What’s the Damage?

Let’s begin with A Gun for Honey (1958), a hard-boiled detective novel with the twist that the detective is a sexy young woman, Honey West (who later had her own TV series starring Anne Francis).

Early in the story, the naked, dead body of Helena Collier is found. There is one odd thing about it: she has a red bottom, ‘as if she had been spanked’. There’s a good and obvious reason for that: as one of the suspects later admits,

‘Helena was a spoiled, ruthless little brat, so I turned her over my knee and spanked her bare bottom until it was raw.’

I’m not altogether sure about the pathological authenticity of that, post mortem, but one thing that’s certainly true, and generally acknowledged, is that spanking has a distinct effect on the color of bottoms. They may sometimes only turn a healthy pink, a different way of putting color in her cheeks,

but it’s also the etymological basis of the verb tan as a synonym for spank:

she’ll get such a hiding that her bottom changes color!

We know this. But do we need to see it?

Some creators of spanking imagery, such as the artist J. K. Perez, evidently believe that we do, hence some of the spot color in this otherwise rather likeable toon:

I’ve just implicitly given away how I feel about that. An awful lot of modern spanking pictures, especially but not exclusively porn, seem to assume it’s essential to show a bright red bottom; some people even go to the trouble of adapting existing imagery, including even callipygean non-spanking pictures, to fulfill that supposedly fundamental element of the genre. And I really hate it.

At this point, it’s worth applying the usual rule I have for thinking about porn and many other disagreeable things in life: I may dislike this, but if it gives pleasure to others, is not unlawful and causes no demonstrable harm, just let it alone. It’s not for me, but why should my tastes dictate what’s available to anyone else?

The trouble with the ‘does no harm’ criterion as applied to spanking is that, demonstrably, it does do some harm, however minor and temporary, which is there for all to see in those seemingly inescapable red bottoms.

There are two broad lines of argument asserting the harmfulness of porn. And I’m sorry if I make anyone feel uncomfortable by going into them, but it’s necessary in order to develop the case I’m making.

It is a core, undeniable ethical principle concerning child pornography that if there is a photograph showing abuse, then abuse has taken place, and anyone who chooses to look at that photograph for sexual gratification is complicit in that abuse. But that doesn’t necessarily apply to other forms of porn, including spanking porn where, hopefully, the models with reddened rears are of legal age, chose to do the work and were properly paid for it (or else are exhibitionistic masochists giving their services for free).

I am even less persuaded by the other argument, which applies more broadly not only to photographs but also imaginary material like drawings and stories that have no prior original outside the creative human mind. The claim is that people who look at abusive or violent porn end up reenacting it, so that porn creates and sustains in life the things it represents in fantasy. I have no doubt that a tiny minority of porn users are indeed abusers and rapists; they are contemptible, and should be locked up. But when the porn constituency also includes a large majority of reasonably well-adjusted individuals with no criminal or sociopathic tendencies, the case for a simple causal connection has got to be wildly overstated, or mistaken: porn may be used by rapists, but they are not rapists because they use porn. And I say that, remember, as someone who actively dislikes porn.

But there is a third kind of harm that is less often recognized because the people it most affects are easy to marginalize. I’m talking about us. Material that is created purely to service our kink implies a statement about exactly what that kink is: if you’re into spanking, this must be the sort of thing you like. Well, that’s fine if it is; but what if it isn’t?

To illustrate what I’m getting at, take a look at this nice picture of Kylie Minogue onstage in 2002:

There are people online with the technical skills to doctor the photo by adding the color red to a certain area of Kylie, which would supposedly make it into a ‘spanking picture’. It’s a hypothetical example, but there are plenty of unlovely real equivalents out there. So the assumption is that what spanking enthusiasts most enjoy is not the spectacle of spanking but its physical effects, realistically rendered or, in the case of red-bottom porn photos, authentically produced. It sends out the message, received well beyond the narrow ranks of spanking porn users, that spankos are sadists.

Some are, and it is not my purpose to criticize or rebuke them for their tastes: enjoy what you like, so long as the other person involved does too. But include me out: my enjoyment of spanking scenes has little to do with the infliction of real pain, and the ubiquitous literalist red bottom imagery makes me wince. What’s more important is that it unavoidably has the same effect on ‘normies’ who don’t share or instinctively understand our proclivities, and are unlikely to accept them as an ordinary element of human diversity if what they see is easier to interpret as a desire to glory in suffering. If we present ourselves, or allow ourselves to be seen, as gleefully red-bottom-fixated sadists, we marginalize ourselves. That’s the damage.

But as I started out by saying, spanking does have a physical effect, and I am not recommending that we should naively ignore it altogether, even if the essence of our pleasure in the trope lies elsewhere. And since this has been the serious part of the argument, we can have some fun exploring the other possibilities in the second part of the article.

10 thoughts on “What’s the Damage?

  1. ourbottomsburn says:

    I think your argument is well stated. I don’t require seeing a red bottom. Unspanked is fine. I can imagine it being spanked. If colored, pink is OK, blood red is a turnoff.


  2. Patron says:

    I don’t quite agree with your blanket application of the term harm in relation to spanking and redness. We know that spanking can be applied on a very broad spectrum of sensation that has extreme pain on one end of it. Harm exists somewhere on this spectrum, but for many, pain is not the genesis. The journey from sensation to pain also has an inconsistent relationship with redness. I’ve been with women who got redder from leaning on them than other women got from a full on spanking.

    Then there’s the matter of pain itself, once the sensation turns into pain. For some people, there are multiple levels of pain that are not distressing. I’m not speaking about masochists who like pain. I mean regular people whose tolerance causes them to separate “pain” from “hurt.” As in, yes that’s painful, but it’s not hurting me. This becomes relevant when we look at acceptable pain like going to the gym and getting really sore, which can hurt far more than a spanking that causes remarkable redness, but would still not come close to “harm.”

    Slapping someone’s bottom does not always cause pain before it causes redness, and for everyone, the relationship between pain and harm is subjective. Another side topic that you touched on is the spirit in which the act is done. I’ve seen playful spankings (and other physical play) that are much harder than a punitive spanking, but the intensity of the milder but more emotionally charged punitive spanking caused a greater reaction.

    I think this great spectrum of experience is why the topic of spanking is so much more layered and complex than most people realize.


    • Harry says:

      This is where we come back to the difference between spanking in cultural product and spanking as a human practice. I don’t dispute your more nuanced approach to the issue in terms of what people do, but I’m talking about how the act is represented and understood, which involves more than just what it is experientially.

      My point is that if we want to be accepted, we have to present ourselves to the world in a way that makes ourselves more understandable than many people in recent decades have taken us to be. That means we first have to work our way around the preconceptions of ‘normies’, which are often sincere and reasonable even if they may not always be true to our experience.

      It’s easy to hear the point that spankophobes need to modify their attitudes to us, but harder to take the logically concomitant point that we too have to modify our own public behavior in the interests of facilitating that. (That’s a general comment rather than directed at you particularly.) But it’s important: the deep trouble our culture has gotten into arises from everybody wanting to have exactly their own way all of the time, rather than being prepared to compromise some of the time in the interests of finding cultural common ground.

      To achieve that, we have to be willing to give up, even if only temporarily, some of the purity and integrity of our spankophile position. If we can get the other side to where they don’t instinctively recoil from us (because we happen to love something they hate and fear), then we have a chance of talking to them rationally. That’s when it will be useful to introduce the notion of ‘good pain’, and to make the persuasive analogy of a gym workout. We have to get them to listen first.


  3. James Scribner says:

    I personally don’t regard spanking as an act of sex or violence but rather as an alternative to sex and violence as it was once almost universally accepted


    • Harry says:

      Naturally you can believe what you like personally and privately, but even so it is undeniable that a large majority of non-spanko people now understand spanking as either a form of sexual activity or a form of violence. Contemporary attitudes to spanking have moved on since the 1950s, and although we can still enjoy contemplating our past, let’s not kid ourselves that we can bring it back in any form other than historical reenactment or other kinds of fiction and roleplay. We have to work out a way of living in the present, preferably as an accepted part of the mainstream rather than some kind of despised reactionary ghetto. And one thing that doesn’t help us to deal with the fallout from a gradual but well-embedded cultural change is pretending that it hasn’t happened. We don’t have to agree with it in every aspect, but we do have to live with it.


      • Harry says:

        I should also have said that the attitude to spanking you describe is an accurate, pithy statement of a view that was widespread in the middle of the last century (but was never universal, as documented here and here). Yes, our recent ancestors regarded it as a toned-down alternative to serious violence, on the basis that it is better for Petruchio to spank Kate than hit her with a whip. (I touch on this here, and may explore the Shrew case more fully in a future article.) Yes, spanking scenes provided a shorthand for the early stages of a sexual encounter in an era where anything more direct was taboo (as touched on here). Then culture became more free and easy about sex, and so spanking became less useful as an indirect way of representing it.

        I believe that the neo-Puritan forces in our society are trying to push us into a period when sexual matters are handled much less freely and are the focus of a lot more needless anxiety and fear. But this is unlikely to lead to a renaissance of the kind of mainstream M/F spanking that prevailed three or four generations back, because of the particular dynamic driving the change.


  4. iminwprnot says:

    I must confess that I am a “gleefully red-bottom-fixated sadist,” sort of. Except:

    There is much more to my fetish than that. This explains why I think “Vanilla Spanking” is an excellent site or blog. I very much an admirer and follower of VS. You consistently give context to the subject that is much needed, thoughtful, and fun. (Thank you for the well-chosen image of Kylie Minogue – and countless other images.)

    My desire to actually participate in this activity is strictly and absolutely limited to a (hoped for) “submissive” who is an adult of sound mind who is at least consenting. My preference would be for one who is WILLING to “play” this role. i.e., just a little bit masochistic – as I am (though I slightly hate to admit it) a little bit sadistic. (My “sadism” is limited to fantasizing “naughty girl” scenarios, in a reasoned and reasonable moral/ethical situation where the “submissive” has truly misbehaved to such an extent that the punishment is reluctantly accepted, and it is essential in my fantasies that the “dominant” person in the picture is respected – even liked – by the “submissive”.) I know and appreciate that you have been very clear in your acceptance of such mutual-consenting, adult role-playing.

    As you and others have said, the “reddening” or actual, physical “damage” that occurs in spanking includes a wide range of visible effects, with actual “redness” being on the extreme side, but the pink-to-rouge-ness is part of it, unless it’s just an accidental or deliberate matter of posing.

    Posed, clearly not-real spanking (images) are a turn-off to me, unless I can manage to imagine them being “real”.

    I will leave out what could be pages of discussion on “discipline” but, as a matter of fact, the real, original purpose of spanking includes some degree of pain that, as you correctly acknowledge, should be temporary. It has to sting… and it hurts for a few minutes or at most, maybe an hour or so.

    I despise the word “porn” or any form of it. It comes from words alluding to prostitution, which COULD BE respectable (if or when societies allow it to be so), but is generally degrading and not-infrequently harmful (especially to females). I prefer the word “erotic”.

    Examples: The many KMK images, or – among my very favorites – the McHale’s Navy “Babette” video or stills, or even the many ballet spanking images. I could cite many more performances, but the fact is, “It’s supposed to hurt” (at least in our imagination). For some of us, it’s also sexual, which usually involves some nudity.

    There’s a very old phrase, “slap and tickle”.

    In your post “What’s the Damage?” you basically express a concern about us “spankos” being shunned, frowned on, or marginalized. Without researching and citing actual scientific research, I believe (or guess) at least 20% of people who are “sexual” at all have some “kinky” inclinations. My guess is, “spankos” constitute less than 5% (although I believe more than that might have some potential to participate in spanking for enjoyment in some circumstances). So we are a minority.

    If I theorize or imagine one of the majority of people (who are completely “kink-free”) stumbling across a demure presentation of what is after all a spanking fixation (such as VS), I believe they would be less disgusted than if they encountered the more graphic forms (including so much more nudity and yes, “redness”) but they would still be disgusted, and I don’t care about that. They can mind their own blue-nosed business. I don’t care what they do in privacy; if it’s legal, it’s none of my business. I believe most reasonable people would give the same leeway to those of those of us with “unconventional” erotic tastes.


    • Harry says:

      Thank you for writing so frank and full a response. It may not be exactly my take on things, but I don’t take issue with any of it, except perhaps the insistence on the etymological meaning of the word ‘porn’ over its sense in current general usage (which I don’t conflate with erotica, let alone mainstream material like KMK or McHale’s Navy).


      • iminwprnot says:

        What I meant (but didn’t make sufficiently clear) is that KMK, “Babette,” “McLintock!”, etc., etc. – these performances are all erotic to me. I somewhat hate to admit I am old enough to remember a certain scene in the movie “In the Navy” – when the movie was new – and that scene was mind-blowing to me. I can’t help but think there could have been some “kinky” influence behind many or most of these.

        I believe you are correct to say that nobody nowadays associates the term “porn” with its etymological origins. That’s just my own take on it, which may be too technical or semantic. I believe “porn” is widely disrespected… perhaps ironically proportional to the popularity of it. “Erotica” is the term I prefer, but it is not the term that most people think of.

        Regardless of our differences, “VS” is certainly excellent and valuable. I love VS!


      • Harry says:

        That’s where we might hit a snag.

        I do not think that spanking imagery is necessarily classifiable as erotica, just because I have a sexual response to it. To help think around this issue, let’s take another not uncommon fetish: is a picture of a woman wearing white knee socks a piece of erotica, simply because some people will get that kind of pleasure from it? Obviously not: some is and some isn’t, and the distinction depends on other factors than simply the content and how someone reacts to it. So we need a more sophisticated way of defining what any given piece of material inherently is, rather than simply imposing our own take on it. That doesn’t invalidate the sexual reaction itself, it just means that we shouldn’t narcissistically assume that what the material does for us is the essence of what it is and what it was created for.

        That’s another reason why I am suspicious of the kind of speculation that imagery (both spanking and otherwise) that can elicit a sexual response, was created because of somebody’s private sexual tastes. It may have been, but it’s none of our business, and anyway material created for general public consumption, rather than for a niche audience, must be open to different responses depending on the various tastes and attitudes of individual viewers. Some people find spanking sexy (to markedly different degrees), some find it just funny, some find it uncomfortable or frightening. What is opprobrious is the wish to take one response as normative and close down all the others, and enthusiastic spankophiles can be as guilty of this as horrified spankophobes.

        I also don’t find it helpful to jettison pornography as a specific conceptual category. I define it as material produced solely to gratify a sexual taste (and to be sold to consumers with that taste), with no substantive engagement with the world beyond such preoccupations. The term erotica is broader, but still not so broad as to cover everything that gets a sexual response: all porn is a species of erotica, but not all erotica is porn, and not all sexy material is erotica. I dislike and despise porn but I don’t want to stop people using it if they want to – though I find it striking that my article critiquing spanking porn a few years ago got three responses from people who all agreed with the argument but said that even so they still ‘had to’ use porn, which might suggest that there is something dangerously compulsive or addictive about it. What is just as dangerous, if not more so, is treating everything as if it is all the same kind of material, like the recent deplorable tendency among some art historians to classify representations of (for example) the Three Graces as pornography.

        If there’s no sense of scale and proportion, then it becomes easier for the neo-Puritans to denounce it all as demeaning sleaze that should be kept out of public discourse.

        People who, like you, are mainly interested in the sexual practice of spanking are rightly concerned with their right to privacy. People who, like me, are mainly interested in spanking as a cultural trope are, also rightly, concerned with the right to live in a free and open culture. If all spanking scenes are erotica, then all spanking is sex, and that creates the danger that these two important rights can each be made the enemy of the other: unless we differentiate by degrees, not prying into your bedroom might also mean not allowing anyone to watch the spanking scene in Kiss Me Kate. So let’s try and get back that vital sense of scale.


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