Private vs. Secret

In bed with the flu this past week, I spent more time reading than I did writing, and had a chance to catch up on some blogs I'd been bookmarking. Among them is the blog many of you are likely familiar with, Breathing In, Breathing Out, which examines the role that Domestic Discipline (DD) can play in healing the after-effects of childhood abuse (sexual and otherwise).

I was particularly struck by the author's latest post, "Spanking vs. Abuse," in which she struggles to draw a distinction between "secret" and "private" with regard to her DD lifestyle, and to come to terms with how keeping the secret of DD fits in with the need to stop keeping the abusive secrets of her past.

I understand her dilemma. I also have a lot of history with secrets. They were the family speciality. Secrets about incest, abuse, affairs, alcoholism, financial scandals and white collar crime dot my family tree like sour apples rotting on the branches.

I learned how to keep secrets at a very early age -- about things that were happening to me and about things that were happening around me and everything in between.

As a child, I kept these secrets partly because I was told to and out of fear of the consequences if I didn't. But mostly, I kept them out of shame. If people found out who I "really" was, what kind of family I "really" came from, at the very least, they would stop liking me. And at worst, I'd be forcibly taken from my home and blamed by my parents for tearing the family apart and "making people think badly of us."

I've worked very hard during the last ten years to be divest myself of the role of family secret-keeper, and I've largely done it. And having worked so hard to be secret-free, the last thing I wanted to do was add a new one to my closet, or to create another significant emotional bond in which secrecy plays such a major part.

But of course, secrecy is inherent in a DD relationship. We all know far too well that it's not the kind of thing a woman can safely talk to friends, family, or for the most part, even a therapist about without risking some seriously negative reactions -- particularly in feminist/progressive circles.

The writer of the "Breathing In Breathing Out" blog suggests the answer lies in making the distinction between "private" and "secret." That perhaps DD is something that's private, but not secret.

I am struck by her way of thinking on this issue. Of course, as she herself acknowledges, it's not quite that simple.

The dictionary definitions of "private" and "secret" are virtually identical, but I would argue that "secret" often contains an element of shame that "private" does not. We may keep something private for all kinds of reasons, but most of the time, we keep something secret out of fear and shame of what others would think if they knew. To take that another step, then, one might say that we keep something private voluntarily, but we keep something secret due to social coercion -- the cost of telling is so high that it's virtually not a choice at all. Privacy is voluntary; secrecy is not.

At best, DD is a mix of privacy and secrecy. I say "at best" because for most women who practice DD (particularly feminists) the ever-present the fear of the reactions of our friends, colleagues and family makes our choice for us -- what would they think of us if they knew we submitted to spankings, corner time and other discipline by our partner for our misbehaviors?

To be clear, I don't have a need to spill the graphic details of my partner's and my DD lifestyle to our friends, family and colleagues (or for the matter, the world of cyberspace) any more than I want to gratuitously share the details of my sex or financial life or anything else that's traditionally kept "private." But I do have a problem living constantly on my guard that I might slip and say or do something that would reveal that I live this lifestyle at all and in any way.

So in spite of my best efforts, I find myself in a similar (but thankfully not identical) situation to my childhood. Keeping a secret not voluntarily, but out of fear and shame. And though without question the benefits of DD in my life are worth the price of secrecy, I still chafe at having to cover something up against my will. Again.

I write this on the day Hillary Clinton announced that she's forming an exploratory committee in preparation for a presidential bid. And I idly wonder, what if... just what if... she and Bill have a DD relationship? What she tolerates Bill's affairs primarily because the discipline she gets from being with him is what allows her to reach her goals and that's worth a little flexibility on the monogamy issue? (It likely would be to me, especially if it's Bill holding the paddle...)

What if our image of Hillary taking the oath of office were superimposed with an image of Hillary, business skirt pulled up, bottom bared and red, sobbing as she stands in the corner following a spanking from Bill for having spoken to him disrespectfully?

I'd like to think that if that (hypothetical) truth came out, we'd admire Hillary as much or perhaps more than we do already, because we'd see that she had the courage to acknowledge her deepest, most difficult-to-face needs and ask for them from her partner in the name of becoming a more complete human being.

But the truth is, of course, that virtually no one would see it that way. Her career would be over in less time that it would take to Fox News to report the story. An entire life's work, her dignity, self-respect and credibility erased with the spilling of one secret.

And so shame becomes bound up with the good, positive, life-affirming parts of DD and I find myself again in the position of childhood -- if people knew who I "really" was, what "really" went on behind the closed doors of my home, they wouldn't like me anymore. (Ironic, BTW, given that the very community that would condemn me the most is the progressive community, which prides itself on being tolerant of divergent lifestyles.)

As so often happens, I don't have a ready answer here. But I suspect the "private" vs "secret" distinction is the best solution so far -- to focus as much as possible on DD as a private matter between two consenting adults, and place less importance on the secret/shame aspect that's foisted on us by a culture that isn't broad-minded enough to recognize the benefits.


  1. Anonymous13:26

    I love your thought provoking posts. I too have some of the shame - secrecy issues stemming from childhood. It took a while to not feel ashamed of my need to be spanked. Funny though, the more I worked with a therapist on other issues of shame as a child - the less ashamed I felt of enjoying the stability my discipline provided in my life. I spoke to my partner a ton on the issue. He used a coaching analogy Athletes use coaches and trainers that push them - and some may say punish them with extra work when they haven't met up with expectations. They submit to a trainer/coach voluntarily to improve themselves. In the end, when they are successful it IS their achievement, but many thank their coaches for pushing and holding them accountable in practice, because without them they may not have gone so far.
    So bottom line, if we were running laps instead of being spanked - the D/d relationship we have with our partners would not only be normal it would be admired.
    All this said, I do not announce my needs to the world either - but that is because of their ignorance about the complexities of my own nature. I am grateful to these blogs where we do find a community that does understand we are all complex and for some of us - this works. THank you for being so open and honest here. It is a gift to have a place where our needs to not have to be kept secret. (In saying that - isn't it nice to admit that D/d in someways is a letting out of a secret - or admitting vulnerablity and a NEED - a need to have someone hold us accountable without holding it against us that we are not perfect and we do need help to be our best self. Perhaps for me that is the liberation - I can admit to my parter that I do need help, that I need this type of attention, and that I do mess up - and by spanking me and then loving/respecting me as woderfully as ever - I can accept that imperfection and having unconventional needs is simply human and not an indicaton that I am somehow defective. Sorry for the ramble - but you really got me thinking.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Mary. Ramble all you want. If I got you thinking, that's the highest compliment a writer can get -- thank YOU for that and I hope you'll come visit often!


  3. Anonymous08:20

    What if our image of Hillary taking the oath of office were superimposed with the of image Hillary, business skirt pulled up, bottom bared and red, sobbing as she stands in the corner following a spanking from Bill for having spoken to him disrespectfully?

    That's quite a vivid image! It will be hard for me to see her on TV and not be thinking... hmmmm....

    Many women have told me that the private, secret element to DD is part of what they enjoy about it. While many have incorporated it into their lives in a matter-of-fact way, especially married couples over time, it still retains a certain definite frisson because of the necessary discretion that comes with it. So, some words have added meaning, some looks have meaning, and even some gestures have meaning - when shared with the spouse in question.

    At the same time, a friend told me that she occasionally longed for a warm, supportive community of female friends who were all quite familiar with being “taken to task” by their husbands from time to time. I suggested the idea of a 1950s style bridge club – each member of the group prone to sharing, with a wry face or a rueful smile, both her own transgressions and her loving, but very strict husband’s “old fashioned” response. The group would, by its nature, support the role of the husband as leader and “head of household” while at the same time being a place to share – along with all the other support and sharing friends naturally do for each other.

    Women do tend to bond over shared information. So, given this context, it wouldn’t be difficult to envision a young mother warning the other wives away from a parking meter whose timing “just couldn’t” be right – as she seeks the softest chair for the game.

  4. Anonymous18:30

    For my partner and I the differences between secret and private spankings are as follows.
    Those that are secret are ones no one but us know about. No one knows they happen. No one else is present.
    Private spankings are just that. They are not open to the public, or discussed with anyone not in the room at the time of the spankings.
    Private spankings include those just where my partner lowers my panties and vigorously administers the wooden back of her hairbrush to my bare behind. They may be only when we two are together alone. They may be witnessed and participated in by her friends who are invited.
    They are all women who spank their husbands, or dates.
    They are private, but not secret.
    That is just our take on the matter.
    Vivian, we are thinking of having a spanking party where her friends could join us, and bring their men over for group sessions. What are your thoughts on this?

  5. Hi Anonymous,

    Thank you for your post and your thoughts!

    RE: your question about spanking parties, I'm not sure I'm the right person to weigh in on things like this. For me, DD is about a private arrangement between two people in a committed exclusive relationship and that's where it gets its value as a relationship/bonding tool.

    I know there are lots of other variations. They're just not variations I feel I can speak to with any sort of authority. But there are lots of other blogs and books out there that speak more to that sort of thing, and I bet you find someone who can advise you!