Is Spanking Your Kid a Form of Sexual Abuse? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

So far the consensus in the inbox is a resounding “no” to that question, which was sparked by reader Carly’s staunch opposition to spanking, claiming it sexualizes children. This reader, J Hollis, has the strongest counterargument:

For survivors of actual child sexual abuse such as myself, making spanking equivalent to what is done to children when they are sexually assaulted is kind of revolting and not a little offensive. I’m not a proponent of spanking, but Carly’s reasoning here is specious.

The butt is, objectively, not a sexual organ (neither are the breasts, technically), and the breast parallel doesn’t work well either because prohibitions on breast exposure are only applied to females and are not universal across space and time.

Additionally, the reasoning that “because it would count as sexual harassment for adults it must for children” is similarly problematic. It is generally the case that bodily autonomy for children is limited relative to that for adults, in a number of crucial regards. Much as it would be inappropriate to spank an adult, it would be inappropriate to dress them, or to wipe them after they’d used the restroom, or to help them wash their hair. Some of these activities involve exposure of or contact with the sex organs—and yet we would not thus argue that they contact sexual abuse.

Moreover, not every kind of contact with actual sexual organs is sexual in nature. Or if it is, the nature of my relationship with my ob/gyn is not as professional as I’ve been imagining.

This reader believes that intent is the key factor:

The argument that spanking should be considered a sexual assault is preposterous. It is important to look at motive, as well as whether or not sexual gratification is being obtained from the act. You may consider spanking to be a physical assault, but to label it “sexual” is wrongly suggesting that sexuality is defined by anatomy.

On that note, another reader:

If we’ve learned anything in the last 50 years of sexual history, it’s that every part of the body can be sexualized for different people. And on the flip side, the common practice of a friendly pat on the butt in sports demonstrates that not all contact with the buttocks be coded as sexual.

Similarly, another adds, “Given how blithely common foot fetishes, there seems to be no coherent standard by which the buttocks, a non-genital region of the body, could be considered sexual without ruling the entire human body as a sexual region.” This last reader, Sasha, zooms out a bit:

It is worthwhile to note that what constitutes a “sexual offense” varies greatly by culture and legal jurisdictions, even within the United States. A few examples of things that are considered “sex offenses” in some places but not others within the U.S. are: public urination, public nudity, private nudity, oral sex, anal sex/sodomy. Additionally, the age of consent is 18 in some places and 16 in others … one could go on and on.

So my argument to Carly is, spanking is only a sexual offense if you can convince a decent portion of your neighbors and government that it is. Personally, I think that turning spanking into a sexual offense is actually SEXUALIZING the infant or child where there wasn’t a notion of sexuality before.

Update from one of the top Notes contributors, Jim Elliott, who drills deeper into the “intent” argument (he comes from the perspective of a “parent and as a developmental services professional—former special education teacher and social worker, currently regulating developmental services on behalf of the state of California”):

Great googly-moogly, Carly is just ... so wrong. The American Psychological Association defines sexual abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” While many definitions are very broad, what is unmistakable about all of them is that there is a sexually gratifying intent to it.

Under Carly’s seeming definition, two kids playing doctor are nascent sexual predators. Context is a thing, and it’s not entirely solipsistic. There’s only one meta-study that I’m aware of that links spanking with sexual “problems” in adulthood (Straus, 2008), and it has a lot of problems of its own, not the very least being that there’s a lot of confounding variables that are hand-waved away—and some definition problems to boot—with respect to his findings on coercion and “risky” sexual behavior (which he defines as not using a condom). As well, his finding that people who are spanked are more likely to enjoy masochistic sex as adults requires a whole lot of conflation of various sexual behaviors and frequencies under the label “masochistic” and is drawn from a pretty limited sample size.

This is not to endorse or even declare neutrality with respect to spanking. In my experience both as a parent and a professional, it’s useless with respect to correcting the child’s behavior. Spanking is parenting by fear; it provokes compliance withinin single environments, at best. It doesn’t actually correct behavior when it's successful, just whether or not the behavior occurs in the presence of the parent. And that is just useless parenting.