Birching is the act of hitting someone with a birch. It's both the "ongoing" verb form and a noun referring to the activity. Both in meaning and use, it's very similar to caning.
To forestall any misconception, the birch in question is not a whole birch tree but rather a bundle of sticks, used somewhat like a whip, made from some branches or twigs of a birch or other tree or shrub.
So why would anybody want to hit someone with a bundle of sticks? Well, it's a traditional form of corporal punishment. The idea is to inflict pain, sometimes as a retaliatory measure, often as a deterrent to prevent a recurrence of undesirable behavior. See also spanking for the more general case. Back in the days when corporal punishment was applied to servants and schoolchildren, this was one of the variants. Nowadays, I speculate it's still done in some conservative families and possibly in some schools in some countries. Personally, I don't advocate hitting anyone unless they want to be hit, a subject upon which I'll expand a bit below.
Actually, birching is different from some other forms of corporal punishment in that I know of a total of three "socially acceptable" contexts not shared by other methods:
I understand that the Finns and other sauna goers may run outside naked to cool off in the snow after a good steam bath, and some will hit themselves or each other across the back and elsewhere with twigs to stimulate the circulation in the skin. It still hurts, but it's a "healthy" kind of hurt, like running uphill or something.
I also hear that monks of certain orders are into self-chastisement (with a birch) as a means of punishing themselves for sinful thoughts and other transgressions, as well as for purposes of purification. These people fully believe that pain is good for the soul; if pain was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for them too.
In many countries where Christmas is celebrated, kindly Santa Claus is accompanied by a more sinister character, often called "Black Pete". Good children receive presents from Santa. Children who've been bad must fear the birch ostentatively carried by Black Pete. As a child, I always waited to see some –in my view– highly deserving culprits be chastized by him, but I was consistently disappointed.
Unless you've been living in one of the above mentioned monasteries, you're probably aware of some mostly sexual inclinations like sadism, masochism, dominance and submission. These and other kinks are nowadays grouped under the heading BDSM, and this is where we find people who get turned on by being hit. One of the tenets of BDSM is SSC (Safe, Sane and Consensual), and here's where birching is all right in my book.
I've mentioned that birching is like caning. OK, in both cases someone gets hit, and very often on the buttocks. But the caning and birching experiences are very different. I'll try to explain.
Caning was the method of choice for "serious" punishments in Victorian England. If the telephone cards in London phone booths are any indication, it is still the mainstay of professional dominatrices and professional, umm, "schoolgirls". Caning is something prim and proper; a few strokes, as few as "six of the best" or perhaps a dozen, rarely two dozen, and the deed is done. Because of the weight of a cane, its effect will travel well through pants and/or panties, so that baring the target area is optional. A good cane, if properly watered, will last a long time and makes no mess, so a punishment can be swiftly executed in a drawing room or a headmaster's study. Caners take pride in their ability to produce a regular, evenly spaced pattern of "tram tracks", or weals, on the subject's skin, with no repeat hits on the same area. Caning is for the efficient perfectionist.
Birching, now, brings one much closer to nature. Before there can be a birching, there has to be a birch. As you can imagine, a bundle of sticks does not enjoy the longevity of a cane. So often, a punishment must be preceded by a walk in the garden, the park or the woods. Often the punishee's dread and anticipation are enhanced if he/she is sent to fetch the implement of his/her own impending punishment. Then there's the fact that the sting from the relatively light twigs will be made ineffective by clothing, so it's "bare bottom" time, perhaps even "buck naked". Kinky people thrive on the necessity of taking their clothes off! Then, once the dominant is whaling away at the submissive's backside or other parts, we observe a more even contest between the weapon and its victim: While a single stroke of the birch can be quite painful, it generally doesn't have as devastating or lasting effect as a cane stroke. For a similarly thorough punishment, the birch must be applied again and again for an extended period of time. Depending on the birch and the endurance of its victim, it is not uncommon for a birch to disintegrate into small pieces during a session. Some birchers will continue the session until the birch is completely destroyed and useless. So we have a contest between the endurance of the receiver of the punishment and its implement. Needless to say, the torrent of twigs does not make this a "neat" activity suitable for a room that's used for living in. Americans would use the woodshed, Germans the basement, perhaps the laundry room. The British would presumably fail to be amused.
Flagellants, i.e. people into beating or being beaten, say that canes have a combination "sting" (pain on the surface of the skin) and "thud" (painful bruising of the flesh some depth below the skin). Birches tend to have (practically) only "sting". Because the deep bruising can damage "something important" such as blood or lymph vessels, the spinal column or other bones or organs, practically the only (reasonably) safe areas to apply the cane are the buttocks and thighs. Birches, on the other hand, tend to damage the skin, but usually only the skin, so it's not too risky to punish other areas as well, as long as the eyes are safe. But because of the potential for breaking the skin, some precautions should be taken against microbial infection (see below).
For those eager to try it, some technical hints on the construction of a birch:
- The twigs used to make a birch should be no more than pencil thick at the thick end, and taper to their natural minimum at the other end.
- The length of the birch (and hence the twigs) will depend on how the punisher wants to handle it: short (maybe two feet) for over-the-knee (OTK) sessions, longer if the "victim" is standing, bending or lying down and there's room to swing. Four feet is probably the maximum useful length.
- Some people construct birches from as few as two or three twigs, but a "traditional" birch has seven to nine.
- To hold the twigs together, they should be tightly tied together with twine or such, for about a foot's length, to form a kind of handle.
- Many twigs will fork into numerous even smaller twigs. Some people will tear off the smaller branchings, others will leave them on. The difference is in the effect: Many fine lines or fewer heavier ones. Note that the fine twiglets can cause small skin injuries and draw small amounts of blood; it's up to you to decide if this is your kettle of fish or not.
- Many twigs have small buds of freshly developing stems. Again, some people tear these off, others like the pattern of impact dots they will leave on the skin.
- Even in view of best intentions to the contrary, it's quite possible for a birch to leave tiny cuts and pinpricks in the skin of the target area. These micro-wounds are generally harmless and will heal up in a day or two, but it's recommended to take precautions against infection:
- The punishee should be freshly showered at the very least, or the target area rubbed down with an antiseptic such as rubbing alcohol;
- The twigs of the birch should be thoroughly cleaned before assembly, perhaps first with a rag soaked in water with dish washing soap, then a second time with rubbing alcohol.
- As you'd expect, dry twigs will quickly break. It makes sense to keep a birch moist, or moisten it before use. It's simple enough to dip the business end into a pail of water for a minute or more. You're well advised to use brine (salt water) instead, for its mild (but not reliable!) antibacterial effect, which will keep your birch from rotting if it's left standing for a while. Brine is also a bit heavier than water; this will increase the impact of the birch somewhat.
As with many S&M related activities, it's highly advisable to start with a relatively slow and gentle session to get an idea for the short and medium term effects of the birch. Many find that the initial impact is painless but followed by intense stinging about two seconds later. Some people are turned on by the potential for drawing small amounts of blood in relative safety, while others find the very concept abhorrent. YMMV1 - TIAS2!
- Your Mileage May Vary
- Try It And See!