Missionary position  

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This page Missionary position is part of the human sexuality seriesIllustration: Fashionable Contrasts (1792) by James Gillray.
This page Missionary position is part of the human sexuality series
Illustration: Fashionable Contrasts (1792) by James Gillray.

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A position for sexual intercourse in which the man and woman face each other, with the man on top.


The missionary position has been used at least for millennia if not longer since it is also used by the great apes as well as other primates. Robert Francoeur notes that evidence of the missionary position's use appears in ancient pottery and art in the Fertile Crescent as well as in the art of Early Greeks, Romans, Peruvians, Indians, Chinese and Japanese. The majority of the positions described in the Kama Sutra involve the woman lying on her back with her legs in a variety of positions. According to Canongate, ancient art shows missionary as being less popular than woman-on-top positions in Ur, Greece, Rome, Peru, India, China and Japan. But Francoeur states that the ancient Chinese preferred male-on-top because of their belief that males are born face down and women face up. Kagaba natives in Colombia preferred missionary because of the stability it offers; they believed that if the woman moved during intercourse, the earth would slip off the shoulders of the four giants who held it up above the waters. Some Kerala tribes believe that the male-on-top position is the only way to conceive warriors.

In Greece, the missionary position was originally an unpopular position. Beds existed, yet not as we know them today, and men married girls 14 or 15 years of age, which created a height differential. These factors made the rear-entry standing position more convenient. However, circa the second century, Artemidos popularized the missionary position among Greco-Roman Stoics, declaring it "the only proper and natural" position due to the flow of semen.

Although the Bible does not mention sexual positions, from the 6th to 16th centuries, Church authorities taught that intercourse should be face-to-face, man-on-top, primarily because they believed that semen flows with gravity, leading to conception. Exceptions were made for couples dealing with illness, obesity, or pregnancy. The medieval Catholic Church observed that animals copulated in the dorso-ventral ("doggy style") position, and concluded that it was unnatural to humans. According to John Bancroft's Human Sexuality and Its Problems, Thomas Aquinas believed that crimes against nature included intercourse in "unnatural" positions, with the missionary position being considered the only natural one. Benjamin Shepard wrote: "for Aquinas, any sexual act other than missionary position intercourse – man on top of woman – was assumed to be a sin of irrational gratification, of lust." Protestants did not communicate proper sex positions, and the Catholic Church eventually abandoned its discourse on the topic. Simon Hardy wrote that the missionary position was used to distinguish "bestial and civilized sex."

Others who held that missionary was the only permitted position included Alexander of Hales and the author of De secretis mulierum, who suggested that nonstandard positions might result in birth defects. Ruth Mazo Karras states that William Peraldus' treatise [Summa de virtutibus et vitiis] distinguished between sins against nature that were "according to the substance" (intercourse other than vaginal) and "according to the manner, as when a woman mounts." Nicholas Venette's 1770s-era sex manual praised the missionary position as the "common posture...which is most allowable and most voluptuous." Numerous sources have reported that in the United States, some states had outlawed positions other than missionary between husband and wife, or will grant a divorce to a woman whose husband makes love to her in another position. While many states formerly outlawed oral sex, anal sex, buggery, or other "unnatural" acts, no US law has banned dorso-ventral heterosexual sex, or specified which partner needed to be on top.


Before the release of Alfred Kinsey's work, the missionary position was known by several names, including "the matrimonial", "the Mama-Papa position", "the English-American position", and "the male superior position". In 1948, Kinsey published the male volume of the Kinsey Reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. He described the American preference for the position and called it "the English-American position." Discussing Malinowski's The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Wester Melanesia, Kinsey wrote, "It will be recalled that Malinowski (1929) records the nearly universal use of a totally different position among the Trobrianders ... [and] ... that caricatures of the English-American position are performed around ... campfires, to the great amusement of the natives who refer to the position as the 'missionary position.'" To date, lexicographers and sexologists have not found use of the term "missionary position" prior to Kinsey.

In 2001, Robert Priest examined the origins of the term and concluded that Kinsey had confused several factors in accidentally coining the term. First, according to Malinowski, Trobrianders played and sang mocking songs under the full moon, and not around a campfire. In Sexual Behaviors, Kinsey wrote that the Trobrianders mocked face-to-face man-on-top woman-below intercourse, but does not give context. He mentioned the position was learned from "white traders, planters, or officials", but does not discuss missionaries. Kinsey also recalled that the medieval Catholic Church taught the position, and upon seeing the natives mocking it, assumed that missionaries had taught it to them. Finally, Malinowski wrote that he saw an engaged Trobriand couple holding hands and leaning against each other, which the natives described as misinari si bubunela — the "missionary fashion." Upon accidentally combining these similar facts, Kinsey invented a new phrase despite believing that he was reporting an old one.

From then on, the story of the name's "origin" was retold until it became largely accepted, and its connection to Kinsey and Malinowski faded. Writers began using the expression for intercourse in the late 1960s, and as Alex Comfort's bestseller The Joy of Sex (1972) and the Oxford English Dictionary (1976) spread the term "missionary position", it gradually replaced older names.

See also

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