Wife beating is the nonconsensual corporal punishment of a wife at the hands of her husband. It can be considered a form of domestic violence. Today, the term has negative connotations, although it has been traditionally accepted in many cultures that the husband, as head of the household in a patriarchy, had authority over his wife and this included the right of chastisement.
The term "wife beating" does not say anything about what body part is beaten, and how. So it can refer to anything from a punch with a fist to a chastisement with a stick, cane, or other implement. If the beating is a spanking, it is a special case of nonconsensual domestic spanking in which the spanker is the husband and the spankee is the wife. It is not to be confused with domestic discipline, sensual or erotic spanking, which are consensual.
In very few legal systems the non-excessive, appropriate, non-abusive, corporal punishment of wives is explicitly permitted. Even within consenting BDSM or domestic discipline relationships, excessive punishment is frequently treated as a statutory assault. Many juristictions and countries have avoided the issue of domestic violence on the grounds it is a private matter and usually unsolvable by outside interference - this should not be mistaken for wife beating being a legal act. There are countries however, many of which are Islamic by culture, in which non-excessive wife beating is socially accepted and legal to the present day.
The phrase "rule of thumb", is incorrectly attributed to an opinion rendered in 1782 by English Judge Francis Buller that a man had a right to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no thicker than his thumb. It has also been asserted that this "rule of thumb" was inherited into American common law. Judge Buller's statement was at the time criticised as incorrect. Blakestone's 1765 Commentaries on the Laws of England notes that wife-beating was actually prohibited under English law, although some courts generally exercised leniency in allowing husbands to apply "moderate correction" to their wives within "reasonable bounds." Again, this was not due to the legality of the act, merely the choice of the judiciary not to intervene.
There is a frequently disputed line in the Qur'an that permits or encourages wife beating, depending on the interpretation.
Spanking vs violence
An interesting differenciation between socially unacceptable wife-beating (which was seen as violence) vs. acceptable spanking (smacking) of women (which was not) in the mid-20th century is discussed in Spanking in comics 1938-1970, section "Social Barometers". Spanking, then, was seen as something completely different from "beating". A similar distinction is found in the term "hitting".
- Word myths: debunking linguistic urban legends by David Wilton (2004)