Gently Does It

Here’s the voice artist and singer Alicyn Packard:

In 2009, she released a comedy number called ‘The Pinky Song’ (here), in which she sings to her seraphically bemused beau about her (or her character’s) unusual sexual tastes and all the different varieties of kink she might enjoy practicing with him. This includes:

‘How about a nice light spanking?’

Well, she’s in the right position and of course whatever turns you on is good for you – but is it really accurate to describe a spanking as ‘nice’ and ‘light’?

She goes on to sing, ‘I’m getting really sore.’ Well, no, dear, not after ‘a nice, light spanking’ you’re not!

There’s a fault-line running through spanking. On the one side, its primary and historic purpose, an aversive method of discipline and punishment, something painful to be feared and avoided. On the other, a kinky type of foreplay, something stimulating to be desired, requested and enjoyed.

The relationship between the two sides of the divide, the bridge across the chasm, is complex but now well understood and often cited by psychologists seeking to explain the spanking fetish. Many of the things that may serve to make a spanking more efficient in achieving the primary purpose – that is, causing temporary discomfort in a specific part of the body that will suffer no serious or long-term ill-effects as a result – will also have the effect of increasing the intimacy of the action.

When a naughty girl is put across a man’s knee, the purpose is to optimize the relative placement of hand and bottom;

but it also means that their genitalia are in the closest proximity they are likely to get other than in the act of penetrative sex.

If the naughty girl’s skirt is raised to enhance the impact, it entails the exposure of garments that are not usually visible in public, but are a secret between lovers.

And if her panties are removed,

then, for the same reason, it becomes more intimate still.

And that’s how substantively the same action can nevertheless be two essentially different things, depending on how it is intended and understood by the two participants.

We’ve seen before how spanking ‘crossed the bridge’ with the great liberalization of sexual attitudes in the 1960s: up to the early part of that decade, the primary connotation was punitive, whereas after that the erotic dimension gradually took over. But even before then, it was often recognized that spanking wasn’t necessarily an uncomplicated act of discipline. In 1938, the London Daily Mirror published a letter from a correspondent signing himself ‘Pacifist’, who was worried about his girlfriend’s behavior:

‘Lately she seems to delight in annoying me, and when I am upset she tells me to spank her. On the last occasion after a scene she tried to put herself across my knee, and because I flatly refused to smack her she would not speak to me for several days. I love her too much to do anything to her, so what should I do?’

The Mirror’s answer:

’Spank, you chump! Spank! And spank again!’

There was less tacit understanding in the younger, brasher culture on the other side of the Atlantic. When mid-century American advice columnists received such letters, they usually replied to the effect that such women needed their heads examining: acknowledgement of their existence, but refusal to entertain the idea that there might be anything normal about them. Partly that’s because the spectrum of recognized behavioral normality was narrower then, but it’s also pertinent that many of the same columnists were quite ready to endorse the disciplinary efficacy of spanking. Wanting to be spanked was a bit like wanting to be sent to prison: it implicitly undermined the sanctions by which society kept itself orderly.

So even when spanking appeared in a light-hearted or frivolous context, it was still a serious matter. To illustrate the point, take a vintage card game in which the progress of a courtship is portrayed in advances and setbacks, each allocated a numerical value: on the positive side, holding hands scores 2 and kissing scores 5, whereas among the setbacks, yawning while the other is talking earns a minus 4 and having the door slammed in your face is minus 8. The biggest setback of the lot gets you a hefty minus 10:

But leap forward a few decades and we’re on the other side of the fault line. In 1974, a Californian company advertised a game entitled Sex Can Be Fun, promising punters that, for $7.95, they could ‘Learn how to get more out of your sex life’. Since there is no known exemplar of the actual game, it’s hard to say just what it entailed, but the way the ad was illustrated suggests that it required some participatory role-playing:

This was well before the Role-Playing Game boom of the 1980s, whose tail end, in 1993, saw the launch of an intended RPG series for two players, to be entitled Bedroom Adventures. The first release (and, as it turned out, the only one) was Rapture’s Voyage, devised by Sandra Lawrence.

As the box artwork suggests, the game was rooted in the genre of historical romance novels. The female player takes the role of ‘auburn-haired tigress’ Abigail Marie Charington, who disguises herself as a cabin boy and takes a berth aboard Lord Jonathan Coulter’s ship, the Rapture, sailing for Boston to run guns to the rebels against the Massachusetts government. Here’s a ripe sample of the general tone:

‘Friendless in the midst of a turbulent sea, Abigail finds herself utterly defenseless. She must face the tyranny of a merciless task master while burning with a secret desire fueled even by his slightest touch.’

The players work their way through situations and are presented with options in classic ‘choose your own adventure’ style. At one point his choice is the old chestnut, whether to spank her or kiss her:

‘I don’t know which you need more, to be spanked for your impertinence or kissed by a man who isn’t too old to make you feel like a real woman.’

So there’s a reasonable chance that a few 1990s lady gamers got spanked as part of their bedroom adventure – which indeed turned out to be on the whole the preferable option, given that further on in the game there’s a plot twist revealing that Abigail is Lord Jonathan’s long-lost sister…

Gaming fashion turned away from traditional RPGs as video games consoles grew more sophisticated: now players could see their characters ‘in world’, rather than having to use their imagination, and that development wasn’t ideal for games that encouraged any kind of bodily interaction between participants. One attempt to combine the two approaches was We Dare, developed by an Italian firm in 2011, in which players used a motion controller to link their real selves to their onscreen avatars. The game promised ‘Flirty Fun for All’ and was advertised with strong emphasis on one particular element which began with one player putting the motion controller down the back of her skirt…

What they’re actually doing is controlling their avatars:

The game was released to a lukewarm reception in Europe and Australia, but the ad caused commercially fatal controversy in the less sexually tolerant environment of North America. However, there’s a more acute criticism in this spoof by Noelle Adams:

And it’s also reversible: just as you don’t actually need to spank her in order to play the game, you also don’t need the game in order to play at spanking. Nobody ever really played We Dare to generate a little cartoon spanking on a video screen. And when the objective is intimate contact, of whatever kind, the role-playing superstructure is effectively redundant, whether it comes in the form of a computer program or an RPG manual. Ultimately the spanking is itself the game.

So no boyfriend nowadays needs to write to a newspaper in confusion about his girlfriend’s odd behavior, and no girlfriend needs to pretend to be naughty (or, worse, actually be naughty) in order to get what she wants from him. She just has to send him a Valentine’s card like this.

But equally, couples don’t need to regulate their bedroom adventures with a game book when there are perfectly good advice manuals, like the French series Osez… (Dare…), offering sensible guidance on common but unconventional sexual practices, including this 2005 entry with a cute cover illustration by Arthur de Pins:

And the crucial advice is: gently does it.

Because, unless you’re dealing with a committed masochist, the objective is not to cause significant pain. The bedroom game of spanking isn’t really about spanking in its original sense of a punitive act, but instead entails a simulation of that act for different purposes, in which one important element is missing or toned down. And that explains the contradiction in ‘The Pinky Song’ that I started with: ‘a nice, light spanking’ describes the reality of what’s going on, but ‘getting really sore’ is just pretend, just part of the game.

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