spare the rod & spoil the rapist

[reproduction of an article I wrote, to be published at next week. intended less as an analytical piece than a discussion prompter for’s readership]

WARNING: The following contains highly graphic descriptions and video images of physical torture. If you are squeamish about such things, or are underage, please do not read on.

In 1757, a man named Robert-François Damiens burst out of the shadows of the streets of Paris and plunged a knife into King Louis XV, who, perhaps most unfortunately for Monsieur Damiens, was widely known to his people as le Bien-Aimé, or ‘the Beloved’. The monarch survived, and the sentence was swift: Damiens was condemned to die in a manner that was to gain him eternal historical notoriety. As philosopher Michel Foucault memorably described in his book Discipline and Punish, Damiens was to be carted to the Place de Grève, where,

on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers; his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, [will be] burnt with sulphur; and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, [there shall be poured] molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together…

and then his body [shall be] drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds.[1]

The execution took place largely according to plan — except that the horses proved wholly unqualified for the strenuous task of drawing a man apart, even when two more of the poor beasts were added. Damiens’ limbs finally had to be sawn off manually.

Today, we have come quite a long way from this. The reason historians have such detailed records of ‘The Damiens Affair’, as it is invoked today with a shudder, is because the entire spectacle took place in public. In contrast, state-sponsored deaths today, even though purportedly more “humane”, have been largely squirrelled away from the public eye into the dingy basements of penitentiaries, where a needle might be somewhat abashedly administered while officials look on solemnly from the shadows. State-sponsored corporal punishment — whipping, flogging etc. — takes place within prison walls, where the only other witnesses are the quavering row of people soon to face the same themselves. And there is an increasing amount of moral pressure today to do away with both these “cruel, inhuman and degrading” practices altogether.

Yet, even if it is much less of an obscene public affair than it was 220 years ago, Malaysia is one of sixty-nine countries in the world which retains the death penalty, and one of at least seventeen countries in the world which still widely practices corporal punishment. Caning in Malaysia is a stock penalty for crimes ranging from vandalism, drug violation and overstayed visas to the more heinous infractions, such as rape, assault and homicide. Unlike the Damiens Affair, however, corporal and capital punishment are not conflated (no man who has been sentenced to death can be caned), and corporal punishment is highly regulated in its execution, from the requisite medical examination of “fitness to receive punishment” down to the standardization of the cane’s dimensions (1.09m long and 1.25cm in diameter).

Given these relatively “humane” restrictions, then, it is perhaps understandable that V. K. Chin could opine rather phlegmatically in August 2004 that “the government should speed up cases involving illegal immigrants so that they could be whipped and sent home immediately […] There is really not much point to just round them up and send them home without any meaningful punishment…Holding them for any period before their deportation is an unnecessary drain on our financial resources and so it is better to just whip them and send them home, otherwise they will not learn their lesson”. Rather like a mother who has apprehended a naughty child sticking their fingers into the Nutella jar (come, own up, you have all done this), the government’s role here is to literally spank these denizens and send them on their way.

But is it really so simple an issue? I’ve noticed that corporal punishment is notoriously easy to talk about with great nonchalance, because the sort of corporal punishment that most of us are acquainted with tends towards the odd clobbering, backhand slap or pinch from a parent figure, or at worst, a full-out beating with the dreaded feather-duster. The idea of it is inherently domestic, remedial and generally suffered with an indignity and resentment that mellows over time.

Can the same really be said for this?

[Link to YouTube]
Again, this contains profoundly unpleasant material. View at your own discretion. wishes to open a discussion on this video, which was posted on YouTube on 23 January this year. The subject in question was convicted of rape and sentenced to ten years in prison and 20 strokes of the cane (out of a maximum punishment of 24 strokes).

Some points to consider

Do criminals really deserve such torture? There is a kind of cognitive dissonance between vindication and mercy; in the case of caning, we want to punish serial rapists, but we flinch when watching the video (at least, I hope you did). Is it possible to reconcile the two impulses? Is Amnesty International correct in its assessment that caning is “cruel, inhuman and degrading”, and that “such punishment should have no place in the world today”?

Is taking a “hard stand” preferable to “going soft” on criminals? This article contrasts Singapore’s stentorian and punitive attitude to crime with Britain’s “relaxed attitude” and “over-indulgence” of their prisoners (going so far as to award them Christmas presents). Is incarceration and rehabilitation really a better method of crime deterrence than something punitive, like caning? What about people who just don’t learn?

Does caning tarnish Malaysia’s international reputation? There have been several cases of foreigners receiving the Malaysian Caning Experience, and the infamous case of Michael P. Fay just next door in Singapore provoked worldwide controversy when the boy was caned under charges of vandalism in 1994. And one YouTube user’s comment on the video accuses Malaysia and Singapore of being “barbaric fascist dictatorships” and “sick, perverted, Nazi f—s”. Should perceptions like these matter?

Under most countries’ legislation, including Malaysia and Singapore’s, women may not be caned under any circumstances; this derives from Britain’s Whipping of Female Offenders Act of 1805, which exempts women from any form of judicial corporal punishment. (Britain, incidentally, is also responsible for bringing the practice of caning to Malaysia and Singapore). If we cannot stomach corporal punishment for women, how can we countenance it for men? Or vice versa: if we flog criminal men, shouldn’t we flog women guilty of equivalent crimes too?

Should we really demonstrate caning to children to instill fear and deter them from crime when they grow up?

And with videos like this or Saddam’s execution up on YouTube for the world to see, how far have we really come from Damiens and the voyeuristic crowd that followed his cart all the way to the Place de Grève, hooting as the executioner briskly rolled his sleeves up and tore pieces of Damiens’ flesh from his thighs with a pair of custom-made steel pincers?

I’ll give my own answer to this: not very far at all. In my opinion, we are simply squirrelling away an impulse that still persists; today, instead of parading our brutality to the town square, we consign it shamefacedly to the basements of our penitentiaries and psyches alike. And I’d even argue that the same goes for the practice of corporal – and capital – punishment, both of which inhere as much in our world today as in the Paris of 1757, when Damiens’ ragged torso was finally, unceremoniously tossed onto the smouldering woodpile, then as evermore under the mesmerized gaze of this oddly barbarous civilization we call our own.

[1] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1977), pp. 3-8.


14 responses to “spare the rod & spoil the rapist

  • Gawain

    Hi there, Rachel! Thanks for the link – I especially like the category you put me in! I will take your advice and skip the video footage: I am maybe not squeamish, exactly, but careful about preserving my equanimity. As for rapists, my favorite scene in Donnie Brasco (the book, not the movie) is where the good fellas discuss what should be done with rapists. They should be raped, they conclude, fine noble sentiments of worthy knights, eh. I like the photo on your masthead. Looks like a very comfortable room indeed.

  • Richard Anonymnous

    More consciousness raising of this time-honored, cost effective, and effective form of correction may be needed.

    I see the lash, cane, or leather strap as a good, strong deterrent for men and teenaged boys who physcially or sexually abuse women (and for those who are showing themselves to be career criminals who are not deterred by prison alone). Most sex crimes (including date rape, the most common form of rape) against women are committed by young, sexually focused males 16-24 yrs of age who need a strong deterent, could be reformed by such decisive correction early in life, and are physically robust enough to endure such discipline.

    I have some admiration of the Singaporean justice system which provides mandatory caning for males, starting at 16 years of age, who are convicted of sexually offending against women. Even those who engage in nonconsensual sexual touching receive a minor caning. I see this is promoting respect for women and stopping problems before they escalate. Because most nations that still employ the lash are developing nations, I like how Singapore shows us that a nation can be modern and still have provision for flogging. And as most people know, the amount of sex crime is very low and repeating such a crime after having been caned across the bare backside for it is almost unheard of. Also, the introduction of caning in Malaysia succeeded in lowering an out of control crime rate.

    Look at the example how even circus lions can be kept tame and safe when they know there is a whip available that can be used on them. The desire to avoid pain affects the behavior of all mamals. As a man myself, I can tell you the fear of being lashed would keep me in line much more so than would just the fear of going to jail. People think that society has evolved beyond the need for the lash, but have all men evolved beyond the need for this? What could be a more effective antidote to violent and sexual excesses of testosterone?

    If whipping were in use, a man wanting to assault a woman would know he would also get hurt just like when a man decides not to attack a man whom he thinks can hurt him back badly. Also men need to know that assaulting a woman will not be even close to worth it and he will deeply regret it. Me motivated by sexual impulses to do force sex or sexual contact need to know that the pain of the punishment will far outweigh any pleasure derived from the crime.

    I often think we could live in a better society if women felt safer around men and men were safer for women to be around. I also wish for women to feel that justice is done, that sex crime is blamed on the offender, that rape is taken seriously, and that women are valued by soceity. I see whipping as helping to achieve these ends and demonstrate these things — even when it is trusted men who abuse women, as is often the case.

    Whipping also in some ways fits as a consequence for rape. The is stripped down, tied down, and whipped. He would have some sense of what it is like to feel pain, fear, humiliation, vulnerability, and a helplessness to resist.

    I can see merit in in limiting whipping to males. It avoids the problem of role modelling violence against women and sends a message that women are not to be beaten under any circumstance. Exempting women helps to elevate the status of women. Men use their strong bodies to abuse women so it makes sense that the punishment also makes use of the strong bodies which are well suited to endure the rigors of whipping. The physical power imbalance between women and men is mitigated if men also have to fear getting hurt when they attack women in the same way that men have that to fear when they consider attacking a man. Whipping could also be viewed as a very pro-woman form of punishment that protects women from physical harm and benefits them psychologically in that they can fee valued and safe and take some satisfaction that abusive men are being meaningfully punished. The psychological benefit to women is compromised if women end up having something new to fear (such as the idea of being theoretically subject to he lash themselves).

    Such punishment should be done as humanely as possible and no more severely than necessary. I recommend the use of a leather strap because it is flat and not that likely to cause scaring cuts. There should also be supportive counselling offered before and afterwards. Of course, if the offender is judged mentally ill, he should be provided with psychiatric treatment, not whipping. Physical discipline should be provided for guys who know that abusing a woman is wrong and have the mental ability to control themselves but chose not to do so.

  • irina325

    I’m not sure I totally agree with Richard Anonymous, but I do think there are some respects in which he is right. The institutionalization of physical punishment feels unsettling, because it is regimented brutality. Nonetheless, I think there is a very natural feeling among humans that violence is an appropriate response to injustice. Even in American prisons, where no flogging is allowed, rapists generally receive their own brand of physical revenge from the other inmates, who find such crimes as repulsive as any body else. Another argument that could be made is that a quick caning is a punishment that makes a long-lasting impression, without some of the negative affects of long-term incarceration, which can be stifling, soul-sucking, and lead to a life of crime and repeated incarcerations.

    That said, I’m not sure how comfortable I would feel if more countries started to revert back to corporal punishment. It does feel ‘less civilized’…

  • Richard Anonymnous

    Irina, I value you comments and perspective. It reminded me of a point that I wanted to add. I am totally against the concept of prison violence. I believe that society should protect people from whom it has taken their freedom. It runs counter to any idea of correction for the system or society to quietly support prison violence as a means of discipline. Moreover, the level of punishment someone receives should not be left up to random factors such as whether someone is able to defend himself well or not or whether or not one is unlucky enough to be in prison with a particularly mean-spirited fellow inmate or not or unlucky enough to be anally raped by someone with AIDS (it is also very hypocritical for society to secretly condone rape and criminal violence in any form while pretending that the these things are reprehensible). If we honestly believe that a certain type of convict deserves or would benefit from some level of physical discipline, he should be sentenced to a certain number of lashes that are professionally administered under medical supervision where he is at no risk of being permanently injured or killed.


    Travelling by train a short time ago,I met a young woman who had been “glassed.”A semi-circular scar ran from her cheek,across her eye socket,and continued onto her forehead.Someone had scarred her for life!
    This kind of mindless violence happens every day.To my mind,people who do such things thoroughly deserve a very painful dose of corporal punishment,be they male or female.
    What’s a few days pain or discomfort,compared to a lifetime of being scarred or maimed?
    That would be a real deterrent,not only to the criminal concerned,but also those who might emulate them.
    It’s about time we stopped wringing our hands about rights for criminals,and started to treat them as the menace to society that they really are!

  • songsong

    Should hv caning for more crimes, save money by having to build less prison, women offenders should also be caned, may be by a women officer using a thinner cane

  • songsong

    Those judges who can order caning should have witnessed a real prison 15 strokes caning in person, befeore they are empowered to order caning.

  • Richard Anonymnous

    I definitely agree that those who are in a position to hand out such sentences should definitely be very well acquainted with what the punishment is like. They should be be required to watch MANY videotaped or real-time floggings of various durations so that they can be aware of impact of different amounts of strokes/lashes and make intelligent decisions on how many strokes/lashes to award for individual cases (since there is usually a range allowed by law for various offences).

    Moreover, if some form of flogging is to be used to punish males for sexual or violent crimes against women, it should be mandatory for all boys to watch a video of a real flogging as part of their early sex education in school. It is only fair for boys to see what they will face if they do not behave themselves around women. This would be very beneficial in promoting safety and respect for women considering that the boys watching such a video would be entering puberty and on the verge of starting to go out on dates and be alone with girls. Seeing such a video at a young age would create a permanent and graphic memory that could give a young man or a man of any age the will power he needs to make a decision to control himself when his testosterone is telling him “yes” and a woman is telling him “no”.

  • Yohan

    Richard Anonymous, your post makes many quixotic claims but does not offer any substative evidence.

    I can summarize the logical fallacies in your argument by referring to your introductory sentence where you say:

    “More consciousness raising of this time-honored, cost effective, and effective form of correction may be needed. ”

    You mention torture (and yes, caning is a form of torture) is cost effective, yet you add nothing to support this claim. If a rapist is to be in jail for 2 years for his crime, do you support commuting this sentence if the rapist is caned? If not, what you have in one case is a rapist whose 2 year prison term is paid for. In the second case, you have a rapist with the same two year prison term being paid for, IN ADDITION TO the cost of enforcing the caning, providing the medical treatment, training the staff, etc. Clearly, then, you cannot claim allowing torture is cost effective.

    Your next major point, perhaps the crux of your argument, is that caning is effective. Again, where may I be so lucky as to find evidence to support this claim? You refer to reduced crime rates in countries that adopt torture for punishment. But how are we to trust the figures provided by these corrupt nations? If you look at Transparency International’s highly unbiased ranking of corrupt nations, you will see that your ‘torture’ buddies are among the most untrustworthy. Why, then, should we trust the crime figures for these countries? It stands to reason that their governments would be eager to portray their torture punishments as highly effective. This point is moot.

    When you discuss the supposed effectiveness of caning, you also mention that repeat offenders are very rare when torture is used as punishment. I refer to my previous point where I question the validity of your crime figures.

    Your highly regressive arguments seems to promote the archaic form of punishment known as ‘eye for an eye’. Strange, that even in ancient times when such punishments were the norm crime did not seem to cease. Strange, that in some of the most torture-friendly nations in the world, crime is a serious concern for their citizens.

    Bravo, on advocating a return to animalistic barbarity.

  • Yohan

    And to add more fuel to the fire…

    “Another argument that could be made is that a quick caning is a punishment that makes a long-lasting impression, without some of the negative affects of long-term incarceration, which can be stifling, soul-sucking, and lead to a life of crime and repeated incarcerations. ”

    Yes, you may certainly make such an argument. I could make the argument that forcing prisoners to listen to Barry Manilow CDs could be an effective punishment, or something equally ridiculous. The importance point is, does your argument hold? Are you simply offering an opinion, or an unbiased fact? Kindly refer me to the unbiased source where you read that caning a) makes a long-lasting impression and that imprisonment b) is stifling, soul-sucking (hard to define what this means!), can lead to a life of crime and repeated incarcerations.

    “What’s a few days pain or discomfort,compared to a lifetime of being scarred or maimed?
    That would be a real deterrent,not only to the criminal concerned,but also those who might emulate them.”

    When you write this, David, you refute your own argument, silly man. Your write that caning is merely ‘a few days pain’ and then you claim that ‘that would be a real deterrent’. Does that make sense to you? Would a few days pain act as an effective deterrent? You may want to choose your words more carefully.

  • Rachel

    I find it quite amazing that people have been commenting on this, in little dribbles, since September 2007. Where are all you guys coming from?! This must be, like, the most extended discussion ever!

  • Richard Anonymnous

    Yohan, I am hoping that we can limit our discussion to civilized discourse and avoid an aggressive style of conversation and name calling such as “David ….silly man”. My responses to your comments are as follows:

    1. I advocate for mandatory flogging and mandatory prison terms for men covicted of the crimes discussed above. Men who commit such crimes need to spend some time out of society. No man should just be flogged and released immediately afterwards for such crimes. Combining whipping an prison time provides two different types of deterrents. Each man will vary in terms of how much he fears one versus the other, but combining the two would provide a package that any sane man would find very intimidating.

    2. If you reaserch this issue, you will see that there is both reasonably reliable statiscal and annecdotal evidence of the ability of flogging to deter crime. There is also much evidence that spending unnecessarily long periods of time in prison is often more damaging than beneficial.

    3. While it is true, that many nations which have retained flogging suffer from corruption, it should not be forgotten that up until the middle of the 1900s, most nations, including Great Britain, Canada, and the United States imposed flogging. It should not be assumed that flogging causes a system to be corrupt. As long as flogging is professionally administered and administered only in repsonse to proper sentencing, corruption should be kept in check.

    4. Deterring crime involves BOTH certainty of punishment and appropriate severity of punishment. Many poor or crime-infested nations that have have stiff penalties in lieu of high certainty of detection and punishment. For example, many poor nations have stiff laws against drug use or trafficking but the rates of such crimes are high because people know that few people are caught and punished. This is why I argue for mandatory flogging sentences for certain crimes so that the men be certain of the fact that they will face whipping if convicted of certain crimes. This is mandatory system is what helps the Singaporean system to be as effective as it is. However, nations such as Trinidad that have laws allowing rapists to be flogged but only apply the sentence about once every five years while almost all rapists escape the lash completely undermines the beneficial effect that the lash could have. It is important to note that crime will never be completely eradicated, no matter what is done.

    5. There need be no increased cost to flogging. In many cases, the prison terms could be shortened somewhat and there would be no great cost involved in administering the floggings. In no way should it be assumed that the system of repeatedly appealing the sentence for years as in US death penalty cases would come into play. For example, a man convicted of raping a woman should be allowed the appeal process currently available for such a sentence. The man should not be given the opportunity to repeatedly appeal the flogging component. If his conviction is upheld, the whipping should be enforced. WHen it comes to training and medical expenses, there need not be any additional cost. I recommend the use of a leather strap. How much training would it take to teach some prison staff members to lay a leather strap across a man’s buttocks? Historically, in many nations, this has just been part of the job of a prison guard, not a highly skilled trade. A leather strap, being shorter than a rattan cane, is easier to aim and, being flat and wide, does not cause damage to the buttocks which requires much medical treatment. Straps are known to raise welts and cause only superficial bleeding at most.
    All prisons have a doctor who could spend a few minutes here and there overseeing strappings, and the nurse or doctor on duty could apply any necessary first aid.

    6. David’s comment is not as self-defeating as you assume it to be. He is merely making the point that the pain of caning can be justified as not inappropriately excessive because the physical pain is awful, but it is gone after several days and the victim has to contend with much pain too. On a different note, many people say the problem with flogging is that the pain is all over too soon. It should not be forgotten that men who commit serious cirmes, such as rapists, also spend many years in prison, and many men have found the experience of being sentenced to a lashing quite psychologically disturbing/traumatizing prior to the administration of the lashes and/or subsequent to the administration.

    7. And yes, extreme pain is quite an effective deterrent. It is the powerful tool used by mother nature to ensure the continued existence and well being of animal life on earth in that both humans and animals can be prevented from doing many self-injurious and potentially fatal things out of the desire to avoid or fear of pain.

    8. I realize that flogging may seem extreme to many people before they give much thought to the matter. Obviously, efforts should be made to administer it as humanely as possible. The flogging should ideally form part of the punishment/deterrence component of an overall treatment/rehabilitation program. I have previously argued why I can see flogging as well suited to the male gender group, supportive of women, and supportive of good gender relations. Hence, it could even be argued that instituting a form of punishment that is uniquely effective in hepling men to stay on track without ruining their own lives, the lives of the women around them, or the quality of relations between the gender groups actually shows respect for men and their well being. I most often find that it is women who have most initial difficulty in supporting whipping, but this is because they often imagine themselves on the receiving end of the whip. However, when they are asked to consider the gender differences between men and women in terms of physicality, biology, conduct, and mentality, they tend to find the idea a lot more apealing. I also find it an interesting disconnect that many people are supportive of corporal punishment for boys but believe this should stop just before they become teens and young men at an age when they commit the most crime and their hormones are raging. What people do not sometimes think about is that whether corporal punishment is allowed for men or not, the men who do not require it to be good and decent will not be receiving it. But if corporal punishment is allowed, it will be there to keep the men who need it in line.

    Rachel, it would be interesting to know if your views on this topic have been affected by any of the comments that people have been making.

  • Bernard

    Hi Rachel… I read your artikel about “spare the rod & spoil the rapist” I was shocked to read about the punishment of Robert-François Damiens which was wittnessed by a large crowd. You said that nowadays the same crowd would look at such a spectacle. I really cannot believe this… would you go to see this?

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