Do British men deserve their reputation for enjoying being spanked?

Posh British men apparently have a penchant for BDSM.
Posh British men apparently have a penchant for BDSM.
Image: Reuters/ Issei Kato
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I’m English and have lived in England for the vast majority of my life, but I hadn’t heard of the “English vice” until last week. Apparently, British men have a longstanding reputation for enjoying being spanked.

This stereotype was the subject of an article in The Spectator magazine, which claimed that this inclination is alive and well among powerful men, in particular, as evidenced by several recent cases. In May, a London barrister claimed he was dismissed for a consensual BDSM relationship with a colleague, while a fraud lawsuit case in Bolton heard evidence from a S&M dungeon master whose clients include a diplomat and a duke. According to The Spectator, the association between upper-class British men and spanking developed from corporal punishment that used to be common in posh private schools in the UK. But, now that this practice is long banned, what could explain the continuation of this predilection? Perhaps, The Spectator suggested, spanking is a comforting reminder of nanny for upper class Brits.

But, before we get onto theories, how can we really know that spanking truly is a distinctly English vice? Whiplr, an app that bills itself as the “Tinder for Kinksters,” did report that Brits were more likely than those in the other countries using the app (the US, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, Greece, Australia, and France) to be interested in BDSM. But the company didn’t respond to requests for the complete data set, and the survey hardly seems scientific.

Other than that, evidence is scant. It would be an interesting doctoral thesis, suggests Laura Doan, a professor of English and American studies at Manchester University who’s written on the history of sexuality. But so far, no one has done a rigorous international study on spanking interests.

“The accuracy of these stereotypes is completely beside the point,” says David Schmid, an English professor at the State University of New York-Buffalo, who focuses on popular culture. There are plenty of national sex stereotypes other than “the English Vice.” Brits think the French are wildly sexual, and call condoms “French letters” and syphilis the “French disease” as a result. Meanwhile, Italians are known as philanderers, Americans perpetually try—and fail—to keep up puritanical standards, and Japan perceives itself as quite sexually repressed, despite a healthy kink industry.

These stereotypes typically involve one country pointing a finger at another, and reputations are far from universal. Doan says that when she told a professor at the University of Paris about how the English characterize the French, she was met with laughter. “That’s precisely what we say about the English,” replied her French colleague.

If they’re not real, then how do these stereotypes arise and why do we hold onto them? In the case of the English Vice, it seems school spankings—banned in state schools in 1987, but still common in private schools until 1999—are indeed a likely instigator. It’s clung on, suggests Schmid, because we love to undermine the powerful. The British upper classes present an impenetrable and austere image; piercing that image by suggesting they secretly enjoy being sexually dominated is a means of taking away some of the upper class’s power. Besides, despite the fact that people have been having sex since, quite literally, the beginning of human existence, there’s still the notion that sex (especially non-vanilla interests) is somehow improper. “Beneath the prim and proper exterior, we love to fantasize that there’s something more defiant and shocking going on,” says Schmid. “In this way, we express resistance and resentment to people who have power and authority over us.”

There’s another reason posh British men have been linked with kinky sex: Greek and Latin. These classical texts contained some of the few discussions of sex that weren’t banned by Britain’s obscenity laws, which came into effect in 1857 and weren’t officially repealed until 1959. During that time, Greek and Latin were far more likely to be taught in private, upper-class schools than state schools, notes Doan, and so it came to believed that upper-class men knew more about sex because of reading matter.

In 1920, there were parliamentary debates about whether to extend the 1885 law criminalizing homosexual relations between men to also include sexual activity between women. In these debates, says Doan, she recalls reading that a member of the Conservative party, traditionally made up of more upper-class politicians, suggested he would have to translate the subject for those in the Labour party, who wouldn’t have had the privilege of an upper-class education where they might learn about such sexuality.

Brits are typically thought of being somewhat awkward about sex: “No sex please, we’re British,” is a well-known refrain within the country. So it may seem that a Conservative MP boasting of his carnal knowledge—even if was derived from classic texts—is at odds with characteristically British sexual embarrassment. But Doan points out that such prurient attitudes applied more to the middle classes. Aristocrats already had sufficient status, and so didn’t need to appropriate any by ascribing to restrictive sexual mores. “There’s a difference between middle-class respectability and the privileged classes,” she says.

Besides, British sexual reticence is its own false stereotype. Constantly talking about how awkward Brits are about sex is essentially a way of discussing sex. “It gives people a way of talking about a subject that is never far from people’s minds,” says Schmid. This is in keeping French philosopher Michel Foucault’s theory that in generating repression about the sex, we have to constantly think and talk about sex. And so incessant repression enables our desire to constantly focus on sex.

There’s an added benefit to stereotyping nations according to their sexual interests: each stereotype is a way of mapping the world and making it comprehensible, says Schmid. All stereotypes do this, by simplifying the world around us; sex is just one of the less offensive means of doing so. “There are some stereotypes that are clearly racist and considered unacceptable,” he adds. “People still think it’s ok to generalize about sex stereotypes on a national level.” Sex, after all, is a generally lighthearted subject.

Most sexual stereotypes are intrinsically humorous. “There’s a fundamentally curious tension around our feelings about sex,” says Schmid. “It’s something that’s central to our lives, but also shouldn’t be taken too seriously.” We characterize groups according to their sexual interests because doing so—puncturing self-important reputations with rumors about their interests in the bedroom—is amusing. Admit it: You clicked on this article because the idea of posh British men getting spanked is, at its core, pretty funny.