|Sept/Oct 1999 Miscellany|
On the video shelf of the Orinda Public Library, where items are arranged in no particular order, two video cassettes sit side by side: Radio Days and True Grit.
Does that strike you as in any way ironic?
Suppose we were to add the information that, two shelves away, sits the 1963 John Wayne western, McClintock!. Has the coincidence left you breathless and reeling?
If you have not made the connection by this point, you won't. But rest assured that there are large numbers of people out there, possibly with little else in common, who will immediately know what we're talking about.
Anyone else merely needs to know that all three of these films are included in a specialized reference work, entitled: The Really Big List of Spanking in the Cinema, compiled by Bostnbob.
This work is pretty much what the title might lead you to expect, a listing of movies which include spanking scenes, compiled for those who get off on such things. It contains over 700 entries (all non-porn) including codes after each title revealing such essentials as: victim's state of dress, number of swats, implement of punishment, presence of witnesses, and whether or not the victim was held over the knee (For example, the entry for The Greatest Show on Earth is followed by the notations: "gorilla,?:paw, OTK, W," which tells us that at some point in the movie a gorilla spanks an unidentified character over the knee, with its paw, before one or more witnesses).
Bostnbob's list is but one of the specialty offerings of CF Publications of Setauket, New York. Others include: A bibliography of spanking scenes in novels, a spanking newsletter, four spanking magazines, and over 600 short stories depicting the spanking of almost any conceivable cultural type. There is even an artist who will custom illustrate any spanking scene you've ever wanted to see, including your victim of choice, be it lover, politician, cartoon character, or movie star.
It would be easy to simply play for laughs with examples of such erotic specificity--how about the CF short story, "The Lost Episode of Lost in Space," in which Penny and Judy are spanked by the robot?--but doing so avoids the larger question: Is this fascination with spanking really limited to the milieu of erotic literature, or is it part of something culturally bigger?
Steve Richardson, editor, publisher and founder of CF Publications, strongly believes that it is something bigger. "My guess is that somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the population has some interest in spanking," says Richardson.
He points to a number of sources, generally assumed to be erotically neutral, in which the theme of spanking is a prevalent undercurrent. In addition to movies and novels, they include: advice columns (Dear Beth is a particular favorite), computer talk boards, tabloid newspapers, and religious publications (particularly when they speak about child-rearing practices).
"My own bibliography [of novels with spanking scenes] has grown to three or four-hundred in the last ten years and I tend not to believe that they wrote them all for me."
It could be argued, of course, that just because a novel contains a spanking scene does not mean that the author intended it as erotic titillation, or that the majority of readers would take it as such. But when one scans Richardson's Bibliography, two unmistakable trends emerge: 1) Certain writers return to this theme again and again (R.F. Delderfield, for example, seemed to include a spanking in every novel) and 2) one particular category of fiction steps out amongst all others as the clear spanking-scene leader. It is the romance novel, a genre which, if it is not about anything else, is certainly about titillation.
Scenes like the following, from Elizabeth Graham's New Man at Cedar Hills, are not atypical.
...he sat down and bent her over his knees.
"Don't you dare...," she squealed.
The pain of his well-aimed slaps was nothing compared to the injury to her dignity as she struggled impotently against the steel band of his arm holding her across his knees. When at last he released her and stood her on her feet, the tears sparkling in her eyes were composed of molten fury.
In the tabloid press, the question as to whether or not the titillation is intended becomes even less ambiguous. In tabloids, we regularly see such headlines as: The Day Cary Grant Spanked Dyan Cannan, Judge Orders Shoplifter Spanked, School Teacher Spanked by Principal.
The Weekly World News has even developed its own version of Ann Landers (Dear Dotti) who, until recently, could be relied upon to mention spanking every third column or so. Such offerings were usually to the effect of: What should I do with my bratty teenaged daughter who swears at me when I ask her not to smoke pot in the house? Dotti's solutions frequently involved a trip over the knee.
Clearly, someone believes that there is a market for such fare. But what does it mean that such a market exists, or that it spans such a broad spectrum, from the readers of romances and tabloids, to the five people on Earth who have never stopped thinking about what they would like to see happen to those mischievous females from Lost in Space?
Helen Weitzenkorn, past president of Massachusetts NOW, sees it as a case of the media acting as mirror. "It reflects the value that it's okay to dominate women, to treat them like children...to humiliate them. It's all done with a kind of a wink." That can be difficult to dispute, particularly if one is trying to explain a movie like John Wayne's McClintock!. When viewed through modern sensibilities, it is hard not to see this movie as anything other than the ultimate male control fantasy. The entire film centers on the spanking given to Maureen O'Hara near the conclusion of the movie, as G.W. McClintock (Wayne) and his firebrand wife (O'Hara) battle through their tempestuous relationship. Finally, with the entire town looking on, G.W. drags his wife into a barn for her comeuppance. The scene begins with an upswell of background music, as if something truly wonderful is about to transpire. As the wallops commence, the camera cuts to the delighted faces of the witnesses, each seeming to be in the throes of an epiphany.
So isn't this contemptible and evil?
"It's not something you want to defend in real life," says Richardson. "[But] this is a fantasy. As long as you know it's a fantasy, that's fine. What do you say to something like Agatha Christie? People murder [author's italics] each other all the time in Agatha Christie novels. As far as I know, nobody goes out and murders someone as a result."
Richardson gets some support from Daniel Rosen, who is currently organizing sexual fantasy workshops in the San Francisco Bay area. "I certainly don't condone non-consensual acts in real life." says Rosen. "But in the realm of fantasy, I feel it honors that animal part of us."
Rosen has never seen McClintock!, but upon hearing a brief synopsis, he freely admits, "I personally find it very arousing. It comes from a place of appreciating that anger and sexuality come from the same base. There's always going to be... a power struggle, and I think that there's something really wonderful about honoring [that] during foreplay."
Weitzenkorn considers this "Total bullshit." Her concern is for the way images like the McClintock! scene shape our values over time. "When something is repeated it can get more and more credibility. That's what advertising really is. You see a Coke commercial, do you run out and buy a coke? You see twenty Coke commercials, what do you do?"
Gender politics may not be the most neutral forum in which to examine sexual taboos. But objectivity does not necessarily blossom when one turns to the realm of social research, or the great psychological thinkers.
Freud dealt with spanking only under the more general auspices of sado-masochism, which he considered a form of libido displacement.
Havelock Ellis, a contemporary of Freud, who wrote extensively on the psychology of sex, regarded sado-masochism not as a displaced drive, but an inbred one, harkening back to our link with the animal domain, where foreplay can be indistinguishable from combat.
By the Sixties, thanks to Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner, the concept of behavioral conditioning moved into psychology's mainstream, and was often used to explain how individuals developed unorthodox erotic tastes. We thus begin to see statements like the following, from Janet Shibley Hyde's Understanding Human Sexuality: "...a little boy is being spanked over his mother's knee; in the process, his penis rubs against her knee and he gets an erection... the child has learned to associate... spanking with sexual arousal."
That seems logical enough, but one of the ways that psychological science differs from its medical counterpart is that theories may become canonized in the literature without ever having to bear the burden of clinical proof.
In Green and Green's S-M: the Last Taboo, the authors maintain that a scientific examination of sado-masochism, using modern methods of inquiry, has never been undertaken. "We are venturing into a topic about which there is no empirical, and but the vaguest theoretical information available."
And writing in the September 1971 issue of Sexual Behavior Professor Eugene E. Levitt states "...a survey of professional writing on sado-masochism for the past 30 years failed to unearth as many as ten scientific articles." A survey of Psychological Abstracts, from 1976 - 1994 revealed no improvement.
Perhaps art will succeed where science has failed. Novels that seriously explore spanking as an erotic phenomenon include: Robert Coover's Spanking the Maid, Joyce MacIver's The Exquisite Thing, and a number of titles by Ann Rice (written under various pseudonyms).
It should be noted, however, that these books are written to titillate, as much as they are to enlighten, and anyone looking for a unified field theory on spanking is going to be disappointed.
In the meantime, this looks very much like one of those areas where the breakthroughs are going to have to come from the renegades.
Richardson, who admits, "I've been obsessed by spanking as long as I can remember," has had more than a few thoughts as to how he and others may have formed their fascinations. "I think it starts for many of us as children. A large majority of kids are fascinated by spanking...they play a lot of games with swats; it takes place on the bottom, which is a sexy place, you go off in private where you become partially naked and have your bottom touched. I think that contributes to the start. The question is why some of us keep it and some lose it."
Rosen takes a more deterministic view, which is reminiscent of Havelock Ellis. "I feel there's a certain amount of truth to [the notion] that it's biologically driven. Sometimes we tend to forget that we are animals just like turtles and sheep and jaguars. There's a certain amount of violence in an animal's nature when it comes to sexuality... when you respect that part of yourself, it doesn't take over so much in the real world."
Will science ever pick up the ball on such questions?
Both Richardson and Rosen agree that it would be useful, and neither would be surprised if, amongst the first findings, was that specific erotic obsessions are a lot more common than presently acknowledged. If so, we may want to think again about that chance meeting between Radio Days and True Grit at the Orinda Library, which was possibly not such a coincidence after all.
To read Paul Dubnor's short story, "Boxcars Differently Traveling," from last year's October/November issue, click here.