'I Don't Know Whether to Kiss You or Spank You': A Half Century of Fear of an Unspanked Woman 

In Depth

In early 1946, a woman from Carmel, California wrote the Hollywood fan magazine Screenland to say how much she had enjoyed the recent Christmas release Frontier Gal—not just for its lovely performers and dazzling Technicolor vistas, but for saving her marriage by teaching her husband to spank her.

After he’d returned from the war, she’d struggled to warm up to him again, she wrote, which caused a problem—and here was the solution. “In desperation, after seeing the show, he tried little Beverly’s philosophy,” wrote Mrs. J.B.M. “Daddies spank mamas because they love them. While this old-fashioned approach probably wouldn’t work in all cases, it did for us, and I would appreciate an opportunity to publicly thank Universal and Frontier Gal.”

The letter is mysterious—is it describing erotic play, or spousal abuse?—but the context is less so. Frontier Gal was one of at least five movies with scenes of women being spanked released in 1945 alone. Though the movie culminates in a minute-long spanking of its star Yvonne De Carlo, the plot device was so unremarkable as to not even make the reviews. From the beginnings of cinema up through the 1960s, a spanking was just a routine part of a certain type of screen romance: watch the supercut below.

For decades, in movie after movie, wily women were rendered the children of the men who loved them. It was entertaining. It was light fun. It was comfort for a culture uneasy about the advance of women’s liberation. It was, in countless period pieces, a way to revise history, to reassure Americans that the liberated woman had always been a problem and there was a time-honored, lovingly disciplinary solution. The film spanking was both a mirror and a model—Mrs. J.B.M. wasn’t the only one getting spanked, just one of few women off-screen who didn’t mind.

In the 1963 movie Mclintock!, when a young man is upset by the actions of a young woman he barely knows, he grabs her and puts her across his knee, forgetting that her father, John Wayne, is standing right behind him. As the young man reaches back for a wallop, Wayne stays his hand—and puts a small shovel in it. In a moment, Wayne’s daughter is being spanked, yelps and the clangs of the shovel are resounding through the house, and Wayne is smiling and lighting a cigar, happy to share his parental duties.

Days later, the young man and woman are engaged. “I guess this is the only engagement that ever started off with a spanking,” Wayne says when he finds out. But in the film world, it was quite the opposite. Spankings stirred romance all the time. A couple meets; she wrongs the man somehow, and he puts her over his knee. It takes them a while to admit it, but soon they’re in love.

In Lucky Star (1929), In the Navy (1941), The Flame of Araby (1951), and other films, the spanking is the first serious step toward romance. Indeed, a spanking has as much predictive power as Chekhov’s first act gun. In Reap the Wild Wind (1942), Paulette Goddard and John Wayne appear madly in love, but when Ray Milland spanks Goddard for deceiving him midway through the film, it suddenly becomes clear who she’ll end up with. Like chumps in films such as Streamline Express (1935), Public Deb No. 1 (1940), and Captain Lightfoot (1955), John Wayne soon sees his girl’s heart stolen by a firm hand.

Even when the spanking doesn’t occur, the mere threat usually assures a romance, a connection as clear to a film’s characters as to viewers. In Oklahoma! (1955), a young man tries to calm his girlfriend down by telling her, “You quit your worryin’ or I’ll spank you.” Suddenly, as he steps away from her, the import of his words hits him. He slowly turns back: “While I think of it, how about marryin’ me?” Somehow, he realizes that a dominion over her buttocks is also a dominion over her heart. Similarly, in Streamline Express, the hero only learns he loves the girl when he is startled to find himself shouting “I love you” as he lands a blow against her backside.

Usually, however, the man knows all along he loves her, and the major conflict is in getting women to acknowledge their true feelings. In The Living Ghost (1942), the hero must trick the girl into thinking their death is imminent to get her to admit her love—and even then the film still concludes with a spanking. In Flying Down to Rio (1933), we see the woman’s internal dilemma visualized. Trapped on an island with her would-be lover, Dolores Del Rio shouts her contempt of him, but then her inner self steps outside her body and mocks her faux reserve. Soon, she drops that reserve and kisses the guy, but when she refuses to marry him, she’s spanked.

She’s a rich girl who’s used to getting her own way, one of many overly-independent women these movies put in place. Some are spoiled, like her; some meddle in their husband’s business, like Myrna Loy in The Thin Man Goes Home (1945); some are stuck-up, like Elizabeth Allen in Donovan’s Reef (1963); some refuse to perform, like the singers in And the Angels Sing (1944) and Look for the Silver Lining (1949); some are even too forward, like the women in The Naughty Flirt (1931), Stronger Than Desire (1939), and The Female Animal (1958). They’re all guilty of stepping out of their sphere, of assuming an independence that many viewers were surely eager to see restricted.

In Forsaking All Others (1934), Joan Crawford begins a harangue about her right to date a married man by telling Clark Gable that she’s “free, white, and twenty-one,” a catchphrase of foolishly liberated women. When she slaps Gable, he picks her up and spanks her with a hairbrush. It takes a while, but eventually the message gets through. By the end of the film, she expresses her devotion to Gable—not with words, but by handing him a hairbrush. The same gesture occurs at the end of Taming the Wild (1936). It’s a fantasy of willing submission that plays out repeatedly.

Even when the spank comes alongside greater violence, like punches in Professional Sweetheart (1933) and Love, Honor, and Behave (1938), the woman remains devoted. In Frontier Gal, the hero twice forces himself on his wife sexually, with only her blissful smile after the act to assure the audience that this was not rape but her secret desire. While other films aren’t as extreme as this, in all it holds true that the independent woman wants nothing more than to be overwhelmed.

Some of these women are explicit about their need for a spanking. In Union Pacific (1939), when told that a coquette will only play her games until “the right man comes along and gives her the spanking she deserves,” Barbara Stanwyck replies, “Ah, that’s the man she dreams of!” In State of the Union (1948), Katherine Hepburn laments that her wayward husband no longer cares enough about her to spank her. “I’d do anything for one good smack on my south end,” she says wistfully.

The women in these movies are portrayed as guilty not just of offenses against their men, but also against their community, and so their spankings are often public affairs. In Frontier Gal, nearly every key player in the film watches. In Mclintock!, when John Wayne spanks wife Maureen O’Hara, the entire frontier town observes, laughing riotously. “My father would be proud of you!” a man shouts. In Public Deb No. 1, the spanking of a young woman for promoting communism is documented by photographers, sparking a wave of girlfriend spankings across the country. The women need to be humiliated out of their pretensions—O’Hara even gets accidentally tarred and feathered before the spanking. The community laughs, delighted to finally see her corrected back into womanhood. And as the camera alternates between shots of the spankee and the eager audience, the viewer joins that community.

To get an idea just how common this trope was, consider the following data:

The numbers come not from a scholarly database but from the fetish site Spankings in the Movies, one of several cataloguing this film favorite. It lists 280 entries by 1963, the year of Mclintock!, after which TV entries began to dominate, and, because of changes in censorship law, sexual spankings began to appear.

As the bottom listing indicates, the idea of spanking a woman was so popular that some studios would release publicity photos of spankings even when no such activity occurred in the movie—even when the characters barely interacted. When the spanking did occur, it frequently appeared on ads.

Studios apparently felt confident audiences wanted to see Hollywood’s most popular actresses disciplined. It’s true that if Americans feared liberated women, there were surely none more frightening than these rich, young, promiscuous stars. Fan magazines frequently reported their antics and noted how much they deserved a good spanking in reward, and fans in turn wrote to say who they would like to turn over their knee. She “needs a spanking and I’d like to be the one to give it to her,” a fan wrote of Ginger Rogers in 1943, disturbed that she’d married a younger man. (She’d already gotten one in Professional Sweetheart.) “I’d like to spank her for her attitude toward fans and publicity,” a former acquaintance of Katherine Hepburn wrote in 1934. (She’d ask for one in State of the Union.) “You should be spanked good and hard,” a fan chided Joan Crawford in 1931, on account of her dyed hair. (She’d received one already in Rose-Marie (1928) and would again in Forsaking All Others.) If you couldn’t see them punished in life, you could on screen.

But sometimes they were punished in life. In 1934, the Hollywood press reported that Lupe Velez, spanked in Hot Pepper (1933) and Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event (1943), had been spanked off camera—by her director: “In the midst of some of her didoes, Director Van Dyke reached the end of his patience and grabbing Lupe, threw her across his knee and administered a good, old-fashioned spanking where it should be delivered. And Lupe was a good girl for the rest of the picture.” She was 25.

Ten years later, 21-year-old Linda Darnell was struggling to play a part in Summer Storm, take after take failing to muster the right emotions. Finally, director Douglas Sirk walked over to her, “administered a few sound swats” to her behind, and then asked her to do it again. The next time, she got it right, and she said her relationship with Sirk was wonderful from then on.

With the camera rolling or not, stories coming from Hollywood studios presented a consistent message that spankings were a healthy part of a woman’s life. At the same time, all across America women were getting spanked by their husbands—and taking them to court.

To many American women, a spanking was the fruit not of charming adoration but domestic tyranny. Sometimes these spankings were precipitated by violent behavior on the part of the wife—but just as often it was for her failure to be a docile servant.

In 1949 a Dallas husband spanked his wife for not making breakfast. In 1942, an LA husband spanked his wife for refusing to play poker with guests. In 1897, a Providence husband spanked his wife for speaking with a minister. In 1927, a DC husband—like husbands in Santa Monica and Chicago before him—spanked his wife for getting her hair bobbed. In 1914, a Hagerstown, MD husband spanked his wife for not having dinner ready. All across the country, wives were spanked for talking too much, for political differences, for returning late from Bible class, for not addressing him as “sir,” for objecting to their child being spanked, for a misbehaving poodle, for refusing to buy a motorcycle, for nagging, for sleeping in, and for not doing the dishes.

Sometimes, judges applied the wisdom of Hollywood. In 1949, when a New York woman in her sixties was spanked by her drunken husband for “running around with the boys,” the judge urged her to drop the charges, telling her the man “must still consider you pretty and attractive or he wouldn’t be jealous of you that way.”

He “must love you an awful lot,” the judge added.

It’s an idea not of romantic but parental love—and one key to the logic of film spankings. In Frontier Gal, the hero first gets the idea to spank his wife after he spanks his five-year-old daughter. The girl cries, but, previously uncertain of the affections of her estranged father, she’s also pleased. Through sniffles, she says, “Fathers spank little girls because they love them…. Oh gosh, you love me.”

“I do,” he responds, just realizing it himself. At the end of the film, he puts the idea to use on his wife, spanking her as their daughter watches. While his wife is confused, the little girl is thrilled, finally saying, “Daddy, you spanked mama.… That means you love her.” Suddenly, the wife catches on and a kiss forced against her stammering lips seals the arrival of marital harmony.

In spanking films, the husband is a surrogate father. In Cow-Catcher’s Daughter (1931), a father tires himself out spanking his daughter over 50 times, finally saying he’s glad she’ll soon have a husband to take over the responsibilities. In Captain Lightfoot, Rock Hudson first spanks his love interest after declaring “Your father asked me to take his place.” In Too Young To Kiss (1951), the spankee is disguised as a child and the man actually proposes adopting her just a day before they declare their love. Meet John Doe (1940) really gets at the complications of this dynamic when Gary Cooper tediously recounts a dream in which he shifts roles from Barbara Stanwyck’s father to her lover, to a priest, each trading smacks on her posterior.

They all express the same idea: the “best wives and noblest mothers are, after all, but grown up children.” This statement comes not from a movie but a Long Island judge making his declaration validating wife spanking in 1902. The victims’ childishness repeatedly comes up in these proceedings. In justifying spanking his wife in 1958, a Santa Monica psychiatrist said, “Well, what can you do with a child?”

Many of these men treating their wives like children were, quite simply, married to children. Teenage wives as young as 13 reported being spanked. In 1908, a New York husband spanked his 16-year-old wife for standing on the street talking to some “strange men.”

“They were not strange men,” she asserted in court. “They were schoolboy friends.”

Of course, often, a spanking wasn’t all that went on. There was more severe beating as well. The spanking might seem comparatively trivial, but the fact that women reported it says a lot about its humiliating effects. A woman in Massachusetts in 1936 said during divorce proceedings that her husband “had beaten her and given her black eyes on other occasions, but it was the spanking he gave her that proved the last straw.”

Newspapers would overlook the more severe violence and put the spanking in a headline. They’d fill their reports on these cases with jokes, sometimes noting laughter in the courtroom, approaching the whole thing with the distance of a moviegoer and adding more insult to injury. In a 1910 case of a New York man spanking his wife for letting his dinner go cold, a piece in the Washington Post noted, “It did not develop in court whether Mr. Miller used the flat of his hand, a rubber shoe, an old slipper, a razor strop, or a shingle. These have all been tried at times and given satisfaction to the user.” Papers were so eager to trivialize domestic violence that some spanking stories can’t be trusted. In 1928, the LA Times proclaimed another case of a woman spanked for getting her hair bobbed, this time in Des Moines, but the court record mentions no such spanking; she was punched.

In movies, public humiliation helps bring women out of their pretensions or hysterics. In life, it was sometimes too much to bear. In 1949, an 18-year-old woman who the previous year had been crowned “Miss New Orleans” was spanked by her new husband in a hotel lobby. The strange story made national headlines. “It Must Be Love” one paper captioned a photo of the spanking. At the time, the woman played it up herself, but eventually the humiliation got to her. A year later, she attempted suicide. “I felt that people were laughing at me,” she said. “I couldn’t hold up my head in public.”

Publicity had just the opposite effect of what the movies depicted. In 1907, a Waterbury, CT woman testified in divorce proceedings that her husband spanked her daily, but it was not until he did so in public that she finally decided to take him to court. Again, the newspaper treated it as a lark.

The legality of the act depended on the decency of the judge. In one courtroom, a judge would declare, “Our scale of civilization has not entirely outgrown the efficacy of the more drastic corrective measures.” In another, a judge would assert, “Spanking belongs to the caveman age.” Amid this uncertainty, newspapers and magazines discussed where a husband could get away with it and whether it was proper in the first place.

Advice columnists continually returned to the question. Dorothy Dix endorsed spanking: “Bad wives are just as much their husbands’ fault as bad children are their parents’.” She and others frequently ran letters from women claiming they were saved from becoming “a miserable divorcee” by a timely spanking. In several such letters, it is the girl’s mother, guilty of having spared the rod, who instructs the husband to give her daughter what for.

Some of these letters sound fake, but newspapers were eager to believe them. In 1937, a widely circulated AP story told of a club formed by women advocating marital spankings. “Spare the hairbrush and spoil the wife,” they asserted. Six months later, another widely circulated story reported that the club now had 59 national chapters and young girls were opening an auxiliary, “Daughters of Spanking Parents.”

It didn’t matter that the AP stories couldn’t distinguish between Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Sioux City, Iowa, sourcing both in the same article, or that one year the club was represented by “Lora Lane” and the next by “Rita Rae.” It didn’t matter that no paper in Iowa or South Dakota reported on the club first. Or that nobody followed up on these stories, or that neither woman was in either Sioux’s directory. The idea of women clamoring to be disciplined with a paddling was a story people were prepared to believe. All those movies couldn’t be that mistaken.

And modern science seemed to support the idea as well. In 1939, the Boston Globe ran a piece by a Northwestern University psychology professor who presented case studies to get to the bottom of the scourge of nagging wives. One case involved the college-educated woman, a habitual marital problem because husbands need to feel superior and wives can’t be happy unless inferior. But there is a solution, the Globe said:

Women secretly wanted to be dominated: it’s precisely the logic of all those films where the spanking is returned with a passionate kiss. A psychologist wrote in Sensation magazine the same year that wives “would probably be happier” if spanked, though “the American woman is too busy trying to prove her equality with men to admit her masochistic yearnings—except in her choice of movie heroes.” (He then rejects spanking while advising “a hint of ruthlessness in love-making.”)

In movies, this idea of “taming” is often expressed literally: if the woman wasn’t a child, she was a horse. Before Frontier Gal’s Rod Cameron meets Yvonne De Carlo, she’s described to him as a “lively filly” who is “well worth stable room—once she’s broken for the bridle.” In The Flame of Araby, Maureen O’Hara is a princess who bristles at the roughness of the Bedouin who used a horsewhip on her backside when they first met, but as she later watches him methodically tame a wild horse, she sees the affection underlying his violence: “You speak to me insolently and without regard, and yet at no time were you brutal to the mighty Sherzade. Perhaps beneath your cloak of arrogance there is a softness in your heart.” Soon, it’s love.

Film women are so desperate to be dominated that when the spanking is denied it has ruinous effects. In In This Our Life (1942), Bette Davis is twice threatened with a spanking, but she’s spoiled instead and soon dies while reckless driving. In North West Mounted Police (1940), a young man stops the spanking of his girlfriend and soon the uncorrected hellion brings about his death.

In life, things could be just as dire. “Do you think a man should spank a nagging wife or suffer in silence,” the Toronto Globe and Mail asked the public in 1938. One man endorsed spanking: “I have seen some terrible shots made at the eighteenth hole on the golf links just because it was getting late and players were worrying what their wives would say when they got home. Such things should not be.”

Defenders of wife-spanking were often explicit about the politics behind it. A1900 Chicago Tribune editorial titled “Invasions of Men’s Rights” asserted that protections against wife spanking were none other than “the dreadful influence of woman suffragists and society leaders.” A Chicago judge in 1933 insisted, “Women may be emancipated but it’s still a man’s prerogative to spank a misbehaving wife.”A 1962 letter to Ann Landers lamented:

For insecure men like this, it must have been comforting to watch movies such as West of the Pecos (1945), Beauty and the Bandit (1946), Stagecoach Kid (1949), On Moonlight Bay (1951), and The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957), where the spankee doesn’t just assume the prerogatives of a man, but actually tries to pass as one. Each time, she gets her comeuppance, assuring the audience that such barrier-breaking women not only could be returned to their proper roles but also secretly wanted to be. (The girl in Beauty and the Bandit even requests a second spanking.)

“ALL MAN” links the rise of liberated women to the first World War, but the “problem” was perhaps more acute after the second, and with it a rise in domestic violence. A widely circulated 1946 story on veterans beating their wives—trivialized with a cutesy spanking cartoon—quoted a psychiatrist who blamed the victims: “Women who don’t want to go back to being housewives are bringing a lot of friction into the home.” Appearing a month after Frontier Gal’s release, perhaps the story, or others like it, colored how Mrs. J.B.M. understood her marital struggles.

Regardless, she soon would find a model in the sweetly patriarchal on-screen marriages of Hollywood stars, even as, off-screen, some of those stars evinced a darker version of the movie story. In 1968, Cary Grant, who threatened women with spankings in To Catch a Thief (1956) and Charade (1963), was divorced by his young wife Dyan Cannon, who alleged among other things that he had spanked her. In 1953, Susan Hayward, who received a publicity shot spanking for Hit Parade of 1943, testified in her divorce that husband Jess Barker had spanked her. In the 1950s, Marlon Brando, who did no on-screen spanking, spanked his wife, Anna Kashfi.

Maybe the stars really believed what their industry was selling. Real marital spankings gave rise to screen ones, but with all that attractive celluloid action, it’s hard to imagine the influence didn’t extend the other way as well.

On a forum on the website Taken in Hand, for couples who enjoy male-dominant relationships, a commenter writes of the 1938 Ernst Lubitsch film Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife: “It’s the only film I’ve ever seen with a spanking scene where the heroine is entirely impervious to any beneficial effects of being spanked. It’s one for people to remember if they get carried away by the idea that spanking can solve any problem.” Indeed, the film is unique in the way it defies movie spanking formulas. Where traditionally the woman must have her will broken, here it is Gary Cooper who is tamed, ending up in a straightjacket. Where traditionally the man must force a kiss on the girl, here it is Claudette Colbert who forces it on Cooper. Colbert is a modern woman, and the film suggests that the old ways must yield to her. There is a spanking, but it doesn’t take. Cooper gets the idea after picking up a copy of The Taming of the Shrew, but it gets him nowhere, and in the next scene he throws the book in the fireplace.

Many of the spanking films seem to have Shakespeare’s play in mind, most obviously 1955’s quasi-adaptation Kiss Me, Kate. In alluding to the play, they suggest there’s something timeless about this kind of violence. Men have always had to spank their women when they’ve gotten out of line. Yet one thing you can say for Shakespeare’s play is that Kate isn’t physically abused. Indeed, a fetish site has looked through the stage history of the play and been unable to find any spankings until after World War II.

Repeatedly, in movies, newspapers, and Mrs. J.B.M.’s letter, the phrase “old-fashioned spanking” is used to align the act with a long tradition. A spanker is guilty, one story notes, of having “backslid into the past.” Another spanker “exercised a once universal but now frowned upon right.” Yet it’s a struggle to find examples of this form of marital discipline occurring very long ago. The spanking forums, which revel in finding precedents for their kink, come up really short on any before the last century. Of course, the more violent practice of wife beating, and the law of coverture that authorized it, has a long, ugly history—but wife spanking was new. It makes no appearance in histories of domestic violence. It was a particularly modern response to modern anxieties.

However much people—especially spanking advocates—believed there to be one, there was no history for this type of practice to harken back to. Except on film. The cinema offered the spanking history the real history books could not provide. There spanking occurs in medieval Europe (The Flame and the Arrow (1950), The Vagabond King (1956)), early nineteenth-century Ireland (Captain Lightfoot), timelessly Orientalized Arabia and Algeria (The Flame of Araby, Prisoners of the Casbah (1953)), and, in dozens of films, the old American West. The Western genre that is so focused on reinventing American origins, also invents origins for a benign form of domestic violence. Just as spanking was a way of reclaiming the liberated, frightening woman by infantilizing her, it was a way of reclaiming brutal, tyrannical violence by infantilizing it. It was an act of retrenchment.

But could it be something else as well? For Mrs. J.B.M., it really may have been healthy—loving, sexual. And perhaps it was for other viewers too. The older fetishists like to recount the thrill of watching some of these scenes in the theater as a child.

In a classic essay on the practice of anthropology, Clifford Geertz discusses the difficulty of determining the meaning of a gesture as simple as a child’s wink. Is it a twitch, a signal, a goof on a friend? There are “winks upon winks upon winks.” Surely some film spankings were intended to be erotic; surely some follow-up kisses occurred less because violence proved a man’s love than because of baser stirrings. Surely people didn’t always know themselves. “I don’t know whether to kiss you or spank you” was a common expression.

Academics have pored through the historical evidence to try to determine just when spanking became primarily a sexual thing. As you might expect of a serious academic, even one named Trevor Butt, all they can tell you is that it’s complicated—that one can’t quite define the precise nature of the live spank any more than the film one, can’t pinpoint just when in history “the sexual discourse has become hegemonic.”

In Adam’s Rib (1949), when Katherine Hepburn attempts to delineate the difference between a vengeful and a playful spank, Spencer Tracy responds, “What have you got back there, radar equipment?” Fetishists often root their spanking passion in childhood spanking trauma. Conversely, some women wrote advice columnists lamenting that a marital spanking that started as a joke soon turned into a husband’s reign of terror. It’s a problem that persists in today’s Christian domestic discipline movement. The boundaries are flexible. Spanks upon spanks upon spanks.

For some parties, there was always more to it. That “Wives of Spanking Husbands” club that newspapers were having fun with in 1937, for instance, made its first appearance in 1936, when a “Reta Rae” wrote Liberty Magazine announcing the formation of the club and—ulterior motive alert—soliciting women to send stories about being spanked. Similarly, a few years earlier, a man slipped into a Broadway studio and tricked a talent agency into sending a woman with whom he could “rehearse” a spanking scene. The frequency of such scenes made it easy for him to palm off his fetish undetected.

The spanking message boards are full of nostalgia for classic film spankings, but stark differences in how to take them. “I enjoy some of the old clips as well,” writes one, “but I have to say that I’d have a problem with a mainstream movie that implied that it was somehow ok to discipline a woman for being ‘bad’.”

“Yes wives should be spanked,” asserts another, “but only with their consent.”

Others pine for the ethic of those days. “i dont think it matters if your a mother in law, wife, sister in law or whatever.” writes one, “If you need a spanking you need a spanking. If spanking was still done nowadays people and families would be better off.”

While the era itself had to invent a history to look back to, now it presents a real one to enjoy. Some look back for the erotics, some for the politics. Newspaper stories like those quoted above are shared eagerly. One “spanko” posts a copy of a Detroit News advice column from 1948, in which a woman complained of her husband’s recent decision to start spanking her, sparked by two things: the advice of her mother and “a movie we recently saw in which a husband spanked his wife.”

“Yesterday,” she writes, “I bit and scratched when he spanked me. He only spanked harder, so here I am much the worse for it.” On the forum, someone comments on the letter: “I hope it is true, but I fear it may be more fiction than fact.”

It’s a pretty callous wish, but no different from a half century of newspaper reports getting pleasure out of a woman’s pain and humiliation. And of course the work of all those film spankings, intentional or not, was to make it easy for people to interpret the suffering of women as both deserved and secretly desired.

Every backward aspect of the gender politics of these old films—the justifications of violence, the belief women can only express desires when pressured, the belief they want to be demeaned—is still available today. Every fetishistic thrill was there for the taking back then. One is moving out of the mainstream; one is moving in. Then as now, you can see a spanking as heinously retrograde, wrongly maligned, or deliciously erotic. It’s not the act itself but how it’s used. Only Mrs. J.B.M. knows what she really meant in that letter.

Video by Andrew Heisel, top illustration by Bobby Finger

Andrew Heisel is a writer living in New Haven, CT. Follow him @andyheisel.

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