Corporal Punishment: A Primer
Corporal punishment is the deliberate infliction of pain intended to discipline or reform a wrongdoer or change a person's behavior.
Historically, most forms of punishment, whether in judicial, domestic, or educational settings, were corporal in basis.
Corporal punishment may be divided into three main types:
1. Parental or domestic corporal punishment, i.e. the spanking of children or teenagers within the family;
2. School corporal punishment, i.e. of school students by teachers or other school officials;
3. Judicial corporal punishment, involving the official caning or whipping of convicted offenders (whether adult or juvenile) by order of a court of law.
The corporal punishment of minors within the home as of 2009 it has been officially outlawed in 24 countries around the world.
Corporal punishment in school has been outlawed in most parts of the world, including the whole of Europe.
Judicial corporal punishment has virtually disappeared from the western world but remains in force in many parts of Africa and Asia.
History of corporal punishment
While the early history of corporal punishment is unclear, the practice was certainly present in classical civilizations, being used in Greece, Rome, and Egypt for both judicial and educational discipline. Practices varied greatly, though scourging and beating with sticks were common.
Some states gained a reputation for using such punishments cruelly; Sparta, in particular, used them frequently as part of a disciplinary regime designed to build willpower and physical strength. Although the Spartan example was extreme, corporal punishment was possibly the most frequent type of punishment. By law the maximum penalty allowed in the Roman Empire was 40 "lashes" or "strokes" with a whip applied to the back and shoulders, or with the "fasces" (similar to a birch rod, though consisting of 8-10 lengths of willow rather than birch) applied to the buttocks. Such punishments would commonly draw blood, and were frequently inflicted in public. Amongst those who suffered this punishment were Jesus of Nazareth and the English Queen Boadicea.
In Medieval Europe, corporal punishment was encouraged by the attitudes of the medieval church towards the human body, with flagellation being a common means of self-discipline. In particular, this had a major influence on the use of corporal punishment in schools, as educational establishments were closely attached to the church during this period. Nevertheless, corporal punishment was not used uncritically; as early as the eleventh century Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury was speaking out against what he saw as the excessive use of corporal punishment in the treatment of children.
From the sixteenth century onwards, new trends were seen in corporal punishment. Judicial punishments were increasingly turned into public spectacles, with the public beatings of criminals intended as a deterrent to other would-be miscreants. Meanwhile, early writers on education, such as Roger Ascham, complained of the arbitrary manner in which children were punished.
Perhaps the most influential writer on the subject was the English philosopher John Locke, whose Some Thoughts Concerning Education explicitly criticised the central role of corporal punishment in education. Locke's work was highly influential, and in part influenced Polish legislators to ban corporal punishment from Poland's schools in 1783.
During the eighteenth century, the concept of corporal punishment was attacked both by philosophers and legal reformers. Merely inflicting pain on miscreants was seen as inefficient, influencing the subject merely for a short period of time and effecting no permanent change in their behaviour. Some believed that the purpose of punishment should be reformation, not retribution. This is perhaps best expressed in Jeremy Bentham's idea of a panoptic prison, in which prisoners were controlled and surveyed at all times, perceived to be advantageous in that this system supposedly reduced the need of measures such as corporal punishment.
Corporal punishment as whipping was especially popular in the French Revolution. For example, one of the leaders of revolution Theroigne de Mericourt went mad, ending her days in an asylum after being subjected to a public whipping. On 31 May 1793 the Jacobin women seized her, stripped her naked, and flogged her on her bare buttocks in the public garden of the Tuileries. After this humiliation she refused to wear any garments, in memory of the outrage she had suffered.
A consequence of this mode of thinking was a diminution of corporal punishment throughout the nineteenth century in Europe and North America. In some countries this was encouraged by scandals involving individuals seriously hurt during acts of corporal punishment. For instance, in Britain, popular opposition to punishment was encouraged by two significant cases, the death of Private Frederick John White, who died after a military flogging in 1846, and the death of the schoolboy Reginald Cancellor, who was killed by his schoolmaster in 1860. Events such as these mobilised public opinion, and in response, many countries introduced thorough regulation of the infliction of corporal punishment in state institutions.
The use of corporal punishment declined through the twentieth century, though the practice has proved most persistent as a punishment in schools.
Corporal punishment in the home
Domestic corporal punishment, i.e. of children and teenagers by their parents, is usually referred to colloquially as "spanking" or "smacking" or "slapping".
In some parts of the world, it is increasingly controversial.
In an increasing number of countries it has been outlawed, starting with Sweden in 1979. In some other countries such as Canada, while not completely banned, it has been restricted by either judicial or legislative decisions.
Corporal punishment in schools
Corporal punishment of school students for misbehaviour involves striking the student on the buttocks or the palm of the hand in a premeditated ceremony with an implement specially kept for the purpose such as a paddle, or with the open hand.
It is not to be confused with cases where a teacher lashes out on the spur of the moment, which is not "corporal punishment" but violence or brutality, and is illegal almost everywhere.
Corporal punishment used to be prevalent in schools in many parts of the world, but in recent decades it has been outlawed in Europe, Japan, Canada, South Africa and other countries. It remains commonplace and lawful in many Asian and African countries.
In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled in Ingraham v. Wright that school corporal punishment is exempt from the Eight Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.
Paddling is used in a number of Southern states, though it is on the decline.
In the UK, corperal punishment was outlawed in state schools in 1986 and in private schools in 1999.
Corporal punishment of male students has always, in most cultures, generally been more prevalent and more severe than that of female students. In Queensland, Australia, school corporal punishment of girls was banned in 1934 but corporal punishment of boys in private schools is still legal as of 2007. In Singapore, schoolboys are routinely caned for misbehaviour while the caning of girls at school is forbidden by law.
Judicial or quasi-judicial punishment
Some societies retain widespread use of judicial corporal punishment, including Malaysia and Singapore. In both those countries, for certain specified offences, males are typically sentenced to caning in addition to a prison term. The Singaporean practice of caning became much discussed around the world in 1994 when American teenager Michael P. Fay was sentenced to be caned for vandalism.
A number of countries with an Islamic legal system, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and northern Nigeria employ judicial whipping for a range of offences. As of 2009, some regions of Pakistan are experiencing a breakdown of law and government, leading to corporal punishment by ad hoc courts. As well as more conventional floggings, Saudi Arabia uses amputations as a method of punishment. Such penalties are highly controversial.
However, the term "corporal punishment" usually means caning or flogging and has not traditionally been used to embrace such penalties as amputation.
Criticism of corporal punishment
The American Psychological Association opposes the use of corporal punishment in schools, juvenile facilities, child care nurseries, and all other institutions, public or private, where children are cared for or educated (Conger, 1975). They state that corporal punishment is violent and unnecessary, may lower self-esteem, is likely to train children to use physical violence, and is liable to instil hostility and rage without reducing the undesired behavior.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has consistently recommended States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to prohibit corporal punishment and other forms of violence against children in institutions, in schools, and in the home ... "To discipline or punish through physical harm is clearly a violation of the most basic of human rights. Research on corporal punishment has found it to be counterproductive and relatively ineffective, as well as dangerous and harmful to physical, psychological and social well being. While many States have developed child protection laws and systems, violence still continues to be inflicted upon children".
However, this interpretation by the Committee, in which it is taken as a given that even moderate corporal punishment constitutes "a form of violence", is not supported by the text of the Convention itself, which nowhere mentions the words corporal punishment, spanking, smacking, slapping, paddling or caning. The Committee was set up to monitor implementation of the Convention.
The Committee is a body of experts (in the specialised UN sense of that word; they are mostly academics or bureaucrats) whose members come from certain UN member states ("States Parties") such as Algeria, Bangladesh, Paraguay and Qatar. Although the UN describes these members as "elected", they are not accountable to anybody: the only democratic input to their appointment is by a secret ballot at a meeting of unelected representatives of UN member states.
Although half its members are not lawyers, and only three of the present members appear to have any experience as jurists, the Committee of its own volition decided some time after the Convention had been signed by member states and come into force in 1990, and without any public consultation or democratic input, to interpret the text as meaning that parental spanking should be made a criminal offence. It is not stated on the UN website whether or not this interpretation has anywhere been tested in an actual court of law, either at an international level or in any country governed by the rule of law.
The Committee thus arguably lays itself open to the charge of practising judicial activism without even being part of the judiciary.
Corporal punishment, fetishism, and BDSM
Corporal punishment is sometimes fetishized, and is the basis of a number of paraphilias, most notably erotic spanking. This phenomenon was first noted by the German psychologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who suggested that sadism and masochism often developed out of the experience of children receiving corporal punishment at school. While this has been a popular interpretation, it was disputed by Sigmund Freud, who suggested that a sexual interest in corporal punishment developed in early childhood and rarely related to actual experiences of punishment.
A crucial, inevitable choice is which part of the body is to suffer the painful treatment; sometimes a combination of several targets is chosen, so as to maximize the longer-lasting discomfort.
Several considerations may be taken into account, chiefly:
how painful it is
how humiliating it is (especially if private areas of the body are bared or if punishment is taking place in the presence of social peers)
how safe it is (except for deliberate mutilation — such as amputation and branding — or execution) grave permanent damage must be avoided if the punishment is severe. Also in more moderate cases, how incapacitating (unless the recipient is already under custodial sentence other than hard labour, physically disabling the victim to work is counterproductive).
convenience. For instant discipline on the spot the preference tends toward parts of the body which can be hit immediately, especially if they are already bare (possibly so ordered or arranged), or where clothing offers little protection. So often head, hands or bare torso are chosen, and areas which can be bared with a simple gesture (lifting a dress or pulling down (under)garments, before proceeding with a beating, etc.
Different parts of the anatomy represent different considerations for punishment:
The buttocks are often targeted for punishment, indeed some languages have a specific word for their chastisement (spanking or smacking in English, fessée in French, nalgada in Spanish (both Romanesque words directly derived from the word for buttock)- this is a logical choice for these rather large, fleshy body parts are sensitive without endangering any bodily functions, heal well and relatively fast and have an intimate connotation that implies intense humiliation, often increased as baring them often also exposes the genitals--care must be taken not to hit these accidentally, so protective padding may be used (also for the kidneys) with dangerous implements, even if the spankee is otherwise stark naked
although lower parts of the back of the legs, notably thighs and calves, are reportedly about as sensitive and no more incapacitating, making them a logical alternative in cultures where a bare bottom is too indecent, they are rarely targeted
the back and the shoulders are the second most common choice; as long as the spine (paralysis possible) and excessive abuse of the kidneys (irreparable) is avoided, great pain is possible with limited incapacitation and humiliation, suitable for an adult 'honor corps' as often in the military
the abdomen and the ribs are again rather dangerous for 'accidental' damage, and hence not a common target
except for deliberate mutilation, the genitalia are rarely targeted, though very sensitive and the most humiliating, for the damage is to hard to control (except with sophisticated modern methods such as electrodes)
joints (such as knees) are an even more illogical, indeed rather rare choice: no humiliation, grave risk of incapacitation and even permanent damage
the head is also a dangerous choice, but more popular, especially the cheeks (relatively safe; indeed the same word is used as an informal term for the buttocks) and boxing the ears (hearing disability tends to manifest itself years later, so it's often ignored)
the hand is very complex in terms of multifunctionality and precision, requiring a sophisticated sense of touch (hence the word 'manipulate', from the Latin 'manus' for 'hand, and 'dexterity' from the Latin 'dexter' for 'right', most people being right-handed). It is quite sensitive and not humiliating, while great force, especially with a hard implement, could cause excessive damage, so usually only the (most fleshy) palm is hit rather than the knuckles, and even then incapacitation (for manual labour and writing as in class) is generally a drawback
the soles of the feet are extremely sensitive, in per-se not humiliating, but quite incapacitating for a long time, while full recovery is possible even after an excruciating dose- see falaka
Still other methods are aimed at the interior, such as non-lethal intoxication, forced-feeding; at the muscles (difficult positions, exercises); or at the whole body, as with hunger, thirst, exhaustion. Corporal punishment can be directed at a number of different anatomical targets, the choice depending on a number of factors. The humiliation and pain of a particular punishment have always been primary concerns, but convenience and custom are also factors. There is an additional concern in the modern world about the permanent harm that can result from punishment, though this was rarely a factor before the nineteenth century. The intention of corporal punishment is to discipline an individual with the infliction of a measure of pain and suffering, and permanent injury is nowadays considered counterproductive.
Most commonly, corporal punishment is directed at the buttocks, with some languages having a specific word for their chastisement. For example, the French call this fessée, the Spanish nalgada. The term spanking refers to open-handed blows to the buttocks. In some parts of the English-speaking world, smacking is used for the same thing. The buttocks are a part of the body often chosen because blows to the buttocks are painful, but are arguably unlikely to cause long-term physical harm.
The back is commonly targeted in military and judicial punishments, particularly popular from the seventeenth through to the beginning of the twentieth centuries. It is still the most common means of physical punishment for males in the Middle East, particularly Iran. However, damage to both spine and kidneys is possible and such punishment is condemned by most Western nations.
Although the face and particularly the cheeks may be struck in domestic punishment, formal punishments avoid the head because of the serious injuries that can result. In some countries, domestic and school punishments aimed at the head are considered assault.
The hands are a common target in school discipline, though rarely targeted in other forms of corporal punishment. Since serious injury can be caused by striking the hand, the implements used and the numbers of blows must be strictly controlled.
In Western Asia, corporal punishment was directed against the feet. Although this was mostly used on criminals, a version was in use in schools in the region.
Ritual and punishment
Corporal punishment in formal settings, such as schools and prisons, is often highly ritualised, sometimes even staged in a highly theatrical manner. To a great extent the spectacle of punishment is intended to act as a deterrent to others and a theatrical approach is one result of this.
One consequence of the ritualized nature of much punishment has been the development of a wide variety of equipment used. Formal punishment often begins with the victim stripped of some or all of their clothing and secured to a piece of furniture, such as a trestle, frame (X-cross), punishment horse or falaka. Oftentimes, the nature of the offense is then read out and the sentence (consisting of a predetermined number of blows) is formally imposed. A variety of implements are then used to inflict blows on the victim. The terms used to describe these are not fixed, varying by country and by context. There are, however, a number of common types which are frequently encountered when reading about corporal punishment. These are:
The rod. A thin, flexible rod is often called a switch.
The birch, a number of strong, flexible branches, bound together in their natural state.
The bamboo canes. A durable rattan cane is often called a rattan.
The paddle, a flat wooden board or leather pad with a handle, with or without holes, spikes, or knobs.
The strap. A strap with a number of tails at one end is called a tawse in Scotland and northern England.
The whip. Varieties include the Russian knout and South African sjambok, in addition to the scourge and martinet.
The cat o' nine tails was a popular implement used in naval discipline.
The hairbrush and belt are traditionally used in the United States and Great Britain as an implement for domestic spanking.
The wooden spoon, commonly used in Australia
The wired clothes hanger, a common and easily available substitute for a bamboo canes in Hong Kong.
The plimsoll gym shoe in British and Commonwealth schools.
The ferula, in Jesuit schools, as vividly described in a scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
In some instances the victim of punishment is required to prepare the implement which will be used upon them. For instance, sailors were employed in preparing the cat o' nine tails which would be used upon their own back, whilst children were sent to cut a switch or rod.
In contrast, informal punishments, particularly in domestic settings, tend to lack this ritual nature and are often administered with whatever object comes to hand. It is common, for instance, for belts, wooden spoons, slippers or hairbrushes to be used in domestic punishment, whilst rulers and other classroom equipment have been used in schools.
In parts of England, boys were formerly beaten under the old tradition of "Beating the Bounds" when a boy was paraded around the boundary of an area of a city or district and would often ask to be beaten on the buttocks. One famous "Beating the Bounds" happened around the boundary of St Giles and the area where Tottenham Court Road now stands in London. The actual stone that separated the boundary is now under the Centerpoint office block. See "London" by Peter Ackroyd for more information on this subject.This method is still used.