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.