It Never Did Me Any Harm
Excerpts from The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After by Ian Gibson, London: Duckworth, 1978, pp. 2-4, 284, 308, 310-15.

"But what you could not so readily believe upon my Affirmation, was that there are Persons who are stimulated to Venery by strokes of Rods, and worked up into a Flame of Lust by Blows; and that the part that distinguishes us to be Men, should be raised by the charm of invigorating Lashes... [B]y the Force of a Vicious habit gaining ground upon him, he practic'd a Vice he disapprov'd. But it grew more obstinate and rooted in his Nature... A strange Instance what a Power the force of Education has in grafting inveterate ill habits on our Morals." (Meibom, 1629)


The adult flagellant fantasy, in short, always derives from the infantile one. As with all sexual perversions, we are dealing with a form of arrested development, with a 'prephallic' fixation that puberty and subsequent experience have been unable to dislodge; and before we can hope to explain the tenacity of the fixation itself we need to examine its roots in childhood.


"The experience of shame," writes Helen Merrell Lynd, "is itself isolating, alienating, incommunicable" (On Shame and the Search for Identity, 1958, p. 67); and there can be no doubt, given what we know of the genesis and development of the flagellant fantasy, that anyone unfortunate enough to be afflicted with the English Vice is bound to feel extremely ill-at-ease in his relationships with other people. Not only is he sexually impotent without having recourse to a fantasy which places him in the position of a naughty child of six or seven, but he has to live with the shame of knowing that he is unable to reveal his true self to other people.


"The phenomenon of the person who can only have sexual intercourse with the aid of a phantasy is a schiziod phenomenon," writes Anthony Storr in The Dynamics of Creation (1972, p. 64). If that is so, then the person in thraldom to obstinate flagellant fantasies must surely qualify for the schizoid category. Forever forced to have recourse to a childhood fantasy in order to achieve erection in an adult situation, the flagellant cannot avoid the constant awareness that he has never matured sexually, has never achieved adequate 'genitality'. He knows that he is sexually fixated at an early age. And he is angry, and ashamed, about it. The position of the passive flagellant -- and the evidence we have been considering in this book suggests strongly that the addicts of the English Vice are predominantly passive rather than active, although both tendencies are doubtless present in all flagellants -- is particularly humiliating. For not only must this victim summon up a fantasy in order to become potent, but in that fantasy he must perforce imagine himself in a submissive, 'unmanly' role. Paradoxically, as it might seem, he must deny his virility in the fantasy in order to achieve erection in relation to his flesh-and-blood partner.

Now, is it conceivable that any parent or teacher would, consciously, wish such sexual unhappiness, frustration and confusion on a child? Surely not. Yet many British parents still appear to believe in the virtues of beating their children into good behaviour, and many still confide their sons to establishments where beating of the buttocks is practised. We have it on the authority of no less a person than the present headmaster of Eton, for example, that boys are even today liable to 'lower discipline' at that most famous of English schools; and there seems little reason to believe that in the last few years the other public schools up and down the country, let alone the preparatory schools, have hurriedly abolished the cane. Moreover, the evidence collected by STOPP (The Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment), as we have seen, suggests that in State schools beating is far more common than might be believed.

Is all this not, to say the least, extremely odd? How are we to explain the extraordinary adherence of the British to the belief that children are spoiled when the rod, or the threat of the rod, is spared?

It could be maintained, no doubt, that the supporters of beating have simply not been, and are still not, aware of the sexual factors at work in the beating system. This lack of awareness could then be explained as the result of ignorance, or of sexual repression, or of both at the same time. But it is difficult to accept that the more educated upholders of the cane (particularly the teachers themselves) can have been, or are, completely insensitive to the dangers involved. Or of the pleasures -- for I believe that 'Y', whose testimony we have seen, is right when he asserts that 'If any man habitually canes without some stirrings of sexual desire, he is not full a man' (p. 85). The evidence suggests, I think, that most men would learn without difficulty to appreciate the joys of administering 'lower discipline', and it could be maintained that only hypocricy, shame and fear of exposure prevent this likelihood from appearing self-evident.

Let us continue this train of thought for a moment. That those who enjoy active beating, in deed or in fantasy, should be loath to admit to their proclivity is quite natural. Nobody wants to be branded as a sadist, and I have yet to hear of a schoolmaster who had admitted publicly that he enjoys caning boys. It is equally understandable that those who are sexually aroused by the idea of being beaten should be resistant to making their private desires known to other people; and one is not surprised to learn from psychiatrists that passive flagellants are intensely reluctant to speak freely of their problem, even in the secrecy of a consulting room. For shame, as Helen Merell Lynd has pointed out, is essentially an 'isolating' emotion, and anyone deeply ashamed of the subject of beating is likely to find it impossible to admit what he really thinks and feels deep down about the practice.

And so it is that, in Britain -- until recently a very sexually repressed society -- few people have been able to bring themselves to tell the truth about the beating system, even its opponents. One only has to read the Hansard reports of the corporal punishment debates that have taken place in both Houses of Parliament during the last fifty years to see what massive resistances are at work. Nor is it any wonder that, when someone actually dares to suggest that sexual factors are at work in beating, he is attacked as a 'sentimental fool' talking a lot of 'rubbish'.

And here a word should be said about the 'hardening process' whereby boys subject to beating have learnt, and doubtless are still learning, to cope with their feelings of anxiety, outraged modesty and desire for revenge. During the nineteenth century, as we have seen, floggings were often inflicted on children in public, and this made the exposure and shame all the greater. It also meant that the victims felt constrained not to show any semblance of weakness or cowardice while under the rod, for fear of being 'chaffed' afterwards by their schoolmates. As Swinburne put it in the Prologue to The Flogging Block, 'Pain bids cry out but Honour bids be dumb'. As a defence against the inevitable feeling of humiliation involved in being publicly stripped and whipped, the victims were bound to keep that stiff upper lip for which the British ruling class has for so long been famous, bound to affect a lofty indifference. But can we doubt that, beneath the surface, most children forced to undergo such treatment would inevitably feel deep resentment? Or that they would murder their tormentors if they could do so with impunity?

The public schools have traditionally given this desire for revenge opportunity for expression by allowing senior boys, who themselves have been victims lower down the school, to administer corporal punishment to their juniors; and it is not surprising, as The Edinburgh Review pointed out as far back as 1830, that these boys have been only too happy to take full advantage of this licence for sadism. Such licence being granted at puberty, we should not wonder that the sexual element has often asserted itself strongly during such proceedings.

I should like to make a further point. It is that, in a child-beating society, it is often the children who are never beaten who suffer most. In flagellomania, as we have seen repeatedly, it is the fantasy that is all-important; and the fantasy, we know, may as easily arise from seeing, reading or hearing about beating as from experiencing it. Thus it is that the very existence of beating as a potential punishment creates a climate in which flagellant fantasies are encouraged. And as well as the overtly sexual dangers of the practice, the threat of beating may have the effect of terrifying children into mindless submission. As a mother explained to STOPP:

None of my four children have ever been struck. They are extremely conforming timid children and all four would never have done anything wrong. They love school, but especially as infants, take the threats of caning seriously and are in TERROR (and disgust) of it. It is ironic that it should be for such naturally law-abiding children that the cane looms so large. No one can estimate the harm done to the children who NEVER RECEIVE the cane, but no actual caning could cause my children to suffer more. They've never seen a cane used and none of them are sure that anyone is really caned. It's just the threat that worries them. (A Last Resort?, p.138)

In the same publication, a child psychologist comments perceptively on the ways in which the beating system may undermine children's natural urge to independence and self-expression. These words are deserving of attention:

Studies of family rearing patterns show that when people become parents they deal with (or fail to deal with) their own children in the very same way that their parents dealt with them. Teachers who hit and cane should remember that they will be reinforcing the urge to resort to corporal punishment for generations to come. The child who says he would prefer to be caned may be not only identifying with a caning teacher but also abrogating responsibility for his own self-control. Thus an oppressive regime in a school tends to encourage dependence of a child on adults and stifle the development of self-reliance. (p.102)
We shall never know how many people have been crushed and rendered impotent by the flogging system of which the British preparatory and public school Establishment has been so proud, for the victims have not gone round proclaiming themselves in public. But we can be certain that their name is legion.

It is now 350 years since the publication of Meibom's treatise on the sexual element in flagellation, and nearly 100 since the appearance of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis. We know that beating is sexually dangerous. Yet in Britain the beating of schoolchildren continues, unhampered by government restrictions. In this, Britain (and the countries she has influenced with her flagellomania - see Appendix B) is out of step with almost the whole of the so-called civilised world. An Act of Parliament making beating illegal in all British schools without exception is long overdue. If the decision continues to be left to individual Local Education Authorities, we can be certain that the process of abolition will be at best protracted.

We can also be certain that the purveyors of flagellant pornography will continue to make a good living at the expense of new victims of the English Vice.

Editor's note: Corporal punishment is now illegal in all British schools. However, at the time of this Web posting (April 1999) 23 states of the United States still allow schoolchildren to be punished by being struck on the buttocks, usually with a flat bat-like wooden board called a "paddle." Current official estimates place the number of incidents at about 1/3 million per year. But the true number is undoubtedly much higher because data collection involves voluntary participation of the schools, and there is a marked tendency on the part of school administrators to ignore or minimize this particular behavior. In Arkansas, for the 1997-98 school year, there were 75,822 documented paddlings in a school population of 452,971. That is 167 paddlings for every 1,000 students. See Danger Zones for a list of pupil-beating states.

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