Last week, the trial of the Rev. Thomas Chantry, a Baptist pastor from Arizona who has been accused of multiple counts of child molestation, began. The survivors’ accounts are graphic and sickening ― and more often than not, they feature spanking. In one case, Chantry allegedly told a little boy that he needed to be “punished for sins not yet committed” before ordering him to drop his pants and underwear. When a parent finally questioned Chantry about the beatings, he admitted to spanking children in his care but denied the other allegations, which include molesting children as young as 9 years old.
Chantry felt comfortable acknowledging the spankings because our culture still refuses to recognize spanking as a sex act when inflicted on little kids. But the spankings were every bit as sexual as the other abuse.
For some people, spanking is sex. I know because that’s what it is for me. My whole life, I’ve been obsessed with spanking. Spanking occupies the place in my life that sex occupies in the lives of most people: As a child, it’s what I was curious about; as an adult, it’s the only thing I fantasize about and the only thing that satisfies me. My fetish is my sexual orientation, and, like any other healthy sexual orientation, only happens between consenting adults. For fetishists like me, consensual spanking is just our version of consensual sex.
But, like any other sexual orientation, we also have our version of predators. And it’s time for the Christian community to confront them. They’re hiding among you.
According to research, born-again Christians are 15 percentage points more likely to approve of spanking than the rest of the population. That’s saying something, because support for state-sanctioned child battery is already high: More than 60 percent of the overall population supports it.
Like any other sexual orientation, we also have our version of predators. And it’s time for the Christian community to confront them.
Beyond the statistics, fundamentalist Christian communities have a disturbing history of obsessing about spanking their kids. “The rod must come wherever there is disobedience. Let’s not ever use the rod unless it hurts. It should be that the child would never want another spanking. He won’t want it to be repeated if it hurts. This is love,” one Christian parenting guide advises. Later, it concludes: “It’s better to go to heaven with welts than to go to hell without welts.”
Chantry would be far from the first minister to put this theory of “Christian discipline” into practice as a cover for sexual assault. In 2016, Howard Curtis, an evangelical pastor in South London, was convicted of sexually assaulting an adult woman in his church after he ordered her to strip naked in front of her husband while Curtis spanked her. Apparently, Curtis had been engaging in similar assaults against children for half a century, including one instance in which he allegedly spanked a 13-year-old girl with a slipper until she “was black and blue.” Curtis got away with decades of abuse because his victims were kids, and he was able to sexually assault them in a way that our society insists is neither sexual nor assault.
I can go on. In 1994, Michael and Debi Pearl, the Christian ministers behind No Greater Joy Ministries Inc., published To Train Up A Child. Ostensibly a parenting guide, the book quickly became popular among evangelical Christians ― Michael Pearl claims it sold more than 670,000 copies. The book encourages parents to use a piece of plastic tubing to spank kids as young as six months old long enough to “break their will.” The Pearls advise parents to wear the tubing around their necks, like a necklace, as a constant visual reminder of the consequences of disobedience. Displaying a spanking implement on a regular basis, as the Pearls recommend, is a fetishistic level of obsession. Trust me: It takes one to know one.
To Train Up A Child ― which, even today, has a terrifying three stars out of five on Goodreads ― was eventually linked to the deaths of at least three kids. In response to one death, Michael Pearl, in his own words, laughed. He wrote: “I laugh at my caustic critics, for our properly-spanked and trained children grow to maturity in great peace and love.”
Adult survivors of evangelical spanking abuse don’t describe it that way. I think often of one email I received from a reader, who gave me permission to share it anonymously. She wrote: “I suffered physical and sexual abuse as a child and that act [spanking] was a part of both. And in fundamentalist Christian homes, like mine, there is more than a little sexualizing in those acts. That’s part of the draw of it. They love it and it turns them on in a big way. It took me a long time to untangle this. ... I do not have that fetish, but I know it is sexual behavior.”
Every Christian should be outraged. There are too many examples of people who are, to my eyes, obviously repressed spanking fetishists using evangelical Christianity as an excuse to exorcise their fantasies on kids. Sections from any book by Dr. James Dobson, the evangelical Christian author responsible for bestselling child-torture manuals like Dare to Discipline, are indistinguishable from adult fetish erotica ― except, unlike Dobson, fetish erotica does not encourage parents to assault real kids. The way repressed spanking fetishists hide within evangelical Christianity reminds me of the way repressed gay men have hidden inside the priesthood: In both cases, it is not an attack on responsible sexual minorities to call out predators who target kids.
Spanking apologists cite Proverbs 13:24: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently.” But the Hebrew word “rod” refers to a shepherd’s rod, which was used for guiding sheep, not beating them. Nevertheless, many evangelical authorities, including Focus on the Family, continue to endorse spanking.
Spanking is inherently violent. It is also inherently sexual: When any person ― child or adult ― is spanked, his or her body experiences a number of physiological responses that are identical to arousal and intercourse. And while not every specific adult who spanks a child is sexually titillated by the act, of course, that doesn’t matter: Some are, and there is no way of knowing which ones. There is also no way of knowing which children will experience a spanking as a sexual violation.
Nothing is worth that risk.
Using “religious discipline” as an excuse for sexual predation is not exclusive to the Christian community, but loving Christians in the United States are uniquely equipped to mobilize against the practice — and those who do not are complicit in it. Do not allow predators to continue to hide behind the Bible. Do not allow monsters to continue to write child-torture porn and call it “Christian parenting.” Do not allow a religion that champions peace and love to continue to use “discipline” as a cover for sexual abuse.
It’s horrifying. It’s grotesque. And it’s not what Jesus would do.
Jillian Keenan is a freelance journalist based in Dakar, Senegal, and the author of Sex With Shakespeare. Follow her on Twitter at @JillianKeenan.