Corporal Punishment as a Barrier to Intimacy, Letting go of Shame

Corporal Punishment as a Barrier to Intimacy, Letting go of Shame


Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:

When I was a little boy, I stood on my bed and told myself I was naughty, bad, and stupid. I took off my clothes and imagined somebody holding my hands up above my head. I continued to tell myself I was naughty, bad, and stupid. I imagined my body being bitten and burned by fire but I knew it was a demon whipping me.

I imagined myself in a dungeon, with fires flaming against the stone walls. “What’s wrong with you?” I demanded of myself, not just during this hellish scene, but afterwards. What was I doing? Why would I want to act out such a scene?

What I was doing was acting out one of my childhood punishments, trying to make sense of what happened to me. From very early childhood, I was beaten with a cane or a carpet beater. Sometimes this was on my back or bare bottom. My mother, the demon, would remove my clothing, once telling me she wanted to see the marks and know they hurt. They did hurt. The pain would make me cry. These punishments carried on until early adolescence when my mother started to slap and punch me instead. Sometimes the hidings I got were spontaneous but, other times, I would have to wait in my room, terrified about how much it was going to hurt.

As a little boy, pain preoccupied me and my thoughts around punishment always focused on this pain. Sometimes, it would linger for days, leaving cuts on my bottom or back. Clothing was about cushioning the impact. That was until my Grade 4 teacher made me stay after class and told me to take down my school shorts and underwear and bend over a chair. She smacked me three times with a plastic ruler. It stung a bit but it didn’t really hurt. This time, it was the humiliation which burned. I felt horribly exposed and vulnerable but mostly put it out of my mind.

When I was sixteen, I first fell in love with my current partner. We were friends and we understood each other very well. She wrote poetry and cheered me up with jokes when I would arrive at school looking sad. We’d spend all our time together during the holidays and go ice skating, watch movies, and go for pizza. We would also chat on my bed. I had dreams of making our relationship physical, of kissing her, touching her, loving her, but when she would move towards me, I became terrified. I heard myself shriek, “No!” like a terrified, small child. She was confused and somewhat startled. I’d imagine myself getting to the point of that kiss again, dreaming about it, determined to make it work, and yet whenever desire flooded me, I would retreat.

I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. I longed for touch, longed for intimacy, and yet I have always battled to have a physical relationship. I could manage if I’d had a drink or two, which would relax me, but otherwise, I couldn’t do it. After a couple of very brief relationships, I stayed celibate for over ten years. At first, I thought I was sexually shy, but I also knew on some level that it was more than that. I struggled to cross my internal barriers. I had a past I didn’t want to confront and I was determined to leave it behind. I wanted a positive future and emotional and sexual interaction. I have never believed that I was asexual. I kicked myself for not having physical relationships, felt brokenhearted, but still struggled to connect. With my childhood experiences firmly out of my mind, and the voice inside of me silenced by my refusal to address the past, I felt lost and confused.

Therapy brought my story together, and I began by explaining how much I hated my body, how it had been used as a weapon against me, and how I’d told myself I just wouldn’t care if people beat me. I told my therapist I didn’t care. I told her about the time I was beaten by a school principal even though I wasn’t the one who had done something wrong. “That must have been hard,” she said. “No it wasn’t, I didn’t care; it didn’t matter.” “I think it might have,” she said “I think it might have mattered very much and this is why you are telling me. You want me to know it was unfair.” She could be utterly infuriating at times, but I kept going back and kept telling her my story.


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It was quite some time later that I told her about my bare-bottomed punishment in the classroom. A long time after I’d admitted I was terrified of school principals and terrified of pain. I choked when I told the story. Humiliation fought with discomfort. There was a sadness which flooded me. I felt like I was drowning. My grade 4 teacher liked to punish her students for being naughty. She would tap her plastic ruler on her desk during class as a threat and make us stay after class for hidings. Normally she would make me bend over the desk with my hands on the table and hit me a couple of times with a ruler. I felt anxious but it was over quickly. This time she spoke to me in the corridor, said I had been so naughty that she wanted me to feel the pain. She said this hiding was going to be on my bare bottom and that I needed to take my pants down and bend over a chair. It was totally humiliating. I felt completely exposed. She didn’t even hurt me. It didn’t feel like it was about pain. She could have sent me to the principal or smacked me on my hand, I said to my therapist. Why did I have to be bare bottomed? My therapist let me talk, her sadness reflecting mine.

Later, I remembered another time, at a school camp with the same teacher. I had been swimming in the pool when the teacher came to shout at me. I wasn’t sure what I had done, but she took me into the dormitory, told me to take my swimming costume down and put me over her lap. She used her bare hand and there was something uncomfortable about it, something I didn’t understand. Getting up from her lap, before I pulled my costume back up, made me feel exposed and violated. I felt her looking at me. I struggled to tell the story to my therapist. At first, I told her I had at least been able to keep my costume on.

Neither of these experiences had been about terrifying, burning pain, I said to my therapist. Why did they upset me so much? Why did I feel so ashamed? What was it which felt so confusing and disturbing? Why couldn’t I make sense of them? Her striking me with her bare hand was so much more distressing than using a ruler. I didn’t want to be lying on her lap with my swimming costume down, her skin against mine. My shame and embarrassment felt overwhelming.


As I worked through the story, I began to understand the intimacy of the act, my body against hers, her hand on my bottom. It was an intimacy I didn’t choose and didn’t want. It was also a power imbalance. I couldn’t say no to her, couldn’t keep my swimming costume on, except in my imagination. I couldn’t move my body away from hers and couldn’t keep my body’s frontal area private after moving from her lap. This powerlessness brought such deep shame that the story repeatedly caught in my throat while telling it. My blush seemed to burn through my body.

It was this blush, this high anxiety, the rush of blood to my bottom, this exposing of my body on the demand of another, the powerlessness and condemnation, which made me reluctant to experience intimacy. I couldn’t tell the difference between high anxiety and arousal. Desire brought blood and heightened sensation. Fear and arousal seemed to collide. The move towards another, and the feeling of hands on my clothes, became triggers. Initially, I shouted “No!”, the fearful child inside me was terrified. Later I would silently move away, protecting myself from intimacy in a quest to protect myself from humiliation and pain.

Recently I saw a blog post about a young girl who had been punished, bare bottom, until puberty and I wanted to cry. She didn’t want people to touch her and she loathed her body as I once had. The comments around the article wondered why this topic wasn’t spoken about and why adults cannot slap a covered adult’s bottom but they can slap a child’s? I think we don’t speak about it because it’s so hard to do. The shame and the humiliation feels all engulfing. Stripping children breaks sexual boundaries. Pressing a child against your body while slapping them confuses them. Whipping them or striking them with implements terrifies them. Telling them it’s their fault places the blame on the most vulnerable of minds. Children can’t make sense of the world, just like I couldn’t make sense of mine. The impacts of this spread out, devastating my adulthood. All I can do is share my story and hope to breathe care into the shame survivors feel.


EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman

Jacques Damhuis is a new creative writer who wants to share his experiences of living with complex trauma. He spent his whole life believing he couldn't write. He no longer agrees. You may follow him on Twitter and/or Instagram.