A Brief History of Fun (for Some)

Hello again, Lola Montez.

The last time we met her, she was dancing on the American stage in the 1850s and being spanked during a fractious relationship with a costar. But now we are in central Europe in the second half of the 1840s. In 1846, the 25-year-old Lola became the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who was more than twice her age, and who made her a countess. (He also commissioned this portrait of her, to be part of his ‘Gallery of Beauties’ in the aptly named Nymphenburg Palace in Munich.) She was a power behind the throne for a couple of years, but the affair became a public scandal and Lola was forced to flee the country shortly before Ludwig himself abdicated in the revolution of 1848.

Her departure that February came after a period of extreme civil unrest in which the students of the University of Munich were prominent. One incident is of especial interest. Amazing as it may seem to modern security-minded people, a party of students not only managed to get into the palace but burst into an amorous meeting between the King and Lola. According to a contemporary newspaper report, they

seized the unfortunate courtesan, and in the presence of her kingly admirer, laid her across a table, and stripping her to the waist, gave her such a spanking as she never received since she left her mother’s arms.

Satirical caricatures of the time do indeed show Lola being indelicately manhandled by the mob, albeit not actually spanked,

but there was one thing the reporter got wrong there. I neither know nor care whether Lola was spanked by her mother during her tempestuous childhood, but it later emerged that she had certainly been spanked since, and on her bare bottom too – not for punishment, but fun, as one of the bedroom games she used to play with King Ludwig.

And obviously that complicates any attempt to assemble a history of the spanking of grown women: we’re dealing with a single type of action that can be two substantively different things, or even contain aspects of both simultaneously.

M/F spanking has been around as a sexual fetish, or game, for a very long time. The British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (1779-1848) was a devotee,

and in his time he spanked not only his wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, who later became Lord Byron’s mistress,

but also his own mistress, Caroline Norton, the granddaughter of the playwright Sheridan.

In an 1839 letter to him, the latter, non-legal Caroline went so far as to remark that ‘whipping’ (meaning spanking) was his ‘favorite subject’!

And we can trace it back a long way, through the various spanking monks of Reformation satire, to more bedroom games between the future Queen Elizabeth I and her stepmother’s husband, Thomas Seymour.

According to scandalous gossip of the time, he made a habit of coming to her room in the morning, chasing the teenage Princess playfully round the bed and spanking her. The relationship is recreated in Emily Purdy’s novel Mary and Elizabeth (2011), in which she exults in her sexual power over him:

I forced myself to show more restraint and donned a proper form-concealing white linen nightgown or gossamer-thin cobweb lawn night-shift to tantalizingly veil my burgeoning woman’s body, so that he would tease me out of it, shouting, ‘Begone, virtuous raiments!’ and chastise me for my false modesty and pull me naked and squealing across his knees to spank my bare bottom until it bore a matching set of smarting red handprints and he could truly say, not just in jest, that he had left his mark on me.

Well, that’s modern American fiction. As for old English reality, historians differ as to whether she was a coquette or he was a pest, and in any event, as I have suggested elsewhere, the judgmental eye rarely offers the most illuminating approach to the past. But there is no denying that there was something obviously problematic in the relationship, even though it was not, in itself, the spanking.

We find the same difficulty, but with less ambiguity, in the various street attackers who flourished intermittently between the late 17th century and the mid-20th, and who were known initially as ‘Whipping Toms’. (The press dubbed a later exponent, in an English country town in the 1960s, ‘The Bottom-Smacker of Banbury’.) A description of the modus operandi appears in a 1681 newspaper reporting the experience of one early victim, said to be a maidservant:

With great speed and violence he seized her and in a trice, laying her across his knee, took up her linen and laid so hard upon her backside as made her cry out most piteously for help, the which he no sooner perceiving to approach but he vanished; and although diligent search was made, no person could be found.

Public opinion tended to treat it lightly, in part because a spanking was a minor matter compared with other injuries (or worse) that an attacker might inflict, partly because the element of indignity gave it a potentially comic dimension, but also because the victims, women on the streets late at night, were likely to be ‘no better than they should be’ and so were deemed less worthy of consideration by polite society. One early Whipping Tom even became a kind of folk hero in a ballad of 1684 with the refrain,

Then, females, ’ware how late you stray
Lest Whipping Tom your buttocks pay.

(The woodcut was printed as an illustration of the ballad, but obviously has nothing to do with it; by the looks of it, the actual subject is the judicial punishment of a prostitute in Bridewell or some such place.)

It’s hard not to see this as predatory behavior belonging on a spectrum whose other end is street rape, which is why I’ve always found it an uncomfortable piece of social history as well as an entertaining imaginative scenario. But what is difficult to deny, and what is important in this discussion, is that there was a sexual motivation for what these men were doing.

Whipping Tom

There is a red herring here, but also, potentially, a window into a new dimension of the history. I think it’s reductive to treat all historic spankings, or even most of them, as if they were acts of kink, squashing the complexity and diversity of human behavior into restrictive categories unsympathetically labeled ‘sexual assault’ and ‘abuse’. (That doesn’t, of course, mean that abuse and assault never happened and aren’t an appropriate judgement in some cases, just that it doesn’t fit them all.) But since there is kink, that begs the question, where does it come from? And unless kink is either an inscrutable genetic predisposition or a self-perpetuating cultural meme, the answer must be that it comes from non-kink.

A stage play that will never receive extended treatment here is Thomas Shadwell’s Restoration comedy The Virtuoso (1676), in which a character visits a prostitute seeking an experience he got the taste for when he was a schoolboy at Westminster: ‘I love fustigation mightily,’ he says. It’s often argued, and I don’t mean to dispute it, that adult sexual pleasure sometimes involves the reenactment of childhood punishments: it supports the point I have just made, that kink is born out of everyday non-sexual practices. But that really only covers those whose taste is for receiving. What about Whipping Tom? What non-kink did his kink come from?

I can’t pretend to have any secure answer to that, though I will say that I don’t think it has anything directly to do with the punishment of young children: spankers are not sublimated pedophiles. And since many like at least the illusion of non-consensuality, the pleasuring of masochists is also not their primary objective. That’s why it’s unhelpful to characterize every spanking of a post-pubescent woman as an inherently sexual act: some of the cases we have been considering may have had that tinge, others may not, and each must be understood individually on its own terms. But if we accept that at least some of the pre-1920s cases we have found indicate the existence of a cultural practice of spanking errant adults, particularly but not necessarily only women, a practice that was known even if it was not often written about or reported, then that helps to account for the existence of spanking as a sexual fetish.

And if that’s right, then we can tentatively press the reasoning to a further ramification: the two different aspects of the phenomenon are mutually self-reinforcing. That panoply of historic spanking kinksters from King Ludwig in the 19th century all the way back to Thomas Seymour in the 16th, if not beyond, implies in turn that there must have been a longer and richer history of mainstream, non-kink spanking than has survived in the form of direct evidence: the handful of cases we found, from Christabel Pankhurst in 1908 back to Kitty Clive in 1746, must only have been the tip of an iceberg that extends back (to mix the metaphor horribly) at least to the late 1540s to be the non-kink basis of those dubious Tudor bedroom games. It was probably not the commonest context for spanking, hence the remarks (about Kitty Clive as well as Lola Montez) that spanked women had been treated in a manner they hadn’t experienced since leaving the nursery, and hence also the saying that if a grown woman behaves like a child, she’ll be treated as one. But however infrequent it may have been in practice, the conclusion seems reasonable: an ‘old-fashioned spanking’ is not, after all, the misnomer that some have supposed it to be.

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