I think my dad is sexually disabled.
In his late twenties, Dad gave up a world class oboe career to pursue the violin. His parents wanted a lawyer or a doctor but my father ate, slept, and breathed the violin. Their church disallowed musical instruments in worship: no organs, no pianos, and no violins. No statues, no bells, no candles, no paintings, and no stained glass. Preachers pounded their lecterns and shouted about baptism and Hell, homosexuality and fornication, and women who wear the pants in the family.
Dad nearly starved as an infant. His mother’s breast milk wasn’t enough to nourish him. His grandmother fed him buttermilk and, according to family lore, saved his life. Deep newborn suffering began his journey on this planet. Maybe he knew as a child that his father was a pedophile. But if he knew, he had no language for it. Nor for his mother’s loathing of breasts and other sex organs. Their family home bathed in sexual shame and secrecy.
Picture this scene. I was eleven. My mother and siblings and I gathered around my grandparents’ RCA console TV, circa 1977, for an episode of The Love Boat (because The Walton’s weren’t on yet). My father practiced the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in an adjoining bathroom as if to drown out the iniquity on screen. He always played in the bathroom. A pair of giddy passengers in evening attire could barely fumble open a cabin door as they kissed and held each other. My grandmother sucked in her breath and let out an exhale of disgust. I tried to vanish, mentally, as my father’s playing grew louder.
In Dad’s music studio, beautiful men stared at us from glossy photographs on the wall – these were men from his past. They held cigarettes or violins or conductor’s batons. Letters from these men lived in a special wooden box that moved with my family from state to state as he changed Christian College teaching jobs. At the Christian Colleges, boys and girls got married to each other. And then they had sex, I presume. Those men on the wall continued to watch my father play his violin.
My mother cried, in her room, because he wouldn’t touch her. She cried while he strained to perfect the phrasing of a Bach Partita. He stood in the bathroom, digging and digging at the notes. He wasn’t ready for bed. The notes never pleased him. I had three siblings, so sex must have happened at least four times in their twenty-three year marriage. Mother later told me she could count the times on her fingers. That’s also when she revealed her husband was just a mediocre violinist, but an artist with the oboe.
Aside from my parents’ troubled marriage, something he did to me – had tremendous impact on my own sexuality and, many years later, spoke volumes about his. He hit me. And he liked it.
Conservative Christians often take license for “spanking” from their read of the Christian Bible – just a few key pieces of it, in fact. But I think the fuel behind this practice comes from an underground source: the repudiation of our bodies. This body hate pervades our entire Western culture and shows up in many forms, including the fear of anger and sex, the fear of aging and death, and self-punishment through disordered eating. A handful of writers (e.g., Philip Greven, Alice Miller*) explore the issue of child spanking and its roots in a vast history of child abuse, anxiety, war and domination, and religious distortion. On this level, the subject of corporal punishment deserves volumes of space and years of discussion.
But on a personal level, I think the way my father hit me was sexual. It became sexual abuse. He seemed to savor the very idea, sometimes announcing a “spanking” four hours in advance as we drove home from visiting his parents in South Arkansas. When we pulled into the driveway of our house, he got out of the car with a grin on his face, never missed a beat, ushered my brother and me toward the bathroom, unbuckled his belt, and then pushed us in there with increasing force until he was lashing us, yanking down our pants, hitting anywhere he could reach as we screamed and tried to fight him off.
Bathrooms have given me a lot of trouble. As a child, I developed a toilet phobia that forced me to hold my bladder entire school days and avoid all public restrooms. I still love violin music (which amazes me), but plumbing gives me pause. Yes, I see the symbolism.
One needn’t see a child undressed or forced over a knee to feel the sexually charged aggression in a scene like this. Those of us who were the recipients of this kind of punishment as children know, on some level, that we were used as objects of unclaimed rage and yes, sexual energy. The few writers, such as Phillip Greven, who have addressed this subject state that the buttocks are erogenous zones. Harsh stimulation of them carries sexual impact, whether consciously intended or not. The result equals confused, shameful inklings of the body’s response. Confused memories bond pain, terror, and shame with images of one’s body in exploited positions, receiving (unbidden) sexual energy from a person who is designated your protector.
I feel the impact of this treatment, four decades later. It comes in odd drenchings of shame that happen when I try to be physically close to my husband. Flashes of memory intrude on our intimate moments. Some flashes contain my mother’s tears, her disappointment at marital celibacy. Other flashes show my father’s face, my sense of vulnerability, and the outrage in my gut.
As a family psychologist, I see traumatized clients. They come to me with stories of rape, incest, domestic violence, and murder. But the one story they resist telling is this one. The spanking story. When I query about physical discipline, their eyes unfocus and they wave me off. “I was spanked, but it’s no big deal.” They shrug and change the subject. Later, I learn their stories. Humiliating poses, scene-setting, clothing removal, being forced to provide the weapon – a tree branch, a fly swatter, a wooden spoon. Some use corporal punishment in their own adult families.
Across town from my office, my father takes off his pants. A nurse runs to scold him as she hoists the elastic waistband up around his waist again, for the seventh time this day. His Parkinson’s leaves him confused and he finds himself, repeatedly, naked in other residents’ beds. His humiliation is extreme. He can no more control this than I can change history.
Not all sexual dysfunction starts with incest, per se. Not all inhibited desire comes from shameful body image, per se. And some forms of incest and body-shaming take place in broad daylight. And as we become more conscious, more mindful, we sometimes discover that our precious inborn sexuality has been vandalized by something as common as a mainstream parenting practice.
Deborah Cox is co-author of The Anger Advantage, and the forthcoming Wife Material, a work of autobiographical fiction. More about her writing and her psychology practice can be found at DeborahLCox.com and FamilyPsychologySpringField.com.
*Greven, Philip J. (1992). Spare the child: The religious roots of punishment and the psychological impact of physical abuse. New York: Vintage. Miller, Alice (2006). The body never lies: The lingering effects of hurtful parenting. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.