Corporal Punishment: History & Effects

Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson, we will discuss the definition and history of corporal punishment, the methods of corporal punishment that may be employed, locations and applications of its current use, and the effects of its use.

Corporal Punishment: Defined

There are some things in our society that evoke an instantaneous, passionate reaction. For instance, maybe you witness a young man violently striking his female companion in the heat of an argument. Perhaps you're in school and observe students making cruel remarks to another student. Maybe you're walking into your local supermarket and see a mother spanking her young son. Though some would consider none of these to be acceptable actions, only the last example would constitute corporal punishment.

Loosely defined, corporal punishment is any physical form of punishment used as a repercussion for an action or inaction, dictated and often administered by a governing individual or representative thereof. In our above example, the mother, being the guardian (or governing individual), deemed corporal punishment necessary for the son's actions while they were in the supermarket. The punishment she chose to administer for the child's unruly behavior was spanking his bottom.

History of Corporal Punishment

Corporal punishment has been in use for hundreds of years. It was often used for punishing children by parents and school administrators and is still used in many parts of the world in these settings. It's also a component of some criminal justice systems as a punishment for persons who have violated the law. Part of the punishment in many applications of corporal punishment is the element of shame and humiliation associated with the punishment being administered in a public venue.

Methods of Corporal Punishment

Though spanking is the first thing that probably comes to mind when you hear the term corporal punishment, there are several more actions that would be considered corporal punishment.

Flogging, or repeatedly striking the body (usually the back, back of the buttocks, and/or back of the legs) with objects such as rubber or leather whips, is one example.

Leather whip
Leather whip

Caning, where the body (usually the back, back of the buttocks, and/or back of the legs) is struck by a bamboo or sugar cane repeatedly, often leading the skin to break and bleed, is another example. U.S. citizen Michael P. Fay was caned in Singapore in 1994 for spray painting several cars per the punishment prescribed by their legal system. This event sparked international debate over the use of caning and corporal punishment by justice systems.

Chinese paddling a lawbreaker in approximately 1900
Chinese paddling

Stocks are also associated with corporal punishment and are the least physically painful of the methods. A person puts their head and hands through flat pieces of wood so that they are forced to stand in the same position, without the use of their hands and without moving their head, for an extended period of time.

The persons who were punished in this manner were often situated in a central location, such as a village marketplace, where people were constantly passing by. This punishment was often used in colonial times for people who failed to pay their taxes. Not only was it uncomfortable and humiliating, but a direct association to witnesses of an individual's face and the crime they were accused of committing.

Current Uses of Corporal Punishment

In the United States, corporal punishment may be used by some parents. It also may be used on students who misbehave in certain school districts if parental consent is granted. In schools, these punishments are administered by a member of the school administration, often a vice-principal, and generally use a wooden paddle on a student's bottom. A witness, such as a school administrative assistant, must be present to ensure the punishment is not excessive.

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