If the missionary position was a person, it would probably resemble Billy Graham: the patron saint of boring, frigid straight white people with a particular way of thinking about gender, intimacy, and relationships.
By
Kali Myers

6 Jun 2017 - 1:37 PM  UPDATED 6 Jun 2017 - 1:37 PM

When US Vice-President Mike Pence, as Governor of Indiana, tried to introduce a Religious Freedom law that would extend businesses the right to discriminate against LGBT+ people and deny queer people the right to engage in oral sex, one worker responded that Pence “want[ed] to criminalise everything other than the missionary position.” But why is the missionary position associated with boring sex and an unforgiving, so-called Christian morality obsessed with the denial of pleasure and the policing of sexual norms?

When you think about it, this is odd. It’s odd that the missionary position is considered inherently more boring or morally righteous than, say, doggy-style – it is, after all, still sex. You still have the same chance of getting (or not getting) off. It’s also weird that it carries overtones of masculine dominance and Christian propriety. Sure, it’s man on top, but it’s not like cowgirl heralded the undoing of the patriarchy. Okay, so it’s called missionary position – but which came first; the name or the association?

As it turns out, that’s not an easy question to answer.

The term ‘missionary position’ is first recorded in 1929 in Bronisław Malinowski’s odiously-named The Sexual Life of Savages, in which he suggests that the indigenous peoples of the Trobriand Islands “despise the European position”  and that they think of it – ironically – as impractical and improper.

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Misconstruing Malinowski’s point and conflating it with separate later descriptions of festivals and of the Trobrianders’ mimicry of their (to use Malinowski’s terminology) ‘employees’, superstar sexologist Alfred Kinsey claimed in his 1948 Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male that Malinowski’s sources showed evidence that “caricatures of the English-American position are performed around the communal campfires, to the great amusement of the natives”. Kinsey broke the first rule of interpretation and didn’t question his sources, even though the idea of a group of people gathering to joke about others’ sex lives seems a little far-fetched. Or at least it does until you type certain politicians’ names and the term “missionary position” into the Twitter search function and see its contemporary rendering.

Nevertheless, while Kinsey thought he was citing an old usage of a phrase, he invented a new one. When he printed the claim that it was the Indigenous peoples of Africa and Polynesia who mockingly named it the ‘missionary position’, this was the story that became imprinted in many people’s minds. Kinsey spread his ideas far and wide, travelling the world on speaking tours, appearing on radio and TV. This is the story many people still associate with the missionary position. It has long enforced and perpetuated the myth that indigenous peoples had copious amounts of wanton contortionist sex pretty much anywhere they liked before the Christian zealots came along and introduced their morality. It also erased all earlier references to man-on-top-of-woman penetrative sex.

This includes a variety of other names by which the position was previously known in Europe and the US, such as the ewww-inducing triad: ‘matrimonial’, the ‘male superior position’, and the ‘mama-papa position’ (a nod to man-on-top’s historical associations with reproductive success). But this also includes classical references to the position. From depictions on Greek vases, to the “manner of the serpents” in some Arabic cultures, to Shakespeare’s “beast with two backs”, and even in Gorilla groups of the Congo, the so-called ‘missionary’ position has a long and varied history.

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What this shows is that the man-on-top position need not be directly nor even tangentially associated with the Christian morality that Kinsey brought into the frame when he named it. In fact, it need not even refer to a cis-het couple: the requirements being penetrative sex with one partner lying full-body on top of the other. Missionary need not be undertaken with one man and one woman, and it doesn’t even necessarily call for one penis and one vagina.

Possibly, this is why people who don’t mind having sex in the missionary position have had to rename and reinterpret it to make it a sexy part of their repertoire. Updates and interpretations include the ‘Viennese Oyster’ where the person on the bottom puts their legs over their head, the ‘Butterfly Position’ where the top stands and the bottom lies on the edge of a bed/ledge (and, one assumes, flaps seductively with each thrust), ‘Frotting’ (where the appendage of the top goes between the thighs of the bottom), and ‘missionary anal’.

This brings us to the missionary position’s other major association. Although it’s often thought of as boring and unimaginative, another competing association of the missionary position is as the position of romance. Face-to-face allows for easy eye contact, kissing, and full-body contact. It’s considered intimate. And it’s this intimacy that makes it a position not just for boring straight couples, but for anyone who enjoys a full-body lie on top of a partner.

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It might shock religious moralists to find that even if they did criminalise everything but the missionary position, it wouldn’t stop queer couples having sex. But it is curious that despite its continued ubiquity we still think of missionary as the purview of those moralists.

While penetration by one partner lying on top of the other is not inherently boring, patriarchal, colonial, nor normatively moral, the associations that float around the terminology and the history of the missionary position make it so. It is the sex associated with the literal and figurative reproduction of the heteronormative subject. That these norms continue to exert such a strong force today means that the missionary position continues to embody these culturally dominant associations, despite both its derision and its ostensible ubiquity.

The missionary position is a bit like sex in the Church: plenty of people are doing it, but no one’s really talking about it. It just goes to show the power a naming can have.

Perhaps the missionary position, and its associated baggage, has become the purview of the religious moralists. So if you’ve got a strap-on and a hankering to try a Viennese Oyster rendering of anal, you’ll probably have to call it ‘Reaching for the Heavens’.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @pickwickian36.