A smacking ban looks to be back on the political agenda. When the Children and Young Persons Bill comes to the Commons this month, campaigners are determined to force a vote on the issue. The Government is said to be opposed, if only because such a move would be extremely unpopular; but already close to 50 MPs have circulated a letter demanding a free vote on the issue.
They're unlikely to get very far. While New Labour shows an almost limitless enthusiasm for poking their noses into people's private lives, this would seem to be, at least for now, a step too far. The anti-smacking campaigners don't help their cause, either, by resorting to human-rights arguments. Their case usually goes something like this: you can't spank adults (it''s called assault); children are smaller and more vulnerable than adults; therefore you shouldn't be able to smack children.
It's hard to fault the logic, yet it somehow fails to convince. It suggests a world in which misbehaved six year olds all had Cherie Booth QC's phone number listed on their mobiles. More importantly, it fails to offer parents a convincing explanation, other than political correctness, of why smacking is dangerous and wrong.
Help, though, may be at hand, in the form of American researcher Murray Strauss, whose recently unveiled findings are sure to provoke tremors of recognition among many former public schoolboys.
Children who are spanked regularly, according to Strauss, are likely to grow up with an interest in kinky sex. They are also likely to indulge in "high-risk" sexual behaviour, which he defines as not wearing condoms, or "coercive sex". That, by the way, means "insisting on sex when the partner does not want to, or threatening to end the relationship if the partner does not have sex." Interestingly, the figures for that are almost as high for females as for males.
Teenagers who had been smacked, moreover, were more likely to be sexually active and to have had more than one sexual partner. This, speculates Strauss, is because "corporal punishment weakens the bond between the child and the parents... this alienation from parents may make teenagers less likely to avoid sex and less likely to follow safe sex practices."
Based on surveys among university and high school students in more than 30 countries, Strauss's results led his to the conclusion that "spanking is one of the roots of relationship violence and mental health problems". He goes on:
Furthermore, because other research shows spanking is not more effective than other discipline methods, there is no need to expose children to the harmful effects of spanking. We can help prevent mental health problems and relationship violence from happening by a national health policy recommending never spanking.
In the most striking finding, a study found that "75 percent of students who had been spanked a lot by their parents were sexually aroused by masochistic sex". You don't say.
"What is new about this study is a scientific test of the idea that being spanked as a child inclines people to want to be spanked when having sex, and that this is especially likely to be true when there is a combination of lots of spanking and lots of love," Strauss says.
He's sounds like a depressingly puritanical type, this Murray Strauss. In his sexual ideal is unspontaneous, unimaginative and conformist. His equation of adventurous bedroom habits with mental illness seems particularly odd.
It seems paradoxical, though, to think that forms of punishing children traditionally associated with instilling obedience and unquestioning regard for authority could turn them into thrill-seeking sexual predators with a taste for sadomasochism and promiscuous early sex.
If anything is likely to put parents off giving their little angels a smacked botty, that is.