I really don’t know what to say. Victims of domestic violence probably shouldn’t read this post. Last night I discovered that there is a movement within neo-patriarchal Christian culture called Christian Domestic Discipline (or DD for short) in which men create a set of rules for their wives and spank their wives for violating them. The strangest thing about it is that the movement at least presents itself as something that ultra-conservative Christian women are begging their husbands to do. This seems like more than just Stockholm syndrome “solidarity” between a victim and her abuser. Is it the product of a Christianity that creates a fetish for punishment?
There are very detailed instructions for how to administer the spankings. There is more than one type of spanking: beginner, intermediate, advanced, blended, maintenance. There’s even a “punishment generator” app into which you can plug in misbehaviors and a menu of punishments. Honestly, the spanking instructions read like the stage directions for a low-budget pornographic film (Michel Foucault could write a 500 page book about this one website). It seems pretty clear that this is at least partly an erotic game, a sort of Fifty Shades of Grey live action edition for ultra-conservative housewives. But there’s more to it.
Here’s one woman’s account of her conversation with her husband trying to convince him to spank her:
I’m weak and crave your correction to make things better. You are more organized and neater than me, and while I know you don’t want to admit that something upsets you/bugs you/disappoints you… I know it does. Instead of just harboring those disappointing feelings, you get to do something proactive about it, something that inspires me… Look, I didn’t come into this marriage with the right frame of mind, and I can totally get how I got you to shut down, and seek to appease, to always find a peaceful middle ground… or even to acquiesce when it meant avoiding a fight. I’m trying to tell you that I see that now as wrong. I’m not asking you to be a dictator, or an authoritarian… just to be authoritative.
One of the things I love about complementarians is the way they make distinctions between two words that aren’t distinct: like authoritarian and authoritative. In the spanking movement, the same type of non-distinctive distinction is made between “spanking” and “hitting,” with the latter being physical abuse. In any case, when I read this conversation, it suggests to me that this particular wife wants to be spanked in order to get back a husband whom she perceives to have checked out emotionally from their marriage, an illustration of the horrifying presumption that men will never fully invest themselves in a relationship unless it involves their physical domination and outright violence against the other person.
But there also seems to be a weird sort of passive-aggressive reverse control dynamic going on here. There’s a strange paradox about the way that in more than a few complementarian relationships, the wife is actually covertly in charge, because it’s her job to make sure that her husband is decisive, authoritative, and fully invested. It kind of reminds me of the autistic woman Temple Grandin who invented a machine that squeezed her body in a particular way that made her feel safe, so that she eventually became an expert designer of farm animal equipment.
For a husband to enter into this kind of arrangement means that he has to pay a whole lot more attention to his wife’s behavior and devote substantial portions of each week to analyzing the details of their relationship and their communication patterns, all things that his wife probably spends hours talking on the phone about every day which he would otherwise be disinclined to care about (“Honey, I know you want to spend the entire evening zoned out in front of your basketball games, but you agreed that 9 pm is time for my daily confession and punishment”).
One thing that’s interesting is the phenomenon of “maintenance spankings,” which are spankings that are given without any infraction solely for the purpose of reminding that the husband is the boss (or for reminding the husband that he’s supposed to pay attention to his wife). One husband shares his experience of these:
Despite my dislike for maintenance spankings from the start, my wife and I agreed to give them a fair shot, so we continued on with them. In all honesty my wife didn’t seem to have too much of an issue with them, but each time we had a maintenance session it was really awkward for me. They did seem to help with my wife’s stress levels though, so I was seeing a little value in them even if I didn’t like doing them… They calm my wife down and give her a “reset” when she wants and needs it. They’re done at my wife’s request most times as well, which makes me feel better about conducting them.
In this example, the “punishment” dimension is completely out of the picture. It has nothing to do with the “correction” of “misbehavior,” but is purely about the wife gaining the husband’s undivided passionate attention as well as a physical erotic release that gives her a “reset.”
In another testimony, an older woman talks about how she got her young stallion Prince Charming back through domestic discipline:
We have rediscovered the safety of talking in the car. When we were dating, the car was our place for privacy and talking. Jack proposed to me in the car. The car was our safe haven. When DD entered our lives, the car became important again. We had big discussions about spankings and how this would work while we were on the road. Eyes forward, my hand on his leg, he talked quietly and gently. We asked one another questions, lots of questions. He answered my questions firmly, confidently. I answered his questions shyly and in a hushed voice. Incredible……….. this is my husband of over 30 years.
So holding hands and talking through the details of how she wanted to be punished by him, it was like they were suddenly teenagers again, off to the drive-thru movie. He becomes the confident stud with his letter jacket; she becomes the shy, fluttery dreamer in his arms (or beneath his paddle). I suppose this could be called the midlife crisis edition of the spanking movement.
Much is revealed in the following paragraph from the list of “benefits” of domestic discipline.
It greatly reduces arguments. A lot of couples (who don’t practice DD) argue about things such as children, money, and the list goes on and on. However, when you have DD as a part of your marriage, it reduces those arguments by giving both of you a different way to outlet your feelings. If your husband is having an issue with how much you spend, instead of yelling/arguing/etc. with you about it, he’ll punish you and the issue will be resolved (or on it’s way to being resolved). This gives him a feeling of “okay, she’s going to really work on this now. The problem will be fixed, and I don’t have to repeatedly argue with her about it” and it gives the wife a sense of “I’m forgiven, I’ve been punished for it, and now I can take the necessary steps to fix the problem.” It also makes her feel that her husband is with her in fixing the problem, not against her.
There are two things that I notice here. First is the need for arguments and conflicts within a marriage to be “fixed.” So a basic anxiety about any tension that isn’t completely and immediately resolved. According to the logic here, it is better for the husband to be right all the time than for there to be any conflict within the marriage. Again, this seems to be driven by a paranoia about losing the husband if he gets tired of arguing and checks out (since he’s out at work all day interacting with God knows how many other women while the stay-at-home wife is cooped up in the house).
The twisted logic of the final line is fascinating. It obviously seems bizarre to say that somebody shows that he’s “with” you and “not against” you by inflicting physical violence against you. But what this “solution” to marital arguments does is to negate anything in the wife that contradicts the husband’s will. It removes the possibility of an “against” for the husband to be against. The husband and wife are “partners” in enforcing his infallibility. He is “with” her because he is present; to be “against” her would not be to disagree with her, but to say, “Whatever you want, honey,” and check out.
Fellow blogger Nathan Smith (from whom I discovered this whole phenomenon) draws a connection between the relationship dynamics in domestic discipline and the theology that understands God primarily in penal terms.
In these stories of DD, many times it is the woman in the relationship who wants to be disciplined by their husbands, and at times, is the initiator of this approach to the marriage. Why would that be the case? Well, for Christians, we can actually stave off the constant sense we feel of God’s absence when we can, in its place, sense God’s fearful and wrathful punishment. Something is better than nothing right?
The larger-scale counterpart to the household of domestic discipline is the church with the hellfire and brimstone preacher. As long as the preacher talks enough about sin and God’s wrath, the people in the congregation can feel secure that God hasn’t checked out of the marriage and hooked up with His secretary at work. It also means that they don’t have to internalize any sense of discipline since their preacher is their disciplinarian:
Sometimes we as people want to be told off by our preachers only to reinforce the desire to avoid telling it to ourselves. It’s easier to return weekly to hear what we should do from an external source than to daily cultivate internal disciplines which provide us with who we should be. Failing to break out of this dynamic causes arrested development and we forfeit our contribution to the world’s need for wisdom with meandering obedience – a process that we actually desire in order to avoid growing up.
As long as we are sufficiently “told off” each week in church, we can feel secure that any mistakes we’ve made have been sufficiently “paid for.” Of course, we believe that Jesus paid for our sins, but it helps to have the added security of getting chewed out.
The theology of punishment fetish starts with understanding God’s primary act of love (the cross) primarily as an act of punishment against His Son, which means that if every man’s headship over his household is analogous to God’s headship over the universe, the best way men can be loving household gods to their wives is by spanking them.
I could never be a good complementarian husband because I don’t feel safe in situations in which I am completely in charge. I want to know exactly how other people are feeling as part of my discernment process in decision-making, and I want the “leadership” I provide to be a distillation of careful listening to how God has spoken to every member of my community. It’s true that I don’t care about everything that my wife wants me to care about, but I’m not going to insist on being her household god in order to be fully present in our marriage.
And finally, though I may get in trouble for saying this, when it comes to spanking in the bedroom, I would rather be on the receiving end than the giving end.