This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Last week, in a leafy part of South London, a vicar was charged with two counts of indecent assault, five counts of sexual assault, and six counts of child cruelty. The reason for Reverend Howard Curtis's attacks? Senior minister at the Coulsdon Christian Fellowship, he's an advocate of Christian Domestic Discipline (CDD), a practice that advocates husbands asserting dominance over their wives using corporal punishment.
It's impossible to know just how many CDD adherents there are worldwide, but online it's a pretty big deal. There are dozens of NSFW blogs, websites, forums and, perhaps predictably, self-published eBooks from the US and UK that prove CDD isn't limited to just one nutter in Croydon.
Read around the topic yourself if you like, but to save you some time: both men and women in these relationships believe that the man is head of house ("HoH") and refer to the wife as Taken in Hand ("TiH"). He will use spanking with hairbrushes, belts, hands or anything he can lay his hands on to "discipline" her if she's "out of line." On one CDD website, this is the Biblical passage that welcomes you in:
"Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby."
- Hebrews 12:11
You don't even have to do anything terrible (i.e., fuck up dinner a little bit) to warrant the abuse. The guy will dole out handy "maintenance spanking" at random, just to remind you how much he loves you and that he's the boss. (To clarify—the woman must give her consent for this to happen, but consent cannot be un-given.) Testimonies from women on many of the sites purport to enjoying it, believing that it's enriched their relationships. In one post, a CDD advocate explains how the practice is merely a natural, mutual impulse:
"If the couple acts on these natural impulses, the woman notices that she actually *feels better* after being spanked," writes someone called "No One."
"At the same time, the level of stress within the marriage plummets because there is a bonding that takes place between husband and wife. It also fosters communication within the marriage." "No One" also explains how, while CDD won't "resuscitate [a] dead marriage," a "firmly applied paddle" is much more likely to "prevent or break a destructive cycle and replace it with a more constructive one than it is to turn the husband into a monster." Right-o.
CDD is mainly practiced by Fundamentalist Christians—a genre of believers that encapsulates more than just those repressed Midwesterners who present religious talk shows out of their garages. In fact, there are estimated to be upwards of 1.3 million Christian Fundamentalists in Britain, with 2,000 children in Fundamentalist education. Forgive me for speaking so plainly, but is this behavior really all that "Christian"?
"I would agree, after studying it, that CDD is a form of socialised domestic violence," says former Christian Fundamentalist and religious blogger Joel Watts. "The only real difference between CDD and domestic violence is that the wife 'agrees' to it."
Watts' first-hand experience of Fundamentalist Christian male dominance is pretty sobering. The 36-year-old, who runs Unsettled Christianity, was raised in a Fundamentalist cult in Louisiana, escaping at the age of 27. "The trigger came when several boys were revealed to have been molested by one individual," he says. "The response was to simply 'pray it away.' I had to get out."
Now a happily married United Methodist with three kids and living in West Virginia, Watts says that, while CDD wasn't preached, it was basically practiced. "Women in Fundamentalism are third class. Husbands, then sons, then wives and then daughters. In Fundamentalism, women are to submit—and often, with every possible meaning of the word," he tells me. "Sex is not about love or even a good time. It is a duty the wife does for the husband so he finds her pleasing. Usually, the women stayed home and raised the kids, keeping the house clean and ensuring the man is properly fed. There are times women work outside the home, but this is only to give the husband more money. All decisions are usually routed through the husband."
Sounds kind of like being in the army. "Right. They were forced to wear a kind of uniform, too-long skirts, non–form fitting clothing, and, in many instances, could not cut their hair. Our dress code prevented women from showing their elbows." Why? "Because someone thought this was too sexy."
Right. But where does CDD fit in here? Is CDD a particularly Fundamentalist thing? "Not all Fundamentalists use CDD," says Watts. "I would wager that many would never think of CDD as legitimately Christian, and yet, I would also wager that if you took the tenants of CDD—such as the wives that submit to their husbands, providing sex on demand—without naming it as such, many Fundamentalists would agree to them as something 'Biblical.'"
So CDD just codifies it, then? "Exactly. It gives the system rules, and names it. Both abuse women, valuing them as nothing more than free sex and babysitting. Both believe women must submit to their husbands. Both systems believe that 'manliness' is dependent upon controlling your wife."
But with Christian Fundamentalism spreading, it suggests that more and more people look at that horrifying system and think it looks alright. Why would anybody, especially a woman, want to join? "I'm not sure why women would adopt it unless they come from a situation that they believe it could end. For instance, I know several women who are Fundamentalists because they believe it has cured them of drugs," says Watts.
It sounds like they're just trading one system for another. "They are. And once you're there, it is difficult to leave," he says. "No promises of a better life are made—except that by submitting to your husband you are obeying the wrathful God who created you as second class anyway. The promise is also made that if you rightfully submit to your husband, then this will magically force your husband to love you more. I've seen this in action. The woman comes to the pastor to say that her husband mistreats her. The pastor tells the woman that it is her fault, that she needs to submit to her husband properly in order for her husband to really love her. She just isn't good enough to be loved unless she obeys him."
"How does joining these groups become an attractive option for a woman?"
In the case of our south London CDD vicar, is it an isolated incident? Or can we expect more cases like it in the future? "There are small movements in the UK urging a return to Fundamentalism, but I hope and pray they never go anywhere," says Watts. "These groups should be banned."
The trauma of Fundamentalism, even if CDD isn't practiced, can be great. "Now I'm out of it I've had the chance to speak with more who are trying to leave. Fundamentalism plays on and destroys your psychological side," says Watts. "It ensures that the Fundamentalistic system is the only system you believe is 'real.' Thus, when you get out, you are immediately distrustful of everything and everyone. Then you start to realize what you have done as a Fundamentalist—the people you have hurt, the goodness you have missed. The guilt is likely to never go away."
There are those who believe that CDD isn't a small pocket of Fundamentalism, either. "It's not just one small group that do it," says Amanda van Eck, Deputy Director of Inform (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements). And it seems like advocates are actively trying to recruit more disciples. "They're putting it out there online as a practice to be picked up by other groups and communities," she says. The danger is, surely, that people will interpret and apply it to their own culture. "Yes," says van Eck. "And they'll use it as a frame for a number of practices and behaviors that aren't necessarily homogenous."
If Fundamentalist practices are so ripe for subjective interpretation—if men can ostensibly use "God's name" to exert power over women—the question remains: How does joining such groups become an attractive option for a woman?
"There's a theory that a lot of women find the choice of modernity confusing," says van Eck. The author of Virginia's Secret Garden says: "Our feminist society encourages women to be rebellious," and believes it's "a disaster in the making."
So hardline religions can give people better boundaries, then? "Some people think so," says van Eck. "Women today are overloaded with messages and choices, and in a religion, the gender roles work more clearly. I do think the idea of the woman being subservient is fairly common in Christian Fundamentalism, but it's also fairly common in lots of religions."
This may be true. But even if women do claim to genuinely enjoy the dynamic of CDD, it is hard, as an objective outsider, to not be alarmed by some of the CDD literature out there.
A woman's choice is her power. That's a given. But if there are, as van Eck suggests, women attracted to Fundamentalist practices because they seek stability—because they don't know how to find it within themselves—CDD is a terrifying thing. To the outsider, it's an acceptance and celebration of domestic violence, of the systematic belittling and abuse of a woman to a point where she truly believes she deserves and will be a better person for it. That her contribution to her marriage, and society, will be valid and right once her errant behavior has been tamed.
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