Dwayne Stamper recently achieved C-list level social media fame for offering to spank a confused stranger’s child in a Muncie, Indiana store then publically boasting about it. On July 24, Stamper published a Facebook post with a picture of himself holding a paddle next to a large sign that read “Free Ass Whoopins!” and summarized the incident. Stamper’s post received over 9,000 comments and 180,000 shares. This week, he is set to appear on Comedy Central’s Jim Jefferies Show, and The Jenny McCarthy Show, both of which he would tape in Los Angeles. For going on a month, Dwayne Stamper has been the salt-of-the-earth face of the disorganized but vocal push to use old-school, “common sense” parenting to toughen up a generation of mewling brats.
That Stamper was happy to play the role was not surprising. Plenty of men like him have been briefly lionized for publicly performing masculinity. What makes Stamper’s reaction to the attention strange is that he desperately wants to reconnect with his daughter, who has not spoken to him for 10 years and says he abused her, her brother, and her mother before the family broke up.
Talking to Stamper, it’s clear that he struggles to make a connection between his “Free Ass Whoopins!” post and his estrangement from his children.
“I still send text messages to this day,” he told me during a recent phone conversation. “Once a week, I sent my daughter a message telling her I loved her and if she wants to stop by, the house is always open.”
Our conversation was peculiar and unexpected in a number of ways. I had not thought I would dwell on the details of Stamper’s life, but shortly after I published an article about Stamper’s Facebook post in which I called him an “asshole,” I began receiving messages from readers. Some admonished me for shaming another parent or called me a snowflake. Others said I had not gone far enough. A few, including an email carrying the ominous subject line “Look Deeper,” suggested I investigate a bit. I pulled Stamper’s court records, which are substantive, and quickly concluded there might be more to the story. That conclusion was corroborated by a note from Stamper’s ex-wife, Stacey Marlow, who claimed both she and their daughter Presley Marlow had suffered abuse at Stamper’s hands. I reached out to Presley, who is now 23 years old, and we organized a call.
“Well, to be honest with you, ever since I was old enough to know and to understand, that’s about when I realized that something wasn’t right,” Presley told me, before pausing to apologize for her dogs barking in the background. “You know, I remember being a little, itty bitty girl, hiding under my bed with my Barbie. Him and my mom, they would argue, and he would get abusive with her and he would hit her.”
Presley told me that as she grew older, she stopped hiding. At that point, she claims to have become a witness to Stamper’s ass whoopings. She recalls her brother coming home with bad grades and her father reacting by holding him by the neck above the window sill. “His feet were off the ground dangling,” she said. “I’ll never forget.”
By the time Presley was 11, in 2006, her parents were going through an ugly divorce. Near the start of the legal proceedings, Stamper was charged with domestic battery and civil disobedience, though court records show charges were dropped by the state’s prosecuting attorney two years later. The divorce proceedings themselves lasted for six years and included at least two restraining orders. Eventually, Stamper lost rights of visitation when Presley was 15 after allegations of sexual abuse surfaced during a school counseling session. Stamper did not fight the loss of visitation and no criminal charges were filed.
In light of court documents and stories from Stamper’s ex-wife and estranged daughter, it would seem reasonable to suggest that Stamper is not a charmingly old-school dad dispensing well-meaning advice about toughening kids up. He’s an abuser, a violent man. But speaking to him a few days later, it became clear to me that he could be both.
When I reached Stamper, he had had car trouble and was getting a ride from a friend named Sam Dargo. Stamper put me on speaker phone as the pair traveled, anxious to tell his side of the story as Dargo piped in like a hype-man, cheering his friend, who he called “Cupcake.” Right off the bat, Stamper talked for a full seven minutes, without pause, explaining away any charge or accusation against him as the product of a bitter spouse bent on revenge. Then we spoke about his daughter and he expressed regret. He cried.
But what about the spanking? What about the Facebook post? Well, he was proud of the recognition.
“If you google ‘ass whoopins for kids’ I’m on number one, number two top picks,” Stamper boasted. “I mean, there’s a lot of people that support it, and there’s a lot of people that’s against it. But if you read what I said, you don’t have to whoop your child every time they make a mistake.”
Dwayne Stamper is clearly a man who has no clear sense of where the line is between acceptable and unacceptable violence. “I’ve never hit my children and been like, ‘oh my god that was too hard,'” he told me. “Because I never left some sort of mark or hit them where it impacted them forever.” It is possible to admit his confusion is understandable without absolving him for his behavior towards his family. After all, Stamper is not alone. Many American parents and, in particular, fathers, struggle to understand what constitutes punishment and what constitutes abuse. Why? Because the language of “Ass Whoopin!” is encouraged even as corporal punishment is repeatedly proven ineffectual and damaging by an endless stream of studies.
A lot of this has to do with how parents use specific words to contextualize or re-contextualize disciplinary behaviors, specifically spanking. When Stamper talks about “ass whoopins,” he’s talking about spanking — though it’s clear he’s gone far further than spanking his kids — but the implication is vague. To him, it sounds reasonable. To others, not so much. This is not unusual.
“When someone says ‘spanking,’ no one thinks twice about it. But if you say a parent ‘assaulted their child by hitting them on the buttocks,’ then people have a different impression of what that behavior was,” explains Dr. George W. Holden, Chair of the Psychology Department at Southern Methodist University.“With our terminology, we normalize spanking. We, as a culture, accept it. But it’s hitting a child.” Dr. Holden has done a deep dive on the data around corporal punishment. His conclusion in his own words: “Physical punishment is linked with the same harms to children as is physical abuse.” Those harms, he adds, are consistent across cultures and classes.
Still, striking children is condoned, vociferously, by many Americans. Consider the 8,000-plus “likes” and over 2,000 “loves” attached to Stampers Facebook post. Or scroll through the post’s comments like, “spare the rod and spoil the child” or “guys like him keep kids from killing each other and blowing up world trade centers.”
“Sometimes it’s necessary,” Stamper explained to me. “If they keep reaching for something over and over, and you know it’s going to hurt them, eventually you have to bust that butt a little bit to let them understand that that is a no, you can’t do it.”
Dargo then added, enthusiastically, “I had three boys, and every time they screwed up they got an ass whoopin. They know that when Dad says no, I mean no!” At this, both men laughed. I pointed out the research that suggests physical punishment can lead to a host of psychological problems, like depression and a propensity for violence. Both men discounted the evidence. Both men pointed out that they had been subjected to physical punishment and turned out fine.
“My grandparents whipped my parents and there’s five of them, and every one of them is successful and retired and living great,” Stamper told me.
“I never got a butt whippin’ that I didn’t deserve!” Dargo chimed in.
The logic goes like this: Stamper doesn’t feel like a victim (or he doesn’t want to feel like a victim) and therefore struggles to understand why his children feel victimized by his behavior. He understands the abuse of children — spanking, sure, but more than that — to be inevitable and moral and, as such, doesn’t struggle to reconcile his abuse of his children with his notion of himself as a charitable Christian man. And there’s plenty of reason to believe Stamper, who corroborates his daughter’s stories, albeit in self-serving ways, is a charitable man. He has been lauded by his community for his charitable works.
One rather extraordinary story about Stamper’s generosity comes from Muncie resident Micheal Keihn. He told me that one Christmas he was down on his luck and couldn’t afford presents for his kids. That’s when he saw a Facebook post from Stamper. “Mr. Stamper offered bicycles to children who didn’t have one,” Keihn told me. “It was hard for me to ask, but I asked … A day later I arrived at Mr. Stamper’s house to pick up this very nice bicycle for my son. Mr. Stamper greeted me at his driveway with a bag. Inside that bag was a brand new pair of Nike Jordans in my son’s size. I was stunned.”
How can Stamper’s violence be reconciled with his charity? It’s worth noting here that it doesn’t need to be — that Stamper’s children, in particular, are in no way obligated to attempt to understand his horrific behavior. Still, it’s important to consider if you’re interested in how this happens and how violence becomes a family tradition.
Understood in a historical, Calvinist context, rod-swinging punishment and kindness to strangers are in no way at odds. The world is hard and demanding, the Calvinist argument goes, and it’s a service to children to harden them out of the gate. Remember, the Pilgrims actually switched kids with each other out of fear they wouldn’t have it in themselves to beat the children hard enough.
“It’s so deeply embedded in a community,” explains Dr. Holden. “It’s what people have been raised with for generations. For most people, it’s what their parents did to them. They think of it as appropriate and normal. There is considerable peer pressure from grandparents to have their children use corporal punishment, and even peer pressure from neighbors and other community members.”
Holden notes that the roots of corporal punishment are deeply religious for many Americans. And because the idea of “beating the devil” out of children was based on spiritual doctrine, it stuck in the craw of the southern bible belt and religiously conservative rural communities. It’s the aspect of religion, in fact, which also makes ideas of corporal punishment consistent between African American communities and rural white communities.
“It’s rationalization,” Dr. Holden explains. “They don’t want to even think about the fact that maybe what was done to them wasn’t healthy and good. They want to think they’re better for it, because they don’t want to consider the alternative.”
That alternative they don’t wish to consider? Violence hurts kids. It is not moral. It is a cycle of victimization and illness, the cause of mental health problems and the source of violent outbursts. Depression. Anxiety. Depression. Anxiety. Loneliness.
“Did I hurt my son? Did I whoop him? My son has a boy that’s almost 2 years old. It’s my grandson and when my grandson meets a new person he sticks his hand out and he can’t say the full sentence but he says, ‘meet you.’ He’s trying to say, ‘nice to meet you,'” says Stamper. “I think what I did as a dad is show what my son is trying to teach his. My son whips his little boy at 2 years old. He don’t hurt him, but he smacks that butt.”
But it’s not as though Stamper doesn’t have any regrets or can’t make any connection between a cultural propensity for physical punishment and the accusations leveled by his daughter. At one point during my conversation, Dargo stepped out of the truck and Stamper became emotional about his estrangement from his daughter. “I’m not the healthiest but I would love … I keep saying I’m going to die broken-hearted,” he said, choking the words out. “I’m going to die broken-hearted.”
Reconciliation is unlikely. Stamper’s Facebook post, which he claims was intended as a joke, has brought everything to the surface for Presley Marlow, who says she lives every day with memories of abuse. “It’s a really heavy burden,” she says. She’s got a new baby. She doesn’t want any of that in her daughter’s life. “I will never put her anywhere near him. I just want to protect her, and save her, and keep her from what I went through and what I suffered.”
A few days after I published my initial piece on Stamper, my editor received an email from a reader complaining about my take and stating that I was wrong to call out a parent for glorifying corporal punishment. “Don’t take sides on the political discord and drive opinion pieces on what the right and left is already bickering about,” the reader wrote. “We have an entire lost generation of entitled kids growing up and the last thing we need is their skewed perspective on life.” He added for good measure that my story was a “driveling piece of garbage right out of a beyond lefties whining playbook.”
There’s no reason that this reader would have known that Dwayne Stamper was a child abuser. Still, he could have guessed. After all, Stamper was getting attention for offering to abuse children. But even clear messages are clouded by culture and cultural acceptance. We can’t see the child abuser in plain sight because we want to believe he’s just a folksy guy with old-school ideas about parenting. He is. That’s exactly right and also exactly why he’ll likely die heartbroken.