Most of the interesting modern scenarios involving spanking turn on the fact that it can be more than one kind of act, either punitive or sexual. The single most awkward moment arising from that is here imagined by the French satirical cartoonist Frédéric Deligne:
The child makes sense of what it sees (and isn’t supposed to see) within the horizons of its own experience, which happens to be the wrong sense.
That doesn’t necessarily mean direct experience: some toon children have evidently been exposed to progressive opinion on disciplinary matters.
But what they haven’t yet been exposed to is the other way to understand spanking, within the very different horizons of adult experience – hence the misunderstanding that is the essence of these jokes.
Kids can’t be expected to understand the mysteries of adult sexual games, but out of all the professions you’d expect a doctor to be more clued up about it. But one who is rather slow on the uptake is the old-fashioned, slightly stuffy Dr Heston Carter (Owen Brenman), one of the central characters of the BBC’s long-running daytime soap Doctors. In the episode ‘Two’s Company’ (shown on April 16, 2010), he volunteers to handle the medical practice’s new computer consultant, Susan Matheson (Tracey Childs), and they are attracted to one another. Here she is:
And maybe it’s worth showing another angle on Tracey Childs from earlier in her career:
He thinks he has found a promising partner who shares his love of good food and wine. What he doesn’t pick up is her casual but significant references to naughtiness. He retreats into his repressions when her friend Wendy (Lucy Bayler) turns up and they not only offer him a threesome, but purloin his jacket to prevent him from leaving. Things then get even more complicated with the arrival of someone whose very existence was hitherto unsuspected: Susan’s husband Marcus (Tim Berrington). Heston hides in the bathroom and overhears the ensuing marital argument:
MARCUS: Alright, where is he?
MARCUS: Don’t play games with me, Susan!
WENDY: She’s not lying!
MARCUS: Don’t treat me like an idiot. You’re both up to your old tricks again, aren’t you?
SUSAN: But Marcus…
(There is the sound of a smack.)
MARCUS: I warned you what would happen if I caught you again.
SUSAN: No, Marcus, please!
(Another smack, and squeals from Susan.)
And then we cut from Heston in hiding to a close-up of Susan:
Followed by a wide shot for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know what is happening, or would just like to see a bit more of it:
Not very much more, because after the fourth smack (and the second in vision) Heston intervenes to put a stop to this terrible outbreak of domestic violence, comically wielding a toilet brush as a weapon. What he hasn’t picked up on was the slightly flat delivery of the dialog leading up to the spanking, expertly simulated by actors who would be perfectly capable of a convincing performance if required. ‘There’s no need to get excited,’ says Wendy, ‘it’s just a bit of role play.’ And with that, Marcus suavely invites Heston to ‘come on in’ and join the fun.
‘Ye gods,’ says Heston, ‘you’re swingers!’ And he proceeds to show his narrow-mindedness with an ‘I’m not a prude, but…’ tirade, to which Marcus retorts, ‘Our lifestyle is liberating, open and does no one any harm.’
If the scriptwriters had only left it at that, Heston would have been the butt of the joke, wrong-footed like the toon children encountering the wider, more complex and diverse world of adult sexuality. The trouble is, Heston is a series regular, whereas the ‘swingers’ are just passing visitors for this one episode, so Heston is the one who has to have the last word and leave with his dignity intact. He could have done it by joining in with good humor, or else declining politely; but instead, Marcus and friends are deflated with his expert medical knowledge when he detects at a glance the symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease and tells them they must all come in for a checkup.
It seems that while spanking may be a normal sexual game for ‘swingers’, it’s not at all normal for the many who don’t share the inclination. That’s why it is the subject of a misunderstanding, and why the participants must ultimately be ‘punished’ with an embarrassing ailment. It’s a mean-spirited payoff, but sadly not atypical of developing attitudes, of which there will be more to say in due course.