The Universal Constant?


In the first half of the 1930s, an English explorer and filmmaker named Major C. Court Treatt (1888-1954) spent months in Africa shooting a documentary which he claimed was an authentic record of an Arab tribe who were driven from their oasis by a drought, and also faced the perils of hostile fauna, brush fire and animal stampede. Variously entitled Sudan and Struggle for Life, the picture was released in the US in 1935, and apparently did reasonable business on the basis that ethnic nudity often went uncensored. One venue in Madera, California, had the bright idea of recruiting the explorer Señor Don A. F. De Ignacio to introduce the picture, and he gave the local newspaper an advance description of an especially choice scene:

‘One of the oldest if not the strangest of customs became evident when the chief prescribed a spanking for the temperamental Arabian heroine and executed it in a manner most universal.’

I’ve never seen the film, so obviously can’t comment on the spanking scene. But what is pertinent is that it was widely suspected that the film wasn’t as authentic a documentary as Major Treatt claimed; on the contrary, said skeptics, the ‘all-native cast’ simply acted out a story devised for the film by Treatt himself. (Moreover, on the strength of it the production company, Bryan Foy Productions, got a contract to make Westerns for Warner Brothers.)

And that raises a question about the supposedly old and familiar custom of spanking the temperamental heroine: was it something genuinely practiced by the African tribe, or was it a product of the Anglo-American cultural imagination that was imposed on them as part of the story? And is the manner of its administration, which must surely have been over the knee, as wholly universal as Señor De Ignacio suggested?

I don’t think it’s nearly so simple as that.

Any argument for the universality of spanking would logically have to begin not with custom, but with the thing that the entire human species has in common: anatomy.

Some barmy 17th-century theologians held that God gave people bottoms so that they could be spanked. The actual observation is sound even though the conclusion is crazily inverted: it would be truer to say that people are spanked because they have bottoms. What other part of the body can you hit with less risk of inflicting serious damage to bone, organ or necessary appendage?

There is the same rationale for using the open hand: the force of a smack is more controllable than a kick, and more distributed, less harmful, than a punch or karate chop.

If you’re going to smack somebody on the bottom who doesn’t want to be smacked, and especially if you plan to do it more than once, you’ll need them to be restrained so that they can’t just walk away, ideally in a position that puts the bottom within easy reach of the hand.

And this means that spanking, in the narrowest sense of the term, is the most efficient way of using the human body to achieve the intended objective. What it does not mean is that spanking is ‘natural’ human behavior, anatomically determined and therefore common to the whole species. There is no biological imperative to spank: the intention has to be there first, and that brings us back to custom – which may be widespread, but is unlikely to be entirely universal.

We have seen just how widespread the human imagination makes the custom of spanking. It features in stories with settings throughout human history, from the caves to outer space. It is attributed to diverse cultures across the globe. It is even shown being practiced by other species, such as great apes, cats and even elephants, not to mention wolves.

This is not zoology, just as the cross-cultural examples are not ethnology or anthropology, nor the fictional period settings history – whether or not naughty girls (and kinky ones) actually were spanked in those times.

We can illustrate the point with reference to an Oaky Doaks story from 1947, in which King Corny receives a letter from dancer Mimi Montclair, to the effect that she is being held prisoner and begging him to send Oaky to rescue her. Chivalrous Oaky rides straight off to do it, and gets a warm reception.

oaky 1

But Mimi is vexed to find that, even though she notified all the newspapers, no reporters have shown up to cover the story, which means they will have to do it all over again. Yes, she has faked her own kidnapping as a publicity stunt!

But perhaps after all she has some reason to be glad there are no reporters about…

Of course, this is a story that has no real place in the Middle Ages and everything to do with the mid-20th century, the time when it was written, for which it was written and arguably about which it was written: it is the projection of present realities and customs onto the past.

And what happens across time also happens in cultural geography. Remember the East African Teso tribe, the subject of an item on ‘strange romantic customs’ in a romance comic book of March 1952?

The strange custom is of course, the stick-wearing, not the spanking, which is understood as conventional romantic behavior (and is presented as such in many a love story of that time). But now look at where the feature got its information from, a Ripley’s ‘Believe It or Not’ panel syndicated the previous August:

Nothing at all about spanking there, just beating with a stick: the specificity of spanking is something the romance writer has added, imposing it on the African tribe in much the same way, albeit at longer range, as Major Treatt did to his ethnic cast a few decades earlier.

And when it comes to different species, the same point is most efficiently made with reference to creatures that don’t actually exist in nature, such as alien monsters, or these Satyrs in an early 16th-century engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi:

Obviously these beings must reflect a form of human behavior and nothing else, because there are no real Satyrs: they are simply figments of the human imagination doing things that some people do. And that brings us on to another dimension of the issue.

We are talking about an impulse to universalize spanking by ascribing it to everyone, in the past, in the future, different cultures and species on Earth and beyond. But we have also noticed that some historical periods seem to attract more spanking scenarios than others, and that even in the imagined past, some kinds of people do it more often than others. There is a fundamental tension between the wish to believe that everyone spanks, even savage peoples, and the alternative, incompatible idea that only savage peoples spank: barbarians rather than knights, pirates rather than educated gentlemen and civil servants, Satyrs rather than people.

But spanking does not belong exclusively (if at all) to other periods, cultures and species, as will be obvious from even a glance at 20th-century popular culture in Europe and America. And look what happens when natives recommend it to gringos, as in The Primitive Lover (1922), or a 1972 Patoruzú strip in which the ethnic chief advises a white husband on the best way to deal with his misbehaving wife, and even gives a demonstration:

The implication is that if it’s not universal, then it ought to be, because it’s efficacious!

Spanking tends to attract contradictory attitudes because it is itself a compromise between contradictory impulses: the primitive desire to hit and the civilized concern not to harm. So some people do not accept spanking to be a form of violence (as in ‘I didn’t beat her, I spanked her’), whereas others condemn it for being just that (as in ‘spanking is hitting, and hitting is wrong’). For a well-adjusted person, meaning someone capable of engaging with different shades of opinion rather than rigidly committed to just one side, this is why spanking traditionally ‘hurts me more than you’; the contradiction is a breeding-ground for feelings of guilt, and so for attempted justification or self-exculpation. And that’s what’s going on here: common contemporary behavior is understood to be acceptable because universal, rather than culturally or historically determined, or else it is disavowed by attributing it to people who might be considered less civilized, or even less human than us. But in the end, these stories are all about us, our customs, our behavior – or they were, until the world changed

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