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The mark of cane

September 3, 2014

Boarding schooling in the late 1960’s could be tough. Caning, the deliberate infliction of pain as punishment for an offence, or perceived offence, was common. A caning was delivered by the teacher to the offender’s backside; you bent over, the teacher said how many lashings you were going to get and then you were whacked. I became quite an experienced canee, receiving 34 canings in one term to hold the school record for that year.

Pain and the cane
I am not sure you can remember pain, the actual hurt of pain, but there was a whole experience of being caned that I can recall quite well. Caning was noisy. The cane “whished” through the air and on impact there was a real smacking noise. If there was a queue for caning you could hear these noises before you took your turn. The waiting was the worst part. I can recall one night as a novice being told I was to be caned the next morning. I didn’t sleep well.

The sting wasn’t confined to the small area under the cane; it was the whole buttock area that really stung. (Maybe there’s something to learn about the buttock representation in the brain in this, and maybe there was an instant central sensitisation?) It also made you want to run. When that cane struck for the first time your whole body wanted to be somewhere else very quickly.

But the stinging only lasted maybe 5 to 10 minutes and you didn’t dare show that it hurt. I never saw a boy cry. Two whacks was usually the punishment, but I did once experience six and all I can remember of this was that it seemed to take a very long time. I find it interesting that I now can’t remember what I was being punished for that time. Once a teacher completely missed my backside and hit me on the back of my head. “That one doesn’t count” he said. “Bugger” I thought.

A freshly caned backside
Shower time post caning was interesting. Showers were communal; there could be 15 or 20 boys in the showers at once and a freshly caned backside was looked on with great respect. You were suddenly someone VERY important. You see, caning causes neurogenic inflammation. It goes red first, then the welts rise, and shortly after that, the bruising appears. The welts and bruises were in “tramlines”- parallel red and eventually purple lines with a white line in the middle. If you were really belted, happened to be wearing your more threadbare pants that day, had overlapping cane sites or got flicked by the tip of the cane, it could bleed. This made you even MORE important in the shower, “Drew blood aye? You must’ve really pissed someone off mate!” said admiring fellow boarders. Three or more canings often made for an intricate pattern as the bruises matured. Such evidence of injury broke down boarding school hierarchy a little; the boys in the higher classes would talk to you, “What did you do to get that?” Bruised bums can last a week so you got a bit of mileage out of it. Nobody ever asked if it hurt, it was all about the bruise, the number and what you did to warrant the caning.

And the lessons now…
Caning is banned in many parts of the world though certainly not all. It lingers on in the underground S&M world but we schoolboys didn’t know about that. Caning is called barbaric now, but it was commonplace and didn’t seem that bad way back then. It was clearly ineffective though; my very short term behaviour changes, need for repeated canings and much research demonstrates as much. And of course, 13 year-old kids hundreds of miles from home for months on end are going to have some behavioural issues.

Aside from the spectacular neurogenic inflammation of the buttocks, what are the lessons for a better understanding of pain? These days it is unusual to know you will experience significant pain at a pre-determined time. Being told that you will receive severe pain at precisely 12:15 on the following day was foreboding, and everyone reacted differently. But there could be links here to the person returning to work for the first time, thinking that they will be undertaking the very task that they blame for their injury and pain, at 9:00am the next morning.

Perhaps an exploration of the meaning of the entire caning event, which didn’t end with the last lash, is the most instructive in relation to pain. Taking the experience as a whole raises and reinforces the power of context; the awfulness of knowing pain is coming, the sound of the cane, the knowing it will sting but that there will be a hard-earned “badge of honour” to show-off later. Perhaps the pain of having a tattoo or pushing beyond pain in physical training is equally modified by this effect of meaning. Knowing that you will be OK after the caning and that your increased status will outlast the bruises makes it futile for changing behaviour. I wonder if it would hurt more if all boys who were caned were excluded from the communal showers til the bruises faded?

In this most acute of injuries, meaning and personal relevance dissociates tissue damage and pain. It’s the presence of blood, the bruising, the number, the respectful “what did you do to deserve that”, which dominates the caning experience. Pain is long forgotten. It is hardly needed.


– David Butler

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