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Jun 21 2013

Christian ‘discipline’

When it comes to issues of morality, I take the attitude of live and let live. If people are not harming others, then I think that they should be given a great deal of leeway for their actions. Similarly, consenting adults who are of sound mind should be allowed to live their lives as they wish. Since this approach to morality does not use as its basis religious texts written by men thousands of years ago when standards of morality were less enlightened than they are now, it is bound to come into conflict from time to time with the moral standards of religions.

Most of the time, the simple guidelines of letting consenting adults do what they wish as long as they are not harming others lead to fairly straightforward conclusions. For example, when some Christians such as evangelical leader James Dobson in his book Dare to Discipline advocate beating of children as a way of instilling in them Christian virtues, it is not hard to say unequivocally that they are wrong and abusing their children because children are not consenting adults. Dobson even boasts of how he beats his dog as a means of showing him who is the boss. This is also clearly wrong. To my mind, this man is a sociopath.

But I have to admit that the issue of what is called ‘Christian Domestic Discipline’ is considerably more problematic and stretches the limits of this tolerant attitude. For those not familiar with it, this movement recommends that husbands physically punish their wives for the slightest transgression as a means of establishing the correct Christian hierarchy in the home. And the wives in this movement supposedly embrace this approach.

Brandy Zadrozny describes what it is like in one case.

On a pain scale of one to 10, Chelsea ranks the epidural-free birth of her child as a six. Her husband’s spankings? Those are an eight.

First, he uses his hands for “warm-up” slaps. Then comes a combination of tools based on the specific infraction. The wooden spoon is the least severe; for the worst rule-breaking—like texting while driving (“It could kill me,” Chelsea admits) or moving money between accounts without his permission—she’ll be hit with something else: a hairbrush, a paddle, or a leather strap.

But this isn’t domestic abuse, Chelsea says. This is for Jesus.

Chelsea and her husband Clint, who asked that I use only their first names, belong to a small subculture of religious couples who practice “Christian Domestic Discipline,” a lifestyle that calls for a wife to be completely submissive to her husband. Referred to as CDD by its followers, the practice often includes spanking and other types corporal punishments administered by husbands—and ostensibly ordained by God. While the private nature of the discipline makes it difficult to estimate the number of adherents, activity in several online forums suggests a figure in the low thousands. Devotees call CDD an alternative lifestyle and enthusiastically sing its praises; for critics, it’s nothing but domestic abuse by another name.

Such situations make one realize that the phrase ‘consenting adults’ is not as clear a guideline as one might think. Chelsea seems to have consented to being treated in a way that seems horrifying to others. I am aware that people do have sadomasochistic relationships that can satisfy both parties. But how does one know when people are freely consenting to being physically hurt and when they are consenting because they have been beaten down emotionally and psychologically to accept harsh treatment as appropriate?

One psychologist tries to draw a line separating abuse from acceptable behavior.

Jim Alsdurf, a forensic psychologist who evaluates and treats sexual psychopaths and is the author of a book on abuse in Christian homes, says CDD isn’t about religion—it’s an outlet for emotionally disturbed men with intimacy deficits.

“No fool in his right mind would buy this as a legitimate way to have a relationship,” Alsdurf says. “A relationship that infantilizes a woman is one that clearly draws a more pathological group of people.”

For Alsdurf, though, CDD sounds less like an act of violence and more like of an act of distorted sexual arousal. “If people want to spank each other, go ahead,” he says. “The problem of course, is if it’s done in a controlling and a mildly abusive way.” Like with all outer variables of sexual expression, he says, “If they’re not done in a healthy way they can become about abuse and control.”

It is not unheard of for people who are emotionally fragile and have low regard for themselves or who fall under the control of dominant personalities, to feel that they ‘deserve’ to be punished when they are ‘bad’, while abdicating all judgment of what is bad and what constitutes appropriate punishment to the person administering the punishment. They may think they are consenting when in reality they have been manipulated.

Zadrozny also writes that many in the secretive world of CDD see themselves as fighting a rearguard action against liberalism and feminism. She says that some of the people in the CDD movement recognize that they are indulging a sexual fetish that they feel guilty about and so wrap it up in a religious doctrine to make them feel comfortable about it.

But the moral constraints of the church make it difficult for couples to be honest about the sexual nature of their desire, says Paul Byerly, who with his wife runs The Marriage Bed, a site dedicated to sexuality and religion. Byerly, who calls CDD a “distortion of what God intended,” believes that “women, particularly in the Christian church tend to be sexually repressed.” Domestic discipline, he explains, could be “a way around that”—a chance to explore sexual desires while still nominally acting in the name of Jesus.

Maybe. But whatever the reason, it still makes me uncomfortable when one person physically beats up on another. It seems like the person doing the beating should meet a heavy burden of proof to show that the other person truly is freely consenting to be treated that way.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Mr Ed

    One of the characters in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sadistically tortures women comments how much his victims will consent to hoping to save themselves. These women truly believe in God and damnation so they consent to punishment by their husbands to save themselves. It is hard to distinguish consent from someone who has been manipulated by their abuser.

  2. 2
    smhll

    @1

    Yeah, the threat of hell qualifies as duress, as long as someone believes the threat is real.

  3. 3
    Guess Who?

    Notice it’s always the women and children being abused? The women, in this case, are being treated like children–the women in the example gets spanked for texting while driving? (As a person whose spouse and child were hospitalized by an idiot who slammed into them at a stoplight doing 50 mph and texting while driving, I think it calls the crime for execution.) Either she’s adult and can police herself, or she’s too immature to drive and should lose her license. Spanking? That’s infantalizing.

  4. 4
    jamessweet

    Yeah, my first thought, even before getting to the speculation along these same lines, was: “I bet some of the women are totally getting off on it, and I bet some of them (sadly, I would guess most) are merely being mentally dominated and physically abused — how the fuck to tell the difference?” I suppose there are similar difficulties in the S&M community, but religion certainly makes the issue even murkier…

  5. 5
    jaxkayaker

    I saw a personals ad from a woman on the local Craigslist listings seeking a man for exactly this kind of relationship.

  6. 6
    baal

    The S&M community has its share of problems but also has a culture of consent, safe words, checking in with friends, newbie indoctrination in safety and other soft power controls to limit abusers from going nuts. From the brief notes above, it looks like the CDD are actively against these safeguards.

  7. 7
    deepak shetty

    This has always been a morally challenging question. if the adult in question has been brainwashed or pressurized when younger , then does it count as consent?. I ran into the same issue when the women in the Fundamentalist church of latter day saints were interviewed and most of them supported getting their teenage daughters “spiritually” married as the 5th bride of some old fuck-up – But there is also a conflicy with the right of parents to teach whatever they want to their children.

  8. 8
    MNb

    “This is also clearly wrong.”
    It’s also unscientific. Research of psychs and pedagogues has made clear this does not lead to instilling virtues, christian or otherwise.

  9. 9
    Susannah

    I was raised in an extremely fundamentalist environment and family. I was taught that a woman’s duty is to submit to her husband, whatever the cost to her. I lived that way for a 17-year marriage to an abusive, violent pastor.

    For me, the violence wasn’t a sexual thing, although I came to realize that for my husband, a “good” beating served as foreplay. I took it as something I had to allow, because that’s what the Bible said. And as long as I didn’t have absolute proof that he was also cheating on me, I didn’t think I had permission (by God) to leave.

    So I smiled and pretended nothing was wrong.

    Later, after years of searching the Bible and pondering over what it really meant, I was able to recognize this as abuse. Abuse by my husband, yes, but also by the church and my parents (who had also been victimized, or at least, Mom had) who trained me so well, and from such an early age, that it took 35 years to be able to exercise my own judgement.

  10. 10
    Mano Singham

    Susannah,

    That is a sad story. It is testimony t the power that religion has to warp the way people think at an early age.

    I am so glad that you were able to finally escape and hope that things are much better for you now.

  11. 11
    MNb

    +1.

  12. 12
    lorn

    It takes damaged people to consent to try this sort of thing. Most people are damaged. Once in that sort of relationship people might freely explore the nature of S&M while framing it as mandated by Jesus.

    Unfortunately once a couple get into this there is, as with so many things, a tendency to develop a tolerance. The things that worked so well in achieving happiness, or marital bliss, the first time lose traction and either dose or intensity have to be increased. This isn’t necessarily a problem except that the nature of the relationship is such that only one party is in a position to negotiate and they aren’t taking turns.

    If these were intact personalities with well rounded self-images intensity would cross a line, safe words would be said, and the entire relationship would be renegotiated. But these people are not typically intact personalities so there is going to be a tendency for ego needs, dependencies, self-imaged become tangled and it all to degenerate. In the end you have a mentally and sexually unfulfilled childishly sadistic guy who beats his mentally and sexually unfulfilled passive-aggressive, enabling wife. Neither side is happy but neither can leave, at least in part because, in this case, the relationship and behavior is sanctioned by their religion.

    Other than using religion as an excuse at both the beginning and the end, and the small area of genuine sexual exploration, the structure isn’t any different than any other situation involving a wife beater.

  13. 13
    Susannah

    I . . . hope that things are much better for you now.

    Oh, yes, very much so. Thank you.

  14. 14
    Mano Singham

    That’s wonderful!

  15. 15
    anne mariehovgaard

    If the wife is religious and truly believes her god wants her to submit, then this is not consensual. No, not even if she really, really wants it and enjoys it. It wouldn’t be consensual if he asked while holding a loaded gun to her head, and the threat of eternal torture is – literally – infinitely worse.

  16. 16
    Mano Singham

    That’s a very interesting point that links up to the earlier post and discussion of free will. The woman in that situation may think she is freely consenting but may be just unwittingly following the consequences of her prior history.

  17. 17
    Susannah

    True. It is not consent if she is unable to understand her options, or even to think about them. One of the dogmas of Christian fundamentalism is that doubt is a sin, and even to think of disobeying is as guilty as to actually disobey. So thoughts must be monitored at all times, and pushed aside quickly if they tend towards “rebellion”.

    “Try me and know my thoughts and see if there be some wicked way in me.” Psalms 139, KJV

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