Physical punishment

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Physical punishment is the deliberate infliction of pain or other bodily suffering intended as correction or punishment (see that article for general considerations and alternatives). The practice is generally held to differ from torture in that it is applied for disciplinary reasons and is therefore intended to be limited and justifiable (for (re)education, justice etc.), rather than intended to totally subdue the will of the victim (as for interrogation or pure terror). Severe or prolonged forms of corporal punishment are, however, more or less indistinguishable from torture.

Although the very words corporal punishment are synonymous with physical punishment (including imprisonment and capital punishment: corporal is Latin - and Physical Greek for what affects the body), the former is commonly only used for beatings, as painful but (in principle) non-lethal punishments.

Historically speaking most punishments, whether in domestic or educational settings were corporal in basis, physical or economical in the judicial sphere. In the western world, corporal punishment has been largely rejected in favour of other disciplinary methods. Modern judiciaries often favour fines or incarceration, whilst modern school discipline avoids physical coercion. Although corporal punishment is still used in many domestic settings it has been banned in seventeen countries while others try to regulate maximal severity.


Corporal punishment in history

Whilst the early history of corporal punishment is unclear, the practice was certainly present in classical civilisations, being used in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Ancient Egypt and Israel, used for both judicial and educational discipline. Practices varied greatly, though scourging and beating with sticks were both common. Some states gained a reputation for using such punishments cruelly; Sparta, in particular, used frequent and heavy punishment as part of a disciplinary regime designed to build willpower and bodily strength. Although the Spartan example was unusual, corporal punishment was possibly the most common type of minor punishment.

These approaches to corporal punishment were continued into Medieval Europe. This was encouraged by attitudes of the medieval Christian church towards the human body, with flagellation being a common means of encouraging self-discipline. In particular this had an influence on corporal punishment in schools as educational establishments were closely attached to the church during this period. Nevertheless, corporal punishment was not used uncritically; as early as the eleventh century St. Ansel, Archbishop of Canterbury was speaking out against what was seen as the cruel treatment of children.

From the sixteenth century onwards, new trends were seen in corporal punishment. Judicial punishments were increasingly made into public spectacles, with the heavy public beatings of criminals intended as a deterrent to others. Meanwhile, early writers on education, such as Roger Ascham, frequently complained of the arbitrary manner in which children were punished. Probably the most influential writer on the subject was the English philosopher John Locke, whose Some Thoughts Concerning Education explicitly criticised the manner in which corporal punishment was central to education. Locke's work was highly influential and when Poland banned corporal punishment from its schools in 1783, Some Thoughts Concerning Education was said to have influenced the legislators.

Since the 18th century, corporal punishment has tended to be gradually replaced by fines for lesser crimes and incarceration for those considered a danger to society, as the emphasis of criminal punishment has shifted from retribution and spectacle to reformation and surveillance. Corporal punishment proved most persistent as a punishment for violation of prison rules, as a military field punishment, and in schools.

Examples of corporal punishment from the Age of Enlightenment onwards have tended to emphasise the administration of a set amount of pain by measurable procedures.

Modern usage

Although the corporal punishment of adults has now been abandoned by many countries, it is still retained as a judicial sanction in some parts of the world. Several societies retain widespread use of judicial corporal punishment, including Singapore and Malaysia. The Singaporean practice of caning became much discussed in the U.S. in 1994 when American teenager Michael P. Fay was sentenced to such punishment for an offence of car vandalism. In Singapore, male violent offenders and rapists are typically sentenced to caning in addition to a prison term.

Corporal punishment is also dictated as a punishment in traditional Islamic Sharia law, and applied in countries like Saudi Arabia.

Corporal punishment of children

Many educators use a milder form of corporal punishment called "spanking", usually slapping their child's buttocks with the palm of their hand; alternatively, they may administer a single smack on the hand with their own hand. Others punish their children with a switch, belt, or a paddle, although this practice is less common than in years past.

Opinions on corporal punishment of children are varied. Whilst practice is accepted and embraced in many countries, it is also illegal in a number of others. There is pressure in some countries, including the United Kingdom, to have any form of corporal punishment of children made illegal and treated as child abuse. Sweden, Finland, Norway, Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Latvia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Germany, Israel, Iceland, Romania, Ukraine and Hungary have banned the corporal punishment of children entirely. In some states of the USA, paddling of children is still allowed. Recently, the US state of Massachusetts has proposed a bill banning all forms of corporal punishment on minors under 18.

Although China and Taiwan have made corporal punishment against children illegal in the school system, it is still widely practiced. In most part of Confucian East Asia (including China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea), it is legal to punish one's own child using physical pain. Even in parts of East Asia which are more Westernized (including Singapore and Hong Kong), punishing one's own child with corporal punishment is still either legal, only discouraged, or illegal but without active enforcement of the relevant laws. Culturally, people in the region generally believe a minimal amount of corporal punishment against their own children is appropriate and necessary. And thus such practice is tolerated by the society as a whole.

There is resistance, particularly from conservatives, against making illegal the corporal punishment of children by their parents or guardians. In 2004, the United States declined to become a signatory of the United Nations's "Rights of the Child" because of its sanctions on parental discipline, citing the tradition of parental authority in that country and of privacy in family decision-making.

Most countries have banned the use of corporal punishment in schools, beginning with Poland in 1783. The practice is still used in schools in some parts of the Unites States, though it is banned in others.

Corporal punishment, fetishism, and BDSM

Corporal punishment is sometimes fetishized, and is the basis of a number of paraphilias, most notably erotic spanking. The techniques and rituals of corporal punishment are often included in BDSM activities; see impact play. All that is outside our article, since it is voluntary, not coercion.

Types and means

While it is possible to classify corporal punishments by the categories of its scope of application (e.g. educational including parental and school discipline, other domestic, judicial etc.), i.e. by who can punish who and why, see above- this section elaborates the various ways to perform the physical torment.

Anatomical target

A crucial, inevitable choice is which part of the body is to suffer the painful treatment; sometimes a combination of several targets is chosen, so as to maximize the longer-lasting discomfort.

Several considerations can be taken into account, mainly :

  • how painful is it
  • how humiliating (especially if bared)
  • how safe (except for deliberate mutilation -such as amputation and branding- or execution, grave permanent damage must be avoided) if badly hit and, even in more moderate cases, how incapacitating (unless the punishee is already under custodial sentence other then hard labour, physically disabling the victim to work is rather contraproductive in stead of coercing better -obedient, productive- conduct).
  • In addition, for instant discipline on the spot the preference tends to go to what can be hit immediately, especially if already bare (possibly so ordered or arranged) or scarcely protected by clothing, so often head and hands, or bare torso; secondly what can be bared with a simple gesture (lifting a dress or pulling down (under)garments, before proceeding with a spanking, paddling, etc..

An 'dissection' of human anatomy in this vulnerable light:

  • By far the most popular choice (i.e., with disciplinarians: they choose) are the buttocks, indeed some languages have a specific word for their chastisement: spanking (see this elaborate article) in English, fessée in French, nalgada in Spanish (both romanesque words directly derived from the word for buttock)- this is a logical choice for these rather large, fleshy body parts are sensitive without endangering any bodily functions, heal well and relatively fast and have an intimate connotation that implies intense humiliation, often increased as baring them often also exposes the genitals--care must be taken not to hit these accidentally, so protective padding may be used (also for the kidneys) with dangerous implements, even if the spankee is otherwise stark naked
  • although lower parts of the back of the legs, notably thighs and calves, are reportedly about as sensitive and no more incapacitating, making them a logical alternative in cultures were a bare bottom is to indecent, they are rarely targeted
  • the back and the shoulders are the second most common choice; as long as the spine (paralysis possible) and excessive abuse of the kidneys (irreparable) is avoided, great pain is possible with limited incapacitation and humiliation, suitable for an adult 'honor corps' as often in the military
  • the abdomen and the ribs are again rather dangerous for 'accidental' damage, and hence not a common target
  • except for deliberate mutilation, the genitalia are rarely targeted, though very sensitive and the most humiliating, for the damage is to hard to control (except with sophisticated modern methods such as electrodes)
  • joints (such as knees) are an even more illogical, indeed rather rare choice: no humiliation, grave risk of incapacitation and even permanent damage
  • the head is also a dangerous choice, but more popular, especially the cheeks (relatively safe; indeed the same word is used for the bottom: butt-cheeks) and boxing the ears (hearing disability tends to manifest itself years later, so it's often ignored)
  • the hand of primates is perhaps evolution's finest product in terms of multifunctionality and precision (hence the notion 'dexterity'), requiring a sophisticated sense of touch; it is quite sensitive and not humiliating, while great force, especially with a hard implement, could cause excessive damage, so usually only the (most fleshy) palm is hit rather then the knuckles, and even then incapacitation (for manual labour and writing as in class) is generally a drawback
  • the soles of the feet are extremely sensitive, in se not humiliating, but quite incapacitating for a long time, while full recovery is possible even after an excruciating dose- see falaka

Set and props

Except for 'daily' light punishment, physical discipline is often ritualized, even staged in a rather theatrical fashion.

As the great variety of practices, even in similar jurisdictions, suggests, tradition and the taste of the punishing parties in place often carry at least as much weight as objective practical considerations, especially if one considers there seems to have been relatively little effort to obtain functional knowledge from systematic comparative research.

Site & Location

While light and informal punishment is often administered on the spot, for serious discipline and in an institutional context there are often rules, either laid down as such or deriving from written rules (e.g. if a juvenile is to receive his lashing from the police, he is logically brought there for punishment).


Contraptions the punishee is to be over, on and/or fixed to do not only have a practical function (which is their origin) during punishment but can also be left in place as a permanent, dissuasive display of the authority to inflict painful punishment, to deter disobedience that may cause the observing 'jurisdictional subject' to end up there for a lashing. See further under spanking, also for related positioning.


A variety of implements are used for corporal punishment. The terms used to describe these are not fixed, varying by country and by context. There are, however, a number of common types which are frequently encountered when reading about corporal punishment. These include the following - link trough for more detailed information an each, the labels here are :

  • Rods, varying in size and flexibility.
    • A thin, flexible rod is often called a switch.
    • The Birch, a number of strong, flexible branches, bound together in their natural state.
    • Caning with canes of various types, most notably durable species of rottan, known at the rattan, or similar non-flat solid implements in on piece, e.g. (hickory) stick; even heavier cudgels.
  • The Paddle, a flat wooden or leather pad with a handle, sometimes holed, is still commonly used for corporal punishment in the USA.
  • For flogging, various flexible implements are used, mostly in leather (modifications such as knots, holes or hard -e.g. metal, bone- objects fixed on them render he 'bite' considerably harder), including:
    • Straps of various types including (razor) strop.
    • not to be confused with the lighter belt (thinner, soupler) which is often doubled, yet in Scotland and northern England, the term belt is also a euphemism for the tawse, a strap split into a number of tails at one end.
    • Whips are common in judicial punishment and prison discipline, with varieties including crops, the famous Russian knout and South African sjambok
    • multi-thong equivalents include the wikipedia:scourge:scourge and martinet in leather; while rope is the most common material for a flogger and the cat o' nine tails (mainly used in naval discipline, for army and judicial including prison flogging a leather version was common; there were also milder forms and variants).
  • axe, knife, sword and other blanc weapons or even the surgical scalpel etc are generally used for punishments named otherwise than by the instrument, rather by the damage down by cutting bodyparts, as in flaying, castration or (indetermined) amputation
  • a hot iron is used for branding (alternatively a tattoo-like technique) and other burn wounds

However, it is frequent for informal -mainly non-institutional- corporal punishment to be administered with whatever object comes to hand. It is common, for instance, wooden spoons, slippers or hairbrush (wooden or ebony backside) or bath brush to be used in domestic punishment, whilst rulers and other classroom equipment have been used in schools, as well as some items adopted from domestic practice, such as slippering (unlike booting not on the foot but wielded by hand, rather like a paddle).

Pervertibles are various objects than can be used as punitive implement (mainly in BDSM or the private sphere, open to improvisation), so we don't go into detail; when used for coercive CP, they are generally handled as a rather obvious substitute for a similar type from the groups above- the most common are included, and ultimately nearly every implement is derived from an inoffensive utility.

Dramatis personae

While a summary punishment can routinely be performed with only two participants, e.g. an educator putting a naughty child over his lap and spanking its bottom while scolding its misdeeds, there is often, especially with a more severe punishment and/or in an institutional context, a more elaborate and formalistic procedure which can involve a small host of cast members, most of whom can make a difference to what exactly will happen and how

On the punishing side

  • It all starts with the authority to punish : for judicial punishment, this is normally the legislator, who defines the rules, at least in principle, as to which inacceptable actions are to be met with painful punishment, and who can apply them; the rules can be extremely precise, or at least aim to be, in determining a concordance between crime and punishment, or leave considerable margin; sometimes a specific case is dealt with at this very level, as for a political crime; in other spheres, often within general rules laid down by the actual legislator, the rules can be made by the school board, the master of the slaves/household, etcetera. However in real life minor punishments are often left to the ad hoc discretion of the discipliner, even where severe punishments have to be met with formal procedure- e.g.
  • Next there is the role of the judge, who determines for each punishable deed whether the conditions for application are met and fixes the fitting punishment; this judgment can go into more details, usually including (possibly simply repeating the specifications in the rules, sometimes modifying those) the anatomical target, the implement, the number of strokes, and whether the victim will be bared; in the non-judicial spheres, this can be for example the teacher in class or the headmaster, dean of discipline etcetera (often only for graver offenses), an overseeer, any officer or subaltern, etcetera
  • Finally there is the actual punishment officer(s) charged with the physical execution; while in private spheres this is often the same as the 'judge', judicial sentences are generally ordered to be carried out by a third party specified by the law or in the judgment (oerwise it lay be impicite custom), usually the police, (para)military, prison staff, even a bailiff, or a professional executioner; imprecise judgments may leave considerable discretion to this level, e.g. determining with which implement to administer a punishment merely expressed in an ambivalent wording such as 'lashes', leaving a choice from the customary arsenal of implements, definitely affecting the gravity of the beating. Occasionally two or more officers (e.g. bosun's mates wielding the cat o' nine tails) take turns in administering a considerable number of lashes, so as to be 'fresh' enough to hit hard; a subtle ploy is including a left-handed one, so as the assure the stripes will frequently crisscross, which cuts even deeper
  • Sometimes an element of revenge is build in by allowing a part grieved by the punishee the satisfaction (even greater when naked and/or over the lap) of administering all or part of the sentence, or is even built in at corps spirit level, as described in the article fustuarium
  • Sometimes the choice of a specific administrator is guided by the punishee's expected perception:
  • Some may only play a subsidiary role, such as to fetch implements, to tie down the victim, to grip him down (say one per limb; hence called holder-down- as these get a very close view, or even divest, the humilitation factor is thus enhanced in case of punishment in the bare) or even to be used physically to horse him on
  • Occasionally several punishees are even made to use the same implement on each-other; as in trading licks, or even because the punishment officer would get to tired during a mass beating

The victim of the punishment

The punished party is often described by terms referring to his legal or other punishable status, e.g. convict, prisoner, culprit, miscreant, offender, or to the type of punishment imposed, e.g. spankee, whippee.

  • While he is the centre of attention, as a rule little or no choice is given to him (or if so it's often meant to be tantalizing, neither option being preferable, e.g. a graver implement or more cuts), and his submission is coerced, e.g. extra swats for not maintaining the imposed (exposed) position or on the hands if they move in a reflex to the agonizing posterior.
  • Furthermore in some cases punishees are even forced -a rather sadistic ploy- to some cooperation, such as sailors having to prepare a cat o' nine tails for use on their own back; children sent to cut a switch or rod (possibly in advance, e.g., once a year as a reminder of being subject to it) for use on their own bottomsl, again under treat of extra cuts; or less dramatically children or pledges fetching (or in the latter case even supplying) the cane or paddle for their own chastisement

Medical officer(s)

  • often it is prescribed by law, sentence or custom that a medically qualified person must examine the condemned (in the judicial sphere, not in the domestic model) to estimate wether his condition (e.g. cardiological) requires the beating to be postponed, mitigated or even abandoned, though generally this is a formality
  • usually the same stays to observe the execution of the sentence, in principle to intervene if the victim is in excessive (especially mortal) danger, but again this rarely results in cessation (some die nevertheless), or he even limits himself to bringing the convict back to conscience
  • after the wounds have been inflicted, especially with an instrument reputed for its damaging bite, such as the judicial cane or cat o'nine tails, either the same as above or -especially if there was none yet- another, such as prison infirmery staff, generally examins the wounds, which may urgently require medical care such as disinfecting and dressing

Passive witnesses

  • Especially if a precise punishment is imposed by regulations or specified in a formal sentence, often one or more official witnesses are prescribed, or somehow specified (e.g. from the faculty in a school, court -, police - or military officers) to see to the correct execution. Although this is often motivated as a guarantee against excess and for fair application, many victims rather perceive them as further embarrassment.
  • a party grieved by the punishee may be allowed the satisfaction of witnessing the humbled state of exposure and agony
  • the presence of peers, such as class mates, or an even more public venue such as a pillory on a square, in modern times even press presence, may serve two purposes: increasing the humilitation of the punishee and serving as an example to the audience
  • arrangments for peers subjects to the same punishment, or in line to suffer it soon, to hear the agony or see the beaten punishee frog-marched afterwards or even under the shower may be designed to terrify them

Other parameters of severity

  • Firstly there is the dosing: how many strokes? This is of course easy to prescribe, so the choice is clearly attributed.
  • An objective flaw in the system is that only mechanical administration (not practiced for beatings, as opposed to say the guillotine in capital punishment) would make the dosage an objective measure of the force applied, allowing a realistic estimation of the corporal damage it inflicts; even then, the actual level of induced pain can only be guessed as it depends on the individually varied treshold of sensitivity, even if allowances are made for such factors as age/size, but a discipliner who repeatedly punishes the same person(s) (such as an educator) may get a reasonable feel for it, raising the dilemma if justice is best served by equal punishment for equal crimes or by equal suffering
  • Various subtle modes of application also influence the efficiency of a stroke, e.g. British policemen wielding the birch learned it hurts even more if a move of the hand makes it slide along (like a claw) just when it reaches the bare skin


For further details on positions and sequence of actions, see under spanking : most is identical or derives logicaly from what is said there

See also

External links

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