It’s Difficult To Admit That Childhood Spankings Can Be Sexual Assault

By Noah Berlatsky

Jillian Keenan’s Sex With Shakespeare is a rollicking memoir about Keenan’s dual passions for the Bard and spanking. It includes daring readings of Shakespeare, a lot of kink, and many, many laugh-out-loud funny moments (the revelation of the Obi-Wan Kenobi discipline fan fiction may be the high point).

But along the way, Keenan also talks about more somber topics — including, centrally, child abuse. Keenan knew she was a spanking fetishist from the time she was very young — which means, when her mother spanked her, she experienced those spankings as sexual assaults.

This is a highly charged issue, and one that Keenan is passionate about. But it hasn’t been much covered in the extensive online discussion of her book. And so we embark on the real story, the behind-the-scenes conversation that’s largely being ignored about spanking, fetishes, and sexual assault.

Noah Berlatsky: You said that there’s been little coverage by media outlets of your discussion of child abuse. I was really surprised by that.

Jillian Keenan: It has been astonishing to me how little. I’m so confused! I’m trying very hard to start what I think of as an important conversation; I thought that it would be easier to get the ball rolling on this, because I was under the impression that the media likes controversial things, and certainly I say some controversial things in this book.

But maybe everyone has been trying to follow the sexy side of the book, paying attention to the fun half and less to its darker edge.

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Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger

Noah: I wonder if people are nervous . . .

Jillian: A couple of years ago I wrote a piece which ended up in Slate called “Spanking Is a Sex Act” about how spanking children is problematic from a physiological and biological perspective — the physical reason being that spanking is sexually problematic. And before it went to Slate, I pitched it somewhere else, and an editor said to me, “I wish we could run this story, but I just can’t take it, I have to pass on it. Some of the other editors here spank their children and they’d freak out if I ran this.”

So, this is such a buried issue, such an under-discussed issue, I think in part because some of the gatekeepers of media are also the people who would find this conversation really challenging and difficult. So I wonder if that has something to do with why this point of the book has been under-discussed.

Noah: One thing that could be difficult for many people is your argument that very young children have sexualities and sexual thoughts.

Jillian: What’s fascinating to me is that seems like the most obvious thing in the world to say. Of course children have emerging sexual identities. I certainly did. And what’s fascinating is that I can understand why certain elements of the religious right or conservative movements would find that claim very offensive. But fascinatingly the left, or so called progressive groups, also have a very hard time when I say that. If I said, you know, my friend was gay when he was age 5, or my friend knew she was a lesbian when she was 10, they would not blink, they would say of course, of course that’s true, of course homosexuality is an identity that exists in childhood, of course. They would find that so obvious. And yet when I suggest my sexuality existed at an early age, they say, no. I can’t wrap my head around that.

Noah: Do they see your sexuality as the result of trauma?

Jillian: Sometimes, some people — a lot of people, let’s be honest — think that fetishism is the result of childhood trauma. I disagree with that perspective; I think that it’s the intellectual equivalent of the formerly official theory that homosexuality is caused by absent fathers and overbearing mothers. It’s over-simplistic to define a cause of non-normative sexuality with something that could fit into a tweet.

Something that I get from a lot of people on the left is that they seem to really want to believe that kink is a fun preference, or a cool new hobby, a novelty that adults pick up later in life by choice. And in some cases that’s absolutely true, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people do discover ways to spice up their sex life later in life, and that’s great for them, and in those cases it’s a choice.

But the best explanation I can offer is that for me spanking occupies the place in my life that sex occupies in the lives of most people. I couldn’t give two hoots about sex, really. I’ve never fantasized about sex. In earlier years when I thought something was really wrong with me, I tried very hard to masturbate to the thought of sex. In adolescence, I knew that I thought about spanking all the time, I knew that that was the only thing I responded to, but I thought that that meant that there was something very deeply wrong with me. So I tried to focus; whatever I wanted to masturbate to I would say, ‘okay Jillian, you’ve got to really focus, keep your eye on the prize, we’re going to think about sex, and we’re going to masturbate, and it’s going to work.’ But of course it never did work. Not once in my life have I ever climaxed or even gotten aroused while thinking about sex. Even rough sex.

Sex [to me], as I write in the book, is like masturbating to the thought of toothpaste. I just don’t care about sex. Spanking occupies that space in my life in every way.

Noah: The point for you is that when your mother spanked you, which didn’t happen frequently, but happened on occasion, that that ended up being sexual assault.

Jillian: Exactly. That is exactly my point. The fact is, by the time I was 3 or 4 or 5, certainly by the age of 10, spanking was a sex act to me. My body and my mind experienced it as such, so when this happened to me non-consensually, something sexual was happening to me non-consensually. And that’s how I reacted.

And I know that it’s a little controversial to say that — certainly people will flip out and say, well I was spanked as a child and it didn’t feel like a sexual violation to me. Well, that’s because they don’t share my sexual orientation. More normative sexual violation happened to me in my life, and I was really not bothered by that, because that’s not my sexuality.

This is tricky business, so I’m going [about it] carefully. But just as there is no consistent universal standard for what sexuality is, there’s also no consistent universal standard for what sexual assault can be. Just as sexual orientation varies, what a person will experience as sexual assault can vary.

We’re having a lot of national conversations about consent right now. And yet right now, the non-consensual things we do to children’s bodies have been almost entirely excluded from this conversation.

There is one demographic that it’s still legal to beat. And if it were explicitly legal to beat people on the basis of race or gender, we’d be talking about it. But it’s explicitly legal to beat people on the basis of age, and no one talks about it. And I wish that would happen.

Noah: How prevalent is spanking? I don’t know anyone who would do it I don’t think . . .

Jillian: Ah, but statistically you probably do. Statistically, a study I saw, said about 70% of parents discipline their children this way.

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Noah: Really?

Jillian: Anyone who knew my family, who knew me or knew my mother, would have been shocked to know that this was going on. People hide this very, very well in this country. So I would bet money that you do know someone.

A lot of people say that you should do it and they are proud of it and they advocate for it. It still happens in schools in 19 states.

I think that this is a tricky conversation, but parents need to have the courage to think more critically about people like me. People who share my fetish, who share my interest, who share my obsession with spanking, might be getting jobs at schools in those districts.

Because I can easily imagine a version of my life, where I would not be as introspective, and would not be as honest with myself and my desires. For a long time I was just obsessed with spanking and then there was a moment when I realized that this was sexual, and then I could move forward from that perspective. But if I had never had that breakthrough, if I had never admitted that my interest in spanking was sexual, I could have very easily grown into an adult who really, really, really believed in ‘discipline.’

At some point I might try to pitch a story somewhere, like a quiz, where I pull out lines from certain parenting manuals, and lines from spanking erotica, and mix them all up, and ask if you can tell which is which. Which is from the parenting guide and which is from the spanking porn. Because they are interchangeable. There are certainly parenting books that I have read, and immediately alarm bells go off in my head. I think this is written by a repressed spanking fetishist. Because it takes one to know one.

Noah: One of the things you talk about in your book is that writing is really important to your fetish, in terms of narration. So it could be a sexual act to write these guides.

Jillian: Yeah, certainly . . . who the hell spends years writing a book about spanking? Who the hell does that? Writing a book is so much work, it takes so much energy and so much time. Who would spend three years of their lives writing about spanking, all day every day?

I know who does it. And I really can’t imagine that some of these people . . . were not getting some kind of sexual titillation out of it.

Noah: People don’t like to think about that, though.

Jillian: People are really resistant. And I understand why nobody wants to believe that their parents did something that they shouldn’t have done, and certainly parents who currently spank their children freak out when this issue comes up.

And I’m not accusing 70% of parents of sexually abusing their children. I’m not doing that. I’m accusing 70% of parents of playing an incredibly dangerous game of sexual Russian roulette with their children. Most people spank their children, and most people turn out fine. But my grandpa smoked until the age of 90-something and he was healthy his whole life. Most smokers don’t get lung cancer. Children have emerging sexual identities, and if even 1% of children experience spanking as a sex act, it means we’re sexually assaulting too many kids.

And I wish I could get people to talk about that.

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Lead image: Public Domain

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