October 06, 2021 3 min read
With spanking still being widely used as a punishment for children today (despite strong scientific evidence that it is bothtraumatic andineffectual), it’d be easy to assume that spanking has mostly been a punitive act throughout history. And while that may be true,erotic spanking – i.e. spanking that takes place between consenting adults, for the purposes of pleasure and excitement – has a long history as well.
The Etruscans were a civilization that existed in ancient Italy, and their “Tomb of the Whipping” – created around 490 B.C.E. – contains one of the oldest surviving artistic depictions of an erotic spanking. One painting in the hallowed tomb shows two men spanking a woman with their hands and a whip, presumably in an erotic scenario. So we know that humans have been spanking each other for pleasure for at least 2,500 years, and probably longer!
We also know that various ancient sex manuals, including the famous Kama Sutra from India (~400 B.C.E.), mention spanking as one route to sexual arousal. Although the writers of these manuals didn’t know the exact reasons spanking can be a turn-on, modern science has been able to explain at least one reason: the butt region shares an artery and some nerve tracts with the genital region, meaning that the two areas feel somewhat connected, sensation-wise, and that increasing bloodflow to one can result in increased bloodflow to the other. (This is also, incidentally, yet another convincing argument for whyspanking kids is gross and immoral.)
The 19th century brought an uptick in the public’s interest in spanking, with photography and novellas on the subject beginning to abound. The term “spanking” itself was alsocoined around this time. Adults would spank each other both for erotic reasons and for punitive ones; it was legal at the time, for example, for a man to beat his wife, with the assumption that he would do so judiciously and in service of making her a more obedient and moral wife (though of course, these limitations likely were not enforced much). We were a long way away from developing BDSM frameworks such as safewords and “risk-aware consensual kink,” so, while it is possible that some of those women enjoyed their beatings more than they were meant to, it seems likely that spanking was almost exclusively done non-consensually at this time.
The terms “sadist” and “masochist” both come from the names of actual historical figures who participated in these activities. Sadism was named for the Marquis de Sade, an 18th-century French politician and philosopher who is said to have become obsessed with flagellation (i.e. flogging or whipping) after receiving severe corporal punishment at school. However, de Sade seems to have enjoyed hurting people non-consensually, so his brand of sadism is not the kind we associate today with safe, consensual BDSM.
Masochism, on the other hand, was named for Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, a writer from Austria who was born 22 years after de Sade died. His bookVenus in Furs tells the story of a submissive man who falls in love with a dominant woman and forms a relationship with her that is built on kinky degradation and “abuse.” The book seems to have reflected Sacher-Masoch’s own desires, so much so that Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing named masochism after him in the groundbreaking sexual pathology textPsychopathia Sexualis – to Sacher-Masoch’s chagrin.
In the mid- to late 20th century, spanking and other kinky acts were further popularized by the underground proliferation of fetish photography and pornography. The legendary American model Bettie Page famously posed for many such photos and videos while working for photographer Irving Klaw in the 1950s. Page dropped out of the business in the late ‘50s to convert to evangelical Christianity.
Today, spanking is a well-known practice in the kink scene. It is enjoyed by many different types of BDSM practitioners, including spankophiles (or “spankos”), people who specifically fetishize spanking to the point that it may be the main focus of their sexuality, prioritized above (or substituted for) more conventional sexual activities. Spanking erotica, porn, and instructional materials are available for those curious about this long-stigmatized act. Spanking has even showed up in numerous mainstream movies, such asSecretary,Fifty Shades of Grey, andA Dangerous Method. The journey toward the normalization of erotic spanking has been a long one, beginning on cave walls and ending on silver screens – but at long last, you could say that as a kink act, it’s become a smash “hit”!
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