Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Christian Domestic Discipline and Queer Religious Studies

Those of us working in Religious Studies and Queer Studies are very aware of the productive ways that the critical insights of these fields can speak to each other. Both of these fields deal with affects, practices, communities, and ways of conceptualizing the subject that cause the liberal paradigm to crack. At the same time, critical work on sex and gender has been crucial for scholars attempting to theorize “religion” as a discursive formation without falling back into violent reifications. Christian Domestic Discipline is a representative example of the kind of project that requires new critical insights and a “queerer” method of studying religion.

Christian Domestic Discipline, or CDD, has been referred to as “evangelical BDSM” and “spanking for Jesus” by perplexed, amused, and horrified outside observers.[1] This tiny online community of practitioners received a slew of internet attention after The Daily Beast published an online article in 2013 entitled “Spanking for Jesus: Inside the Unholy World of Christian Domestic Discipline,” which was quickly followed by blog posts at Jezebel (of Gawker Media), XOJane, Salon, and The Huffington Post. CDD relationships are predicated on male headship and female submission, and practitioners seek to enhance their marriages by heightening and reinforcing hierarchical gender differences. Practices for achieving this vary from couple to couple, but CDD almost always involves disciplinary spanking (of wives, by husbands, and never the other way around). It is this practice that particularly fascinated commenters, even if they were not quite sure what to make of it. These bloggers were unable to decide whether CDD was Christian kink—which would make it sex-positive, consensual, and funny—or a religious justification for domestic abuse—which would make it nonconsensual, oppressive, and deeply disturbing. For instance, the blogger behind “Getting Spanked As Needed: I Just Discovered Christian Domestic Discipline and It Makes Me Very Uncomfortable” accused the movement of being misogynistic and abusive, but couldn’t resist the occasional quip. Her post included a photo of a messy sink with the caption “if I got spanked right now would I finally clean the bathroom?”[2] While a few bloggers specifically classified CDD as abuse rather than BDSM, they still used BDSM as an explanatory referent. Although these bloggers attempted to make sense of CDD spanking through comparison to BDSM, their ambivalent tone suggested that their terms were not adequate to categorize this practice or to work out the thorny ethical problems that are raised by CDD.

A closer look reveals that the label “evangelical BDSM” neither clarifies nor precisely points to the nature of CDD and is therefore not a sufficient way of making sense of this community and its practices. The differences between CDD and mainstream BDSM are most stark around the issue of consent. While most CDD blogs and online discussion forums insist that “disciplining” is never forced, the pedagogical mechanics of consent that normally define licit BDSM practice are not present in the same kind of elaborated system of practice, performance, and belonging. Instead, CDD becomes legitimate through Biblical and masculine authority, and consent is a significant but secondary part of both CDD practices and the ways that CDD couples define themselves. For instance, introductory pages on CDD websites generally have a lot to say about the inherent and God-given differences between men and women, and very little that mirrors the familiar “safe, sane, and consensual” mantra that is so crucial in organized BDSM communities.[3] Although there are many ways that the BDSM designation might push us to understand what it is that seemingly sado-masochistic practices do for evangelicals in CDD marriages, direct comparisons to BDSM obscure the aspects of CDD that seem most essential to practitioners. Specifically and most importantly, this characterization does not elucidate the enactment of gender difference that gives CDD its coherence and its uniqueness as a specifically Christian phenomenon.

If the term “evangelical BDSM” does not quite fit CDD, it does tell us something about the considerable ambivalence recorded in the popular online coverage of this practice. The subheading of the Daily Beast piece states, “What do you call it when a husband beats his wife with a paddle for disobeying him? Some would say domestic abuse. These people say he is doing God’s work.”[4] In all of these pieces, there is considerable anxiety about whether CDD is consensual sexual play or abuse. The authors commenting on these communities bounce back and forth between these possibilities, affirming women’s right to choose this kind of sexual expression free from judgment and condemning domestic violence (especially the kind that comes with divine justification).

The problem is that CDD could be both or neither of these things. While some CDD bloggers openly discuss the pleasurable aspects of marital spanking, even suggesting that the arousing aspects of CDD are evidence of God’s perfect plan for male headship in marriage, other CDD forums suggest that this experience isn’t universal. “Frequently Asked Questions” pages offer advice to husbands who can’t bring themselves to hit their wives and women who are upset and disturbed by the fact that their husbands are aroused after spanking. One blogger who finds CDD fulfilling but not arousing states, “Most women in a CDD relationship will tell you they don’t like punishment spanking. I can assure you I don’t. It is nerve-wracking. It is humbling. It hurts. But I wouldn’t give up having a husband who has true authority for anything in this world.”[5] (Kelley, “CDD and Sexuality.”) Another blogger insists that CDD is “not sexual” but later explains that “voluntary nudity and enthusiastic submission are not uncommon… [and] vaginal lubrication signals the first stage of female submission to male prerogatives.”[6] (See “One Size May Not Fit All.”)

Even a brief perusal of CDD online spaces demonstrates that CDD encompasses an enormous range of possible pleasures and pains for both husbands and wives, and, significantly, these varied practices and experiences are all recognized by these communities as valid forms of CDD. Even in cases where sexual arousal is explicitly part of the picture, it is described and, arguably, felt in a range of ways in practice, bringing a variety of possible eroticisms into play. So, the sensibility that connects all of these sensations and affects into one relationship model can’t be found at the nexus of a particular assemblage of pain, pleasure, and fleshly encounter. Instead, the coherent grouping of all of these practices and feelings under the CDD umbrella becomes viable in the common project of enacting self-evident, “Biblical” gender roles that reach their ideal form in marriage. For practitioners of CDD, this practice is a way of materializing our essential, gendered selves through the expression of an interpersonal dynamic that is premised on an asymmetrical distribution of power. CDD spanking brings gendered selves more perfectly into being while assuring practitioners that the distinction between man and woman is always already there at the heart of our created nature. It quickly becomes apparent that the “agent or victim” language available to these bloggers is inadequate to talk about this practice. In deferring to religious notions of authority and, perhaps, alternative notions of subjectivity, CDD resists analysis that privileges the normative subject of modern liberal discourse—the autonomous agent who moves through the world as a coherent self, imposing their will upon that world.

Mainstream BDSM turns on the notion of the liberal subject and the sense that individuals can know their desires and communicate them perfectly as autonomous agents. In this context, the practice of consent is vital because it is the only way to equitably negotiate an intersubjective encounter without violence/abuse (it also holds out an optimistic promise of encounter without violence, perfect transmission of desires between persons, and so on). When CDD couples insist that consent is important to the practice of domestic discipline but not essential to its meaning or effects, and that sexual pleasure can be present but never primary, they are not merely decentering individual choice as the ultimate criterion of human flourishing, but rather affirming a different matrix for human interaction.

The impossibility of categorizing and evaluating CDD according to the framework of BDSM explains the unnerving tonal shifts in popular writing on this movement. Because CDD couples do not prioritize the language of consent (which assumes a particular subject who acts autonomously, enters into contractual relationships, and so on) in the way that mainstream BDSM practitioners do (in part because their use of the term is based on a different sense of what they are accomplishing through these physical encounters and the kind of agent engaging in this practice), CDD frustrates efforts to name it either abuse or consensual sexual play. If CDD can be something you want but don’t like, something you need but resent, something both painful and orgasmic, and/or something you don’t desire but do actively submit to/perform, mapping BDSM hermeneutics onto this community and its practices becomes impossible. The authors of the blog posts that I discussed earlier seem flummoxed by this problem, alternatively cracking jokes about “spanking for Jesus” and railing against CDD as nothing more than “an outlet for emotionally disturbed men with intimacy deficits.”[7]

“Religion” for those of us who study it, is often interesting because many forms of religious thought and practice refuse or resist—even partially—the model of the agentive subject that we associate with modernity and, significantly, with the emergence of the secular. In The Empire of Love, a masterful meditation on the intimate event and the subject it produces, Elizabeth Povinelli argues that not everyone buys into the liberal notion of the autological subject (or its implicit other, the “genealogical society”) and argues that both “radical faeries” and “fundamentalist Christians”—in one way or another—might be counted among the dissenters.[8] Seeing radical faeries and fundamentalist Christians listed together points to the odd parallelism that sometimes crops up in queer and religious studies, and the ways that religion often appears “queer” when looked at sideways. Queer theory and religious studies can be brought into productive conversation when we require a theoretical language that doesn’t treat the autological subject as taken for granted or assume that a human is essentially an “autonomous” agent making choices. Christian Domestic Discipline is one example of a site of inquiry that requires a more sophisticated theoretical grammar; one which, I suspect, can be generated through queer engagement with the terrain of religious studies. If, at this moment in queer studies, we are still interested in the critical possibilities that emerge from engaging with alterity as such, then even CDD might be a site of fracture that illuminates the stakes of our moment and the limits of our discursive tools. Queer theory can help us to understand what is happening in the practice of CDD (in terms of both of theorizing embodied subject formation, and exposing the limitations of the most obvious analytical frame available to us), but it is also possible that “thinking with” the unassimilable particularity of CDD may produce critiques of the liberal subject from another direction, and expand the discursive landscape of our utopic thinking.

When trying to delineate what is happening when a CDD husband spanks his wife’s bare bottom until she cries, the reductive binary that renders the wife either empowered agent or disempowered victim will only flatten the complex dynamics of this practice and foreclose analytical possibilities. We see this dead end in the popular coverage of CDD. By analyzing this practice according to the single criterion “consent”—where consent is not a contingent and necessarily incomplete act of communication, but an act that assumes agentive actors who are fully knowable to themselves—the limited and limiting victim/agent binary is reified over and over again.

It is important to note that we often hold on to the rhetoric of consent, in spite of its attendant fictions about agentive personhood, for ethical reasons that should not be ignored. I want to emphasize that consent is an important and, often, our best available tool for defining violence and abuse as such. However, we know that there is also violence in asserting that agency constitutes humanity, and that only those who are free to assert their will are fully human. There are many ways of talking about consent, some more theoretically useful than others, and what I take issue with here is the kind of “consent” that assumes transparent subjectivity and desire that can be fully known, contained, and spoken. This is a model of consent that promises to make sex safe, by, as Povinelli might put it, “solving the difference of difference.”[9] By suggesting that the “consent model” is inadequate when it comes to CDD, I am not saying that it doesn’t matter whether or not CDD is abusive. Rather, I am insisting that because this language is deemphasized and, in some ways, even subverted, by CDD practitioners, we will not arrive at a nuanced understanding of CDD by continuing to evaluate these practices according to the extent to which they can be made to conform (or not) to this discourse.

CDD invites critical engagement based on the theoretical tools available in queer and religious studies, especially those that posit other models of subjectivity and other criteria for the human. It isn’t possible to delve into better avenues of analysis in this limited space, but I want to conclude by suggesting that that it may be useful to turn to “intimacy” as an organizing category. If we begin by framing the spectrum of practices that comprise CDD as intimate “world building” (to borrow from Lauren Berlant), we may be better equipped to account for the ways that pain and pleasure function as moving targets in this set of (literally) disciplinary practices, and to understand the remarkably wide spectrum of potential CDD experiences as an internally coherent project of making gendered, evangelical selves. There are several reasons that I believe the study of evangelical heterosexualities constitutes a profoundly important queer project, but, for the moment, I would like to suggest that only the interdisciplinary alchemy of queer religious studies can produce theoretical tools to work through the problematic I have outlined.

  1. Brandy Zadrozny, “Spanking for Jesus: Inside the Unholy World of ‘Christian Domestic Discipline,’” The Daily Beast, June 19, 2013; Callie Beusman, ”‘Spanking for Jesus:’ Is Exactly as Fucked Up as It Sounds,” Jezebel, June 19, 2013. [Return to text]
  2. Laura Rubino, “Getting Spanked As Needed: I Just Discovered Christian Domestic Discipline and It Makes Me Very Uncomfortable,” XOJane, June 4, 2013. [Return to text]
  3. See, for example, “Beginning CDD Rules,” Christian Domestic Discipline, accessed August 25, 2014. [Return to text]
  4. Zadrozny, “Spanking for Jesus.” [Return to text]
  5. Leah Kelley, “CDD and Sexuality” (PDF), Christian Domestic Discipline, August 25, 2014. [Return to text]
  6. “One Size May Not Fit All,” Christian Domestic Discipline, August 25, 2014. [Return to text]
  7. Beusman, “Spanking for Jesus:’ Is Exactly as Fucked Up as It Sounds.” [Return to text]
  8. Elizabeth Povinelli, The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 178. [Return to text]
  9. Ibid., 179. [Return to text]