When Violence is Normal and Normalized by Carol P. Christ

Warning: this blog discusses spanking and bodily violence

“No Whips, No Punishments, No Threats: Women’s Control of Social Life” is the title of one of the chapters in Iroquoian Women, Barbara Alice Mann’s stunning reconstruction of female power in a matrilineal society. According to Mann, the European settlers were “unsettled” by the lack of strict punishment systems for children in Indian societies. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was the backbone of European child-rearing practices. The settlers viewed Indian children as naughty, disobedient, disrespectful, and horror of horrors: self-possessed.

It is perhaps no coincidence that after reading this chapter, bodily memories of violence inflicted on me as a child began to resurface. My strongest bodily memory is of being hit repeatedly on my left upper arm by my younger brother’s fist. It is as if my arm is still stinging in that particular place. My mother wanted us to play together, but when we did, we usually ended up fighting. My brother, who was two and a half years younger, was later diagnosed with dyslexia and given “little red pills” to help him control his temper. I was a quiet child (there must have been reasons for that too), and though I soon realized that if I hit back I would only be hurt more, I learned to use my tongue against my brother. This too was a form of violence and my brother remembers my cruelty to this day. Once when I asked my mother what she wanted for her birthday, she responded, “Two children who do not fight.” I didn’t even try to give her that because I didn’t know another way.

Violence was also inflicted on me by my parents. My mother occasionally lost her temper and spanked our bottoms when we were little. But as in many families, she more frequently told us: “Wait till your father gets home.” When our father got home, we were told to take down our pants and lie across his lap while he struck us with his open hand or his belt. This continued until we reached our teens. Because this punishment was considered “normal” when we were growing up, and because my father was never out of control when he struck us, I did not recognize spanking as “violence” until Rita Nakashima Brock named it as such in Proverbs of Ashes. Only now am I beginning to recognize the element of sexual humiliation in the command to take down our pants.

Child-rearing practices are changing in the United States, but a recent study shows that 41% of US parents admit to spanking their children, with that number rising to 62% in the South: more than half of all parents approve of spanking. Studies have shown that children who are spanked die at a younger age of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory illness and that spanking is associated with later anxiety and depression as well as with anti-social behavior including violence against intimate partners and children.

I have had cancer (fortunately detected early and with no reccurrence). I suffered from depression in my twenties and thirties. Although I do not have respiratory illness, to this day I tend to breathe shallowly. Was I a quiet child because I been told I had no right to speak or take up space? Did I struggle to gain “self-possession” because it had been beaten out of me?

Memories of violence inflicted on my body surfaced again in recent discussions here on FAR of the warrior archetype. I took what seemed to be the minority position of rejecting all forms of the warrior archetype including women warriors, spiritual warriors, and warrior Goddesses. I believe all of these images project the idea of harming someone. Sometimes that someone is depicted as evil. In ascetic traditions spiritual warriors attempt to subdue the body and its passions; in some Buddhist traditions it is the ego that is slain. While writing these words today, I reach for the sweet halvah on my desk to comfort the feelings of distress in my body.

According to Barbara Alice Mann, it is true that Indian children were not punished, but it is not true that they were given no moral or social direction. Indian mothers taught their children right from wrong by loudly praising good or socially acceptable behaviors and loudly condemning bad or socially unacceptable behaviors. This system worked because children exhibiting kindness, generosity, and co-operation were embodying the highest social values of their culture, expressed in their myths and legends and understood by everyone.

We, in contrast, are in a much more difficult situation. Parents who do not spank their children and who attempt to teach them not to fight with each other or to inflict violence on others are living in larger cultures in which is violence normalized and widely assumed to be the only way to resolve conflicts. Parents who do not want their children to imbibe violence would have to prohibit them from watching most television shows and movies and from reading even the so-called great works of the western tradition. They would have to keep them out of schools and playgrounds. In recent weeks I received a number of surveys from progressive groups asking me about my priorities for the next election: not once has “ending endless wars” (the phrase is Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s) or reducing the military budget been included as one of the choices.

There must be another way. Iroquoian Women shows us that another way is possible. Can we create it?


Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol  has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parilament of World’s Religions.

Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Activism, Embodiment, Feminism, Feminism and Religion

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20 replies

  1. One of your best posts yet. May we all heal from the violence of patriarchy.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Hope so. My mother did not believe in corporal punishment, but I was spanked on a few rare occassions (three), which I think speaks more of her stress as a lone parent after my father died. My older sibs don’t really remember being spanked (perhaps once.) When we can change the optic about spanking as the parent losing control rather than the child needing to be controlled, then we may have some change.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on silverapplequeen and commented:
    Another great article by Carol P. Christ.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Such an important topic/article. Thank you for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on Thesseli.


  6. Here are some random facts that I have picked up recently: I live in the UK

    75% Scots are in favour of banning smacking.

    Wales is thinking of banning smacking of children.

    53 countries in the world have already banned smacking.

    Smacking/hitting ie corporeal punishment has been banned in schools, why not at home? if it’s not ok in schools, why is is ok in the home enviroment?

    Cannabis is illegal, but rarely is there prosecution. I would imagine it would be the same for parents who smack, but it would give the clear signal that smacking is wrong. At present, people have to witness, silently fuming, when parents hit their children. If it were illegal, it would at least give people like me more leverage to stand up to these bullies. There are obviously levels of smacking abuse.

    Women’s Aid have clear policies that smacking of children is not allowed in their refuges.

    Apparently, there was a debate in 2008, which was defeated because MP’s did not want to criminalise parents. I believe this is also a flaw in our political system. How easy is it for an MP to stand up for a controversial issue, which may result in parents not voting him/her into office in the future, should he/her try to push a bill that makes parents out to be criminals if they smack their children?

    WHICH apparently apparently has written a report that details the mental health issues that children, who have been smacked, can have in later life, due to smacking. This would challenge the commonly voiced opinion that “it didn’t do me any harm”.

    No-one can argue we have a violence epidemic – perhaps that may, in part (possibly a big part, in my opinion) be because of the violence we inflict on our children and I do see smacking as violence. If I ‘smacked’ an adult, it would be seen as violence – what difference does it make, how tall that person is?.

    Apparently, in countries where smacking is outlawed, crime rates are lower.

    Children learn by example. If you smack children, they think it is ok to do the same to others. Simple as.

    If parents are given the clear message that hitting children is wrong then they will learn alternative methods of effecting their children’s behaviour.

    I am a child of parental abuse. I ‘smacked’ my oldest child (who is now 24) a handful of times before his 5th birthday. I always felt dreadful afterwards. The last time I hit him was when he was about 5 years old, when I picked up a lego lid from the floor and began hitting him with it. I swore to him after that, I would never ‘smack’/hit him again and I didn’t and I didn’t hit/’smack’ my younger son at all.

    I truly believe that if there had been a law in place, clearly telling me that any type of physicality regarding the punishing of my child was illegal, then he would not have been ‘hit’ at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post. I have read other accounts of European settlers being aghast at and uncomprehending od Native American’s approach to child rearing. I am glad to know about this book.

    Given the ongoing history of violence towards women in so many world cultures, including contemporary US culture, the longing for and idealizing of women warriors is understandable. One of the most difficult stories I ever attempted to write was Boudica’s (Red-Robed Priestess) the Celtic warrior queen who led a massive armed rebellion against the Romans that ended in a devastating defeat. She, her daughters and her people suffered atrocities at the hands of the Romans. And she in her turn committed atrocities, including against Roman civilian women. The point of view in the novel is Maeve’s, who is a voice for peace from beginning to end.

    Working together to create a culture that supports peaceful child-raising and peaceful resolution of conflict is a timely mission. Thanks for the witness and the inspiration, Carol.


  8. Thank you, Carol, this is most interesting. I don’t think we’ll be able to create a violence-free society until women have political and financial power. We’ve made a start on this, as there are more women in the American Congress than ever before. But we must reach 50 or 75 percent female representation before violence can really be dealt with.

    No one I know likes violence, but I find the idea that women trained in martial arts can defend themselves if attacked extremely comforting.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Perhaps teaching parenting skills and conflict resolution skills in schools would help. But would they be considered worthwhile priorities?


  10. Oh Carol there is so much I want to respond to in this most excellent essay…Re: The Warrior Archetype –

    “I believe all of these images project the idea of harming someone. Sometimes that someone is depicted as evil. In ascetic traditions spiritual warriors attempt to subdue the body and its passions; in some Buddhist traditions it is the ego that is slain. While writing these words today, I reach for the sweet halvah on my desk to comfort the feelings of distress in my body.”

    Re that first sentence – Why, of course they do.

    What I don’t understand is how women can continue to confuse the warrior with being heroic when subduing anyone through violence is VIOLENT behavior…I think what’s hiding here behind the warrior archetype is self hatred and the need for revenge that is being projected rather than owned. We must own our violent tendencies… I use my parenting as an example – I felt the humiliation of spanking as a child and promised myself I would never hit my children for any reason – and I did not. However, what I did do was to scream at them – and this behavior is another form of violence that I was unable to see or own. When I went out of control I yelled. It wasn’t until my children were grown (I was a very young mother – 20) that I began to see that my anger was incredibly destructive.

    Learning how to contain my anger and use it constructively has been a great challenge – it helps so much to be a writer because I am able to contain and channel my anger in more constructive ways.

    I also had to face how much I hated myself – the worst violence I engaged in was that of self hatred. To this day when terribly frustrated with myself I will hit my forehead – it’s always the shock of what I am doing that wakes me up to the powers of self hatred that still lurk just under the surface.

    Violence begets violence – there’s no escape from this reality – if we were treated with violence we will act it out one way or another.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. I grieve in remembering at 5 or 6 yrs old, how I “strapped” my first dog “to teach him to obey me”. I did it as a “responsibility”, something required. “This hurts me more than it hurts you” – did you ever hear that phrase as a child? (The dog, Boots, started biting people. I still feel sad for him and have never hit since). My mother didn’t spank, but sometimes took hold of my arm and dug her fingers in, squeezing tears from my eyes. This stopped when, in a crowded store, I stated loudly: “You are hurting me”. After that she would just send me to my room to “think about it” when I did something unacceptable. “Think past your own nose” became the corrective.
    I never told anyone about this before!

    How will the violence stop in the US where the NRA is so influential and children have access to weapons.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This line of yours sums up my own objections as well: “rejecting all forms of the warrior archetype including women warriors, spiritual warriors, and warrior Goddesses. I believe all of these images project the idea of harming someone.” I’ve never been able to wrap my head around how force and violence – even coming from women – is going to bring us to peace.

    I, too, was raised with spankings and “switchings” as normal and, when as a young adult, I got involved with dog shows and training, ended up in tears and guilt-ridden angst repeatedly because most trainers in the 80s used the same methods as parents used with children and I was being taught to emulate them: force and punishment. It wasn’t long before I gave up on any type of serious “training,” preferring a happy relationship with my dogs rather than them behaving out of fear.

    As for how spanking, and how it is encouraged and condoned by much of our culture as well as some religious sects, when we were considering moving back to the state of my childhood, relatives, and ancestors (southern Missouri, which is distinctly southern in its culture and values), I noticed that the city of Springfield had higher crime rates than either Kansas City or St. Louis, both WAY bigger cities. I asked someone who had been a childhood friend why she thought that and she relied it was a complete mystery to her since “most everyone here are Christians”. Hmm.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Great post, Carol. I was shocked by the statistics on the percentages of American parents who spank their children. I assumed that things had changed more than that in my lifetime, but I live in a liberal bubble here in Madison, WI.

    When I taught the Women and Science Fiction class here at the University, one of the most interesting discussions occurred concerning whether or not Sword and Sorcery was a subgenre of speculative fiction that could be used by feminist writers to change our understandings of culture. Most of my students (including me) believed it wasn’t, because of its use of violence to accomplish its plot goals, but a subsection of students — all of whom were big football fans — believed that it was an appropriate feminist subgenre. I think this speaks volumes about at least one place in our society wheresuch ideas continue to fester.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Such a sad post Carol. First of all, I am so sorry to know that your personal story is so filled with pain. Your journey to healing is truly a beacon for all of us. There are many layers of this story that stuck out for me but the one that really glared is the torture of being told to wait “until your father gets home” and then the inevitable command to pull down your own pants. It is downright masochistic and sadistic. And it forces complicity on the child in their own abuse increasing the psychological damage multi-fold.

    Thank you for your generous sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes filled with pain, unacknowledged pain, pain shared with many. Complicity in one’s own abuse. Sigghhh. And though fathers inflicted the pain, mothers instructed them to do so. And since they too had probably been spanked, there truly was nowhere to turn for comfort or for help.


  15. I am delighted that the British Isle of Jersey has, in the last couple of days made smacking illegal. Scotland and Wales are expected to follow suit before this year is out.



  1. When Violence is Normal and Normalized by Carol P. Christ – Over The Edge and Beyond: Journal of a Naturalist

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