Two recent incidents from Texas have called attention to the fact that 19 states still permit corporal punishment in public schools. In one instance, sophomore Taylor Santos was given an in-school suspension for allowing a classmate to copy her homework. By all accounts, Taylor is a standout student with stellar grades. She served the first day of her suspension, but rather than miss another day of class, Taylor opted for a paddling. As required by school-district policy, Taylor’s mother gave consent for the punishment. Taylor’s Vice-Principal, a male, administered the paddling while a female nurse looked on. Taylor’s buttocks were bruised and blistered.
In the second incident, student Jada Watt admitted to “smarting off” to the same male Vice Principal. She too received a paddling behind closed doors, though this time, the punishment was observed by a male police officer, rather than a female nurse. Like Taylor, Jada also suffered bruising.
In both instances, the students’ mothers claim not to have an issue with corporal punishment itself. They did, after all, give consent to the beatings. The mothers do not even appear to be angered by the inherent risk of pain caused by using a wooden paddle. As Jada’s mother said, “[a] swat is a swat, yes it is and they do sting.”
Instead, the girls and their mothers are outraged because a male—in violation of school district policy—spanked the female students. “Two men giving her a swat behind closed doors,” Jada’s mother observed, “that is creepy.”
Corporal Punishment in the Public Schools Is Constitutionally Permissible, but Many Parents Question It
For a moment, I want to bracket the question whether corporal punishment ought to be permitted in public (or any other) schools, as well as the question whether parents ought to be able to consent to such levels of violence on their children’s behalf.
As a constitutional matter, the Supreme Court seems to have settled the issue in Ingraham v. Wright, which held that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause does not apply to corporal punishment in public schools. But state and local governments may ban corporal punishment, and 31 states have done so. Also, as a practical matter, members of the public increasingly view corporal punishment with skepticism, whether school officials or parents do the paddling. The debate regarding the effectiveness of spanking as a method of discipline is thus ongoing, and surely will not end with Taylor and Jada’s stories.
Should Corporal Punishment in the Schools Be Free of Any Risk of Sexual Attraction on the Part of the Punisher?
Here, I want to suggest that the “creepiness” identified by the girls and their mothers regarding the participation of men in the girls’ paddlings comes from a generally unstated assumption that violence is particularly inappropriate when there is even a possibility that the violence might also be erotic. Taylor and Jada’s stories thus highlight the often insidious ways that the fear of sexual deviance distracts us from questioning the permissibility of destructive practices such as corporal punishment.
Imagine that instead of maintaining a policy requiring that school officials of the same sex corporally punish miscreant students, Taylor and Jada’s school district maintained a policy that permitted only school officials of a different sexual orientation to spank students. (In other words, it would be permissible for a lesbian to paddle heterosexual male students, for a homosexual male to paddle heterosexual female students, for a heterosexual woman to paddle gay male students, and for a heterosexual male to paddle lesbian students.)
Intuitively, such a policy would seem bizarre. First, we might ask why the sexual orientation of the administrators or students is relevant. Punishment is not inherently sexual, and the hypothetical policy would only bring greater discomfort to what is surely an unpleasant situation for both the student and the administrator. Second, we might question why the power delegated to school officials would be arbitrarily restricted in this way. After all, if we trust administrators enough to paddle students, then it seems that we necessarily must trust administrators to act in good faith, and not with illicit sexual motives, when doing so.
And yet, the removal of the possibility of sexual arousal would be the most plausible rationale for enacting the hypothetical policy. In every case of corporal punishment in schools, inevitable age, size, and power disparities between the student and administrator exist. Just as “men are too big and strong to be hitting 96-pound girls,” according to Taylor’s mother, so too adult women are probably “too big and strong to be hitting 96-pound boys.” Corporally punished students might always sustain bruising and blistering, particularly from the use of a wooden paddle. And though it is doubtless true that men have traditionally oppressed women, it is equally true that those in positions of power sometimes, regardless of their sex, abuse the authority they have over weaker individuals. Narrowing administrators’ ability to paddle on the basis of sexual orientation, would therefore be an awkward attempt to remove the “creepiness” that necessarily stems from the possibility that an authority figure may derive erotic gratification from inflicting pain upon another.
Is This Really a Debate About Sexuality, or One About Privacy?
One response to my analysis here might be that privacy concerns are really driving this debate. For example, we maintain separate-sex bathrooms not because the toilet is a site of eroticism, but because some people, especially women, feel violated when their vulnerability is on display to members of the opposite sex. This observation may very well be true, but it somewhat misses the point I am making here. Whatever the reasons we, as a society, have for maintaining same-sex bathrooms, reducing the possibility of eroticizing excretory functions is not high on the list.
By homing in on the fact that the vice principal is a male, the girls and their mothers have drawn attention to an often unstated yet strongly held assumption that even consensual sexual violence is deviant. Our refusal to tolerate sexual deviance is strong, but conflating eroticized violence and sexual deviance tends to stifle real debate about the fundamental undesirability of specific practices.
Here, for example, by implicitly raising the specter of a sadistic male vice principal deriving sexual pleasure from beating young female students, the girls and their mothers made potential sexual deviance, and not actual violence, the cause for alarm. Indeed, the school board—noting that there might not be enough female administrators to paddle female students—has now lifted the same-sex restriction on paddling. Ironically, then, by focusing on the mere possibility of eroticized violence, the mothers and girls inadvertently provided an impetus for the school district to increase the levels of actual violence in its schools.