Dear Chris Grayling: I was smacked as a child and it DID do me harm

If this is going to be a match of anecdotes, don't devalue mine, argues Glosswitch.

Chris Grayling, justice secretary, has defended a parent’s right to smack his or her child. In an interview with the Mail on Sunday (the main purpose of which appears to be to demonstrate just how rock hard he is – criminals, beware!) Grayling offers the following parental guidance:

You chastise children when they are bad, as my parents did me. I’m not opposed to smacking. It is to be used occasionally. Sometimes it sends a message – but I don’t hanker for the days when children were severely beaten at school.

Well, that’s all reasonable, isn’t it? Nice, loving parents shouldn’t have to spare the rod, although teachers – who are not to be trusted anyhow – bloody well should. I’m guessing, of course, that Grayling doesn’t mean all parents (one middle-class parent’s reasonable chastisement is another working-class parent’s beating the living daylights out of an innocent child). Still, Grayling was smacked as a kid, and he smacked his kids, so that’s all… fine?

The argument most commonly used in favour of smacking seems to be “I was smacked as a child and it didn’t do me any harm”. It is, on the face of it, a ridiculous argument. I was accidentally thrown into a half-frozen pond filled with ornamental carp as a child and it didn’t do me any harm. That’s not the sodding point. The question is not whether it harmed you personally but whether, potentially, it could be damaging to others.

And yet, on the other hand, it’s a very clever argument, because it silences dissent. You don’t want to be the person who says “I was smacked as a child and the experience scarred me”. After all, it makes you sound like the less rational person in the debate, seeing as you’re already admitting to being psychologically damaged. Plus it positions you as the kind of tosser who blames his or her parents for everything. Mummy and/or Daddy hit me and I’ve never forgiven them. Waah! That’s what it sounds like, even if actually, you now get on with your parents pretty well and consider them to be good people. You’re trying to make a point based on limited personal experience – in response to one which is similarly based on limited person experience – yet you sound like Kevin the teenager while your interlocutor somehow appears to have the wisdom of Solomon.

Well, I’ll stick my neck out here (please don’t hit it): I was smacked as a toddler, child and teenager and yes, the experience did cause me a great deal of fear and distress. This has lasted well into adulthood. I’m still terrified of people “turning” and becoming violent with me if I do the wrong thing. And yes, this might sound like I’m blaming Mummy and Daddy for my own personal flaws. And yes, perhaps you were hit too and you coped with it more successfully because you’re so much stronger than me. Frankly, I don’t think it matters (and yeah, I’ve effectively confessed to being less resilient than Chris Grayling. Although that in itself probably takes a certain amount of courage). Anyhow, let’s just not hit children. It’s surely not a risk worth taking.

I realise I might be pulled up due to the way I’m slipping between using the words “smack” and “hit”. Apparently they’re very different things. Great. Just tell me the cut-off point, because it’s not all that obvious to me. It might just come down to pressure that’s been ever so slightly misjudged, or the edge of a door getting in the way, or someone losing their balance, or the chair that you’ve been hiding under turning out to be more fragile than everyone believed. Nobody’s fault, all an accident. Because “reasonable chastisement” is, by its very nature, “reasonable”, and as for the rest, well, nobody’s perfect. A “loving slap” might occasionally be administered in anger. After all, we all get angry, don’t we? As long as it doesn’t leave marks it’s legal, and if it does? Well, some children bruise more easily than others. The law is a blunt tool. It’s messy. Hence it’s a good job that, for the most part, no one ever finds out what goes on behind closed doors. We just have a halfway-house legal compromise that, to take Grayling’s own words, “sends a message”, namely that administered correctly, physical violence can be an expression of love.

I don’t smack my children. I presume at this point in the argument I’m meant to list all the alternative forms of discipline I use. It’s something I’m loathe to do, on the basis that I don’t smack my partner, parents or colleagues either, and I doubt I’d be expected to offer up alternatives for dealing with them, too. All the same, I know it will be suggested that since children are less rational than adults, they form a special case. I don’t buy this. If they know enough about cause and effect to link being naughty with feeling pain, they also know enough to link it with things they value – praise or favours – being withheld (at least, mine seem to, and I definitely wouldn’t declare either of them to be more rational than the average child). Moreover, I’ve been around adults whom I’d consider less rational than my five-year-old (I’ve spent time in a psychiatric hospital and no, I’m not blaming my sodding parents for it). Some adults who are delusional strike me as less susceptible to grasping the long-term consequences of their actions than children are. I don’t see anyone making a moral case for hitting them (even if, in reality, that’s what some carers – the ones we regard as abusive – end up doing).

Clearly we don’t grant very small children the same rights to bodily integrity as everyone else, and there are reasons for this. I wash my children; I dress my children; I brush their teeth and rub shampoo into their hair even if it makes them cry. I do it “for their own good”, but I’m not always comfortable with it. Even so, there is difference between this and causing them fear and pain for the sake of it. Our children’s bodies are separate from our own. The older they get, the harder it is to just pick them up and plonk them wherever you need them to be. You have to use persuasion instead, and clearly that’s a pain in the arse when they’re ranting and raving about not wanting to wear pants on a Tuesday or needing to watch one more episode of Peppa Pig. When is it right for me to drag my children by the wrists and when is it abusive? I don’t know. What I do know is that unlike Grayling, I wouldn’t sit in the cold light of day, miles away from the complexities of family life, and calmly defend physical assault.

I don’t think I’m a better parent, or indeed a better person, than those who smack. The cultural acceptability of physical chastisement means it’s not the same as other forms of abuse. I think it’s possible to feel conflicted, and even guilty, for not smacking, given the number of people insisting it’s what parents should be able to do. Non-smackers face insinuations that if you don’t hit, you must be using psychological abuse to discipline your children, with the implication being that that’s far worse. But you can use both, one or the other, or neither. Surely at least attempting the latter is best.

And now I’m due back on parent duty to prevent someone from smacking my five-year-old. Obviously I’m against this, but at least this someone has an excuse; unlike Chris Grayling, he’s three.

Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Relive your worst experiences for $15 an hour: how confessional journalism exploits women writers

The women’s website Bustle asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle; it puts a low-market value on their most intimate truths.

Let me tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to me, the most terrible thing I’ve ever done. Let me tell you everything there is to know about me, all the buried markers of self that live under my skin. OK not that one, and I’ll keep that one too. I have to have something left over, after all. Even so, I’ve written about being the May Queen at school, and the time I got flashed in an underpass; about having depression as a teenager, and the unplanned pregnancy that became my son.

Actually, I’ve written about that last one twice: my first successful pitch for a comment piece was a response to anti-abortion comments by the then-influential semi-thinker Phillip Blond. It was a kind of pitch I now refer to now as the “what I think about X as a Y”: what I think about abortion as a woman who had and chose to continue an unplanned pregnancy. Experience is capital, and in 2009, I used it to buy my way into writing.

It’s a standard route for women writers, but not usually as formalised as it is at women’s website Bustle, which (as Gawker reported last week) asks its writers to fill out a checklist covering every possible personal angle: “I see a therapist”, “I’ve had group sex (more than three)”, “I used to have a Fitbit but I don’t now”.

Every bit of what you are, granulated and packaged for easy dispersal through a range of stories. It’s an editorial approach that gives rise to a weird, impersonally-personal tone. “Five Reasons I’m Grateful For My Parents’ Divorce”, chirrups a listicle; “that’s why I tried anal sex in the first place”, trills a gif-heavy piece about the benefits of bumming.

That’s just the shallow end of the confessional genre. The ideal online women’s interest story combines a huge, life-changing disclosure with an empowering message. Like this, from xoJane: “I'm Finally Revealing My Name and Face As the Duke Porn Star” (the last line of that one is: “My name is Belle Knox, and I wear my Scarlet Letter with pride”). Or this, from Jezebel: “On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad” (which concludes like this: “And to the victims of their abuse, I want to say what I have finally been able to understand myself: that my attraction, and what it led to, was not my fault”).

It’s tempting to think of this blend of prurience and uplift as a peculiar product of the internet, but it’s been a staple of women’s publishing forever: the covers of women’s magazines are full of lines like “Raped for 50p and a biscuit!” and “The groom who went ZOOM!” about a jilted bride, exactly as they were when I used to sneak them from my aunt’s magazine rack to read them as a child. The difference is that, in the trashy weeklies, there’s no pretence that trauma is the overture for a career. You get paid for your story, and someone else writes it up. The end.

At Bustle, the rate apparently runs to $90 for a six-hour shift. That feels like a low market value to put on your most intimate truths, especially when the follow-up success you’re investing in might never materialise. The author of the father-daughter incest story for Jezebel told a Slate writer that, despite the huge web traffic her confessional received, her subsequent pitches were ignored. Her journalistic career currently begins and ends with her very grimmest experience.

“Everything is copy” is the Nora Ephron line. But when she said it, she didn’t intend the disclosure economy we live in now. For Ephron, “everything is copy” meant claiming control: “When you slip on the banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on the banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim of the joke.”

Does the aspiring writer plucked from an editor’s checklist to retail her own Worst Thing Ever get to call the banana skin her own?

The Bustle checklist suggests not. “Don’t put anything on here you don’t want to write about,” it stresses, before adding, “that said, you can always say ‘no’ . . . You might be too busy when an editor approaches you about possibly writing an identity post, or simply not interested, and that’s okay! We won’t be mad!”

Ticking the box basically puts you in a position of assumed consent, but which hopeful young woman would dare to set her boundaries too close when an editor tells her this could be good for her career? (Yes, I know this sounds a bit like a story of sexual harassment. Funny, that.)

So many confessionalist pieces of writing tell stories about women having their limits overridden. Rape and coercion. Abuse and assault. Being talked over and ignored. But the logic of the perpetual confession journalism machine is the same: everything about a woman should be available to use, nothing a woman has to say is valid without a personal claim to authority, repackage their guts as shiny sausages and call it an “identity piece”.

Women writers shouldn’t be waiting for permission to say no. We need to tell our stories on our own terms, and we need to set better terms than $15 an hour and the hope of some exposure. The worst thing that ever happened to me? It’s mine. I’m keeping it.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.