In 1960, archaeologist Carlo Maurilio Lerici descended into tombs in the old town of Tarquinia, a necropolis of the refined Etruscan civilization that inhabited ancient Italy from about 800 BC until its assimilation into the Roman Republic in the late 4th century BC. Aside from bodies, he found countless badly damaged frescos depicting comical male boxers, sexualized female dancers, and most notably, in The Tomb of the Floggings, one in which an unclothed woman is bent over and holding the hips of a smiling bearded man while a young man whips her ass from behind—the first discovered example of erotic spanking.
And in the past 1,000-plus years, the sadomasochistic act has been a fascination of everyone from artists to philosophers to sex researchers in one interpretation or another. Vātsyāyana broke down the sexual act into the the four hand positions the spanker can make, the six positions one can be in during "striking," and the eight "kinds of crying" the striked can make in Kama Sutra.
Bringing the act into the realm of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud looked at its relation to childhood spanking, believing that the punishment early on could lead to sadomasochistic preferences in adulthood. Most recently, it became a contested topic upon the release of 50 Shades of Grey, a novel that thrust BDSM into mainstream American culture, prompting a slew of think pieces and blog posts with open questions on spanking.
Science seems to offer some answers. Biologically, when a person enjoys a sexual act, their brain releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that heats up the brain's reward and pleasure centers. So, if someone enjoys being spanked or doing the spanking, the dopamine release signals to the brain to continue. But as to why people specifically like spanking, the act of being hit on the ass by a hand or foreign object, which some people view solely as painful, the reasoning is more complex—and somewhat untraceable.
Dr. Rebecca Plante, an associate professor in Ithaca College's Department of Sociology, remembers that while writing her study Sexual Spanking, the Self, and the Construction of Deviance in 2006, there was only one other academic article about erotic spanking (and by a man with the last name Butt). In his study, he came to the conclusion that to consider how someone could come to find spanking sexual, one must consider "the larger social contexts in which 'sexualized corporal punishment' need to be placed," Plante writes.
Basically, there's not one reason for why someone may like spanking. Also, it's important to consider the spanking spectrum, according to Plante. There's the basic hand-to-ass motion during sex, and then there's the bent-over-the-chair, cane- or paddle-to-ass spank; not all those who like a good ass-slapping during sex like a hard whack with a cane.
One of the first points Plante brings up is that unlike bondage, tortures, and other kinkier plays in the BDSM realm, erotic spanking is a practice that many people who say that "they're not into that sort of stuff" will try out. As for why it's popular, both among those who don't associate with the BDSM community and those who consider themselves sadomasochists, Plante has one very basic reason that "cannot be overlooked as an explanation"—it feels good.
"You're talking about this fairly well-protected muscular region of the body that's right at the base of the spine, where there are quite a bit of nerves, so it's sensitive," she says. "It's not like the abdomen."
But Plante bases her research on cultural, subcultural, and interpersonal sexual scripts, a theory introduced in the 1970s by sociologists John Gagnon and William Simon that explains "the sociological blueprints that shape our sexual interests," she writes. Cultural scripts relate to national ideologies and expectations, subcultural to those ideologies at the local level (or according to ethnic or religious group), and interpersonal to interactions you have with others. These combine to form intrapsychic scripts, which ultimately answer the who, what, where, when, why, and how of one's sexuality and sexual practices. In most modern cultures—the US included—standard cultural scripts eroticize basic heterosexual activity. Sexualized spanking, though often a heterosexual activity, falls outside the norm. And as a whole, Plante discovered that men—especially heterosexual men who aren't experimenting as much in the world of BDSM—were more open to spanking but not necessarily to being spanked.
That doesn't mean that one can't develop an interest later on in life, though. During Plante's research, she found that men who liked to spank "had had this interest for as long as they could remember" and considered it to be essential to their sex lives, whereas women were more likely to come to spanking through a partner who suggested it.
"Sexual scripts are basic blueprints, yes, but clearly they can be adapted and revised for the user," Plante writes. "Sexual spanking should be viewed as one of the many sexual adaptations individuals make, based on interactions and changes to intrapsychic and interpersonal scripts."
Plante goes further to explain that there isn't just one spanking-related sexual script, though, referencing the spanking spectrum, and the difference between those who like to strike and those who like to receive. A person who has a script that says "I give the pleasure" or is dominant would likely get pleasure from spanking someone who gets pleasure from receiving it—most likely a submissive. A preference to spank, to be spanked, or to not partake in the practice at all represents a person's orientation to their sexuality, gender, and personality. While spanking includes a host of different sexual reactions to different types of striking, it's still an umbrella term—not all spanking gives people the same type of pleasure, if any at all.
The bottom line with our sexualities is that we should be getting comfortable with them and with them changing throughout our lives, but that we should never be feeling coerced or compelled for what we're doing or not.
What Plante emphasizes, though, is that just because spanking is a BDSM practice that has become more normalized and accepted, it's not something that everyone likes, or that everyone should feel compelled to like. Though it's objectively positive that the kinky act has lost some of its stigmatization through things like 50 Shades of Grey and its accessibility as one of BDSM's possibly more "vanilla" acts, not everyone's script—or behind—wants a good striking.
"The bottom line with our sexualities is that we should be getting comfortable with them and with them changing throughout our lives, but that we should never be feeling coerced or compelled for what we're doing or not," Plante says.