, I am still suffering today from the trauma of corporal punishment and the way it was administered in my house to both me and my siblings. I am sharing my experience in the hope that it may serve as a warning or comfort to others.
The paddle was kept in the cupboard beneath the right sink of my bathroom. It was always so stressful to even look inside that cupboard, and I avoided it as much as possible. Seeing the paddle struck fear in me as I began to wonder if and when it would be used on me again. For so many years, even the word “spanking” was intensely triggering for me.
As a child, I learned that the posterior region was specifically designed to be “cushy” or like a “pillow” for the purpose of physical punishment. Although there was likely some measure of subconscious questioning or skepticism about the logic of this teaching, it still reinforced the idea in my head that God approved of my pain when I messed up – that He was a firm believer in retribution or hurting people to get them back in line, and that He, like humanity, believed in motivating people to do the right thing out of fear.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.1 John 4:18
Families that practice corporal punishment are environments motivated largely by fear – fear on the parents’ part that they have the power to ruin their children’s lives by not systematically (and sometimes more impulsively) hurting them enough, and fear on the children’s that they will someday slip up again and suffer terribly for their imperfection. Fear that they will lose their parents’ love or respect.
The only way to re-earn their worthiness and parents’ respect is to be punished. Once the punishment is over, atonement is complete and the transgression is forgotten. This mentality of regaining my worthiness through suffering and punishment – which I’d developed in my childhood – contributed to a period of self-harm I walked through four years ago, when I was battling insurmountable shame. The only way I knew to feel temporarily better about myself was to punish myself.
Growing up, I was a self-punisher by virtue of my extreme dedication to “doing the right thing” and being honest. I went through a season in which, if I thought there was even a chance I’d done something wrong (even if I’d probably just thought about it and not actually done it), I’d confess it to my parents, so I wouldn’t accidentally get away with anything. And guess what? I got punished.
Besides being told that my bottom was a cushion specifically designed to be hit by my parents to somehow make me a better person, I was also told not to cry after being spanked. When being spanked (I think usually prior to the spanking?), I was told that I was loved and that that was why I was being spanked. It really messed with my head.
The oldest age at which anyone in my family was spanked was 18. My older brother had embarrassed my dad that day, who took out his anger in punishing my adult brother. Although he later felt bad and apologized to my brother, I still long suffered from worry that I would be punished or controlled if I, as an adult, went against my parents’ wishes or upset them.
Once (when we were much younger), my dad had discovered damage to a book or something (it’s too long ago to remember). He was asking who among my siblings and I had damaged it. I knew I hadn’t, and answered so. But since no one was confessing, he said he’d punish both my brothers and me. I think at the last minute I went free, because of something I’d said that somehow exonerated me. But it was traumatizing to realize that I could be served injustice in the course of my dad’s zealous pursuit of “justice.” He was so determined to punish whoever had done it (or afraid of not catching them), that he was willing to hurt his “innocent” kids in the process.
On another occasion (I think I was about four?), I was sitting with my cousin out in the inflatable swimming pool in our backyard at night during a family gathering. I have no recollection of taking my swimming suit off, and can’t believe I would ever have been comfortable doing that. However, I got accused of taking my clothes off (in the dark) and being naked in the pool and seen by my uncle. (My cousin and I were both blonde, and it’s possible he’d mixed us up.)
I was taken inside. I can’t remember if I was spanked (although I associate spankings with the event), but I was asked to apologize to my uncle. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. It was humiliating and mentally painful to apologize for something I hadn’t done. To obey my parent(s) in this instance was essentially to lie. Truth and honesty have always been so important to me, and to my parents. It didn’t make sense.
Today, I still feel ashamed for things I haven’t done or that I can’t control. I struggle with shame for my chronic illness and the burden I am on others. I blame myself for others’ suffering, even when other people have contributed to their pain more than I, or almost entirely.
I think it’s hard for many people to understand how or that I can feel ashamed about something for which I’m not guilty. They assume that if I feel ashamed, there’s a good reason. The truth is that I’m uncomfortable – perhaps practically incapable – of operating in life without feeling ashamed. If I don’t feel ashamed, then I’m probably getting away with something, and God’s probably going to “catch” or punish me at the judgment. So I’d better catch myself first. Maybe if I beat myself up enough, he won’t.
Today, I very strongly cognitively associate love in relationships with men’s capability or willingness to be unkind to me in intimate and sexual ways. I’ve never been in a sexual relationship, but I have strong “kinky” desires and associations constantly – including many unwanted ones involving my dad. I frequently feel ashamed for these unwanted associations and thoughts involving family.
I even get these unwanted sexual feelings around other family members, including my mom occasionally. I experience the feeling of being violated or known in ways I don’t want to be by them. I try so hard to fight these unsought sexual thoughts and responses.
Whenever I hear Christians talk about a woman’s duty to submit, I experience an unsolicited sexual response – perhaps because I was once touched in an intimate area by my dad (a male with strong beliefs about women’s roles) in order to keep me in line or make me obey. I still feel extremely sexually triggered and uncomfortable when I think about his strong “traditional” or “biblical” beliefs about women.
Although I have issues with Paul’s teachings on women submitting (but let’s not forget that he did also tell everyone to submit to each other, and husbands to listen to their wives) – and the damaging, communication-crippling role his writings too often play in Christian marriages – the “funny” thing is that I can actually be a very submissive person – excessively so. By default, I have no desire to interfere with people’s lives or put them down, and I rarely dismiss what those in my relationships have to say without hearing them out. I automatically assume roles and serve others in many ways that would be considered “traditionally feminine.” I help my family out a lot. I am not generally argumentative. Were I ever married, I believe this pattern of deference would only be intensified toward my husband. I have actually had to work really hard to cultivate and know my own voice enough over the past several years. So even though I bristle whenever people use a form of the word “submit,” and argue against a lot of the extreme gender-role applications of Paul’s writings that I’ve seen implemented in Christian marriages, I don’t think anyone’s ever felt a need to take me to task on not being “submissive” enough.
Don’t get me wrong. If action needs to be taken in my life for my sanity, safety, or integrity, I tend to take it whenever it’s in my power. If I see a man doing something wrong, I (sincerely hope) I’m not going to ever join him in that thing, no matter how “unsubmissive” I may be accused of being. I think the story of Ananias and Sapphira is a good reminder that women do have a place and a responsibility to call out their husbands’ b***sh*t. And husbands have a responsibility to listen.
If I ever marry, maybe my kinky fetishes and associations will be redeemed in the increased intimacy they may foster. However, I even fear that my marriage might be tainted by unwanted sexual associations with family. It’s hard that a feeling of being violated, out-of-control, and obedient which gets me “off” almost inevitably points me back to thoughts of intimate violation from family and authoritarian mind-and-body control from organized religion.
Did you grow up in organized religion? Receive corporal punishment as a child?
Have you processed these formative experiences? How do they affect you today?