Feb. 28, 2008 -- Children whose parents spank them or otherwise inflict physical punishment may be more likely to have sexual problems later, according to research to be presented Thursday to the American Psychological Association.
The analysis of four studies by Murray Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire-Durham, suggests that children whose parents spanked, slapped, hit or threw objects at them may have a greater chance of physically or verbally coercing a sexual partner, engaging in risky sexual behavior or engaging in masochistic sex, including sexual arousal by spanking.
"It increases the chances of sexual problems," though "it's not a one-to-one causation," Straus says.
Elizabeth Gershoff, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, who reviewed 80 years of spanking research in 2002 in the APA's Psychological Bulletin, says Straus' work appears to be the first to link spanking with sexual problems.
Gershoff says that though many children have been spanked (85 percent in one 2007 survey), problems may depend on how they process the spanking.
"They may internalize that to mean that in loving relationships sometimes there's pain or physical aggression," she says. Another possible lesson is that "whoever is stronger and has more power can overpower the other person and use physical aggression to control the other person's behavior."
But linking sexual problems with spanking is a "big leap," says human-sexuality researcher John DeLamater of the University of Wisconsin. "It's probably one of many elements that might contribute to sex problems or risky sex, but it's a long leap."
Most children who are spanked escape from long-term harm, says Straus, 81, a sociology professor who says he occasionally spanked his own children but later became a staunch critic of spanking. His work on violence in families is regarded as landmark research.
He is scheduled to present the studies today at the psychological association's Summit on Violence and Abuse in Relationships in Bethesda, Md. Three are yet unpublished; one has been submitted to a journal. He plans to include two in a book this year. The fourth was included in a 1994 book.
The two most recent studies examine sexual coercion and risky practices among 14,252 college students between 2001 and 2006. The third study, of 440 high school students from New Hampshire, examined risky sex, such as premarital sex without a condom. The fourth study, of 207 students from the Northeast, focused on masochistic sex.
In each case, Straus found that those who had experienced corporal punishment had increased probability of coercing sex, risky sex or masochistic sex.
The literature on effectiveness of spanking to correct behavior is still "very mixed," says Robert Larzelere of Oklahoma State University, who has studied parents' disciplinary methods.
"Like any discipline tactic, it depends on how it's used," he says.