Domestic Discipline - Conservative BDSM?

Domestic discipline is a form of dominance/submission without the usual BDSM paraphernalia. Its Christian fundamentalist version raises ethical concerns


Man spanking a woman while being watched
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Domestic discipline is a form of BDSM practiced by a cohabiting couple, often married. It is based on the head of household (HOH) enforcing rules on the subordinate partner. In practice, it is centered around spankings and other forms of physical punishment. Hence, it could be considered as overlapping dominance-submission and sadomasochism.


The head of household is often a man, but there are also woman-led and same-sex households. Although roles are on all the time (24/7), the power differential dynamic often fades in the background, to come into play on certain occasions.


The subservient wife has to behave following traditional gender roles, like doing house chores, wearing modest garments, having her expenses controlled, and being sexually available to the husband. When the submissive partner is a man, there may or may not be some level of feminization, but house chores and other service activities would fall completely on him. The important thing is that there are pre-established rules need to be followed, in and out of the house. When rules are broken, the submissive is punished.


One of main characteristics of domestic discipline is that it rejects the fetishes and looks that are typical of mainstream BDSM, like leather and latex garments, impact implements like floggers, paddles and whips, and furniture like stocks, spanking benches and Saint Andrews’ crosses. Regular clothes are worn instead. In some forms of domestic discipline, women are forbidden to wear pants, and modest garments like long skirts, high neck dresses and long sleeves are preferred. When spankings are not given with the bare hand, the HOH uses household items like kitchen spoons, hair brushes and belts. Some couples keep wooden paddles, birch floggers and canes for specially harsh punishments.


The punishment fetish

The main drive in this type of relationship is what I call “punishment fetish” - a fascination with, and sexualization of, punishing or being punished.


In domestic discipline, the punishment is often a beating: a spanking, paddling or belting. However, there are other old-fashion punishments, like doing lines, time-out, grounding, early bedtime, mouth washing, kneeling, or corner time. In the more sexual versions of domestic discipline, rough sex, oral sex or anal sex may be used as punishment, perhaps in addition to a beating.


The punishments are real. They entails enough pain, discomfort and humiliation that the submissive is motivated to avoid them. Still, the submissive derives a deep psychological satisfaction from the idea of being punished. The physical nature of the punishment fulfills a more or less covert masochism. Conversely, the dominant is a sadist who enjoys punishing the submissive, all the while claiming that “this hurts me more than it does you.”


The ambiguity of enjoying while hating the punishment, and all the drama that surrounds the sentencing, preparation, administration and aftercare, are a big part of the allure of domestic discipline.


Ethical concerns with domestic discipline

Like with any other form of BDSM, the ethics of domestic discipline should be defined by the parameters of safe, sane and consensual. The problem is that, since the people that practice it reject mainstream BDSM culture and organizations, there may be no incentives to follow these rules.


Although domestic discipline looks quite mild, in fact it could be considered as a form of consensual non-consent, inasmuch as the submissive consent once and for all to the rules and associated punishments. Moreover, she may not have the option to withdraw her consent at any time (for example, with a safeword) or to re-negotiate these rules.


The fact that all the action happens in the privacy of a home, in the context of a long-term relationship, makes any abuse easier to hide and harder to escape.


Spankings and other traditional forms of beating can be painful, but are physically safe. However, if the beating steps outside of the ritual forms to include pushing, kicking, punching and choking, we are in the territory of physical abuse because of the risk of permanent damage.


Regarding sanity, such long-term, ongoing dominance relationship carry psychological risks like coercion, gaslighting and harm to the self-esteem. The fact that the couple is living together and probably has merged finances can introduce an element of coercion. If the wife decides to stop the domestic disciple, will this entail a break-up or a divorce? Will she be able to become financially independent, in this case? The only way to avoid a suspicion of coercion is if the viability of the couple does not depend on continuing the domestic discipline, or if both partners can break up without undue financial duress.


Some couples practicing domestic discipline may not live together. Others may adopt the ethical guidelines of the BDSM community. Hence, my concerns about abuse may be misplaced. However, there is a form of domestic discipline that is much more likely to lead to mistreatment, not just of women, but also children.


Christian domestic discipline

Christian domestic discipline is similar to domestic discipline, but with a religious twist and increased ethical concerns.


Again, there is a radical rejection of the fashions and norms of mainstream BDSM. Christian disciplinarians see themselves as completely different from “those perverts.” Instead, they build a sophisticated rationalization for why the husband has to spank his wife, using carefully chosen passages from the Bible.


Christian domestic discipline is based on an essentialist ideology, consisting of the belief that God ordains that the wife has to obey the husband, and has to be disciplined by him. Here are two websites promoting this belief (1, 2).


Unlike regular domestic discipline, in which roles are independent of gender, in Christian domestic discipline the HOH is always a man who subjugates his wife. Still, Christian domestic discipline uses the same terminology and methods as regular domestic discipline. There is some overlap between the two.


Sometimes, domestic discipline looks like a conservative version of BDSM. Since BDSM is intrinsically linked to the liberal sex-positive ideology, there is a need to build a right-wing alternative as an outlet for the sadomasochistic desires of some conservatives.


Christian domestic discipline is big on punishments, which are (surprise! surprise!) spankings, more often than not. However, the obvious sexual connotations of a spanking are explained away. In any case, since part of this ideology is that the wife has to serve the husband sexually, even if the spanking is sexual, that shouldn’t be a problem.


Of course, there is much more to Christian domestic discipline than spankings. The woman has to be truly submissive to the HOH: obey him in everything, cook for him, keep the house clean and take care of the children. She is not allowed to argue with him. He is the true and only master of the house.


Christian domestic discipline is part of the larger Christian Patriarchal movement, which defends traditional gender roles in and out of the house, sees God as masculine and men as natural leaders, and fights feminism and LGTB rights.


Ethical concerns with Christian domestic discipline

There is a lot of push-back against the obviously sexist, patriarchal and regressive ideology of Christian domestic discipline, sometimes even from Christian conservatives, who see it as the hypocritical cover for sadomasochism that it really is.


However, unlike conservatives, I am all for sadomasochism and sexual freedom. People should be free to do whatever they want in their beds and in their homes, as long as it is consensual and between adults. Therefore, if the wife gives informed, free consent to Christian domestic discipline, there should be no ethical concerns. Yes, the hypocrisy of practicing sadomasochism while condemning BDSM and sex-positivity disgusts me, but religious freedom allows people to believe whatever they want. If Christian domestic discipline is the mere juxtaposition of fundamentalist Christian beliefs (which people are free to have) with sadomasochism (which people should be free to practice), then it is not unethical.


At least, in principle. In practice, the concerns I mentioned above regarding consent, safety and sanity in domestic discipline are greatly amplified in its Christian version. Is a wife immersed in a fundamentalist environment really able to give informed, revocable consent? When servitude, obedience and physical punishments are added to a religion that sees women as inferior to men, does this not have an effect on self-esteem? Is there no coercion, considering that the woman is financially and emotionally dependent on the husband? Could she be able to escape this situation if she decides that domestic discipline is no longer for her?


Bigger concerns arise when we consider that the children from these couples are home-schooled and subject to the same discipline as the wife. People who practice domestic discipline should be aware that spankings are sexual, so giving them to children amount to nothing less than child sexual abuse. Children cannot give consent to them, and the lifelong trauma caused by sexual and physical abuse of children is extremely well-documented.

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