Assuming the missionary position … again.

June 17, 2005

Dear Cecil:

In the column in your online archive about why the missionary position is called that [The Straight Dope, Why is the "missionary position" called that? August 21, 1992] you repeat the myth that the term missionary position was coined by unidentified natives as a reaction to shocked missionaries' proselytization against unorthodox sexual positions. To your credit, you mention that there is no hard evidence supporting this assertion. However, Robert J. Priest (yes, the coincidence is amusing) in his article "Missionary Positions: Christian, Modernist, Post-Modernist" (Current Anthropology, February 2001) carefully picks this story apart. [Lengthy explanation omitted because I'm about to go through it below. --C.A.] Priest even cites the Straight Dope as one of the many sources perpetuating the missionary position story. Anyway, this is my contribution to the fighting of ignorance.

Now, Zoinks. I didn't just "repeat the myth." I told the story, then remarked, "That's the legend, at least. It may not be true." As it turns out, my caution was amply justified. Thanks to you and Robert Priest, we now appear to have the full story on missionary position.

Although European and Euro-descended Christian missionaries have been propagating the faith in far corners of the world for cent uries, the phrase missionary position, meaning the partners-facing/man-on-top posture for heterosexual intercourse, was at one point thought to have first surfaced only in the late 1960s. This timing suggested to a lot of people, me included, that the standard explanation of the phrase's provenance in terms of actual prissy missionaries was dubious. I speculated that the phrase was the work of 60s rads poking fun at uptight religious types.

That guess wasn't entirely off the mark but omitted a key connection, which Priest has now supplied. He unearthed what he believes to be the missionary position urtext, namely the following quote from Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948): "It will be recalled that [anthropologist Bronislaw] Malinowski ([The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia,] 1929) records the nearly universal use of a totally different [sexual] position among the Trobrianders in the Southwestern Pacific; and that he notes that caricatures of the English-American position are performed around the communal campfires, to the great amusement of the natives who refer to the position as the 'missionary position.'"

According to Priest, however, Malinowski's book says nothing about the missionary position as we now understand the term. What it does say at widely separated points is that (a) Trobrianders play ribald games at gatherings during the full moon; (b) islanders who work for whites sometimes mimic the inept (in their estimation) copulatory flailings of their employers; and (c) some Trobrianders object to public displays of affection between lovers, which they term misinari si bubunela, "missionary fashion," viewing such things as an immoral Christian import. Furthermore, Kinsey in his book claims that the Christian church once considered non-MP sex sinful. Priest conjectures that Kinsey conflated these disparate elements to come up with the missionary position tale, apparently never bothering to compare his faulty recollection against Malinowski's words.

Priest, a divinity school professor, believes that from there missionary position gradually took hold as a way of marginalizing the Christian take on things, but he suggests that Kinsey, whatever his motives, made an honest mistake. Others take a less charitable view of the sex-research pioneer's approach to the facts. E. Michael Jones's Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior (1993), which Priest cites in passing, blames Kinsey for the discredited (by me among others) legend that the Vatican has the world's largest pornography collection. Evidently having called some of the same people I did, Jones records the usual denials that the Vatican has a pornography collection, and traces belief to the contrary to Kinsey, who used to get laughs in lectures by claiming that the trove of smut he'd amassed for his research was second only to, or in fact larger than, the pile of porn possessed by the Holy See. Kinsey's basis for such statements: A casual remark by a visitor who'd been to Rome and on seeing Kinsey's collection commented (I presume in jest) that it was almost as large as the Vatican's.

Jones remarks sternly that Kinsey "seems to have made no effort to contact the Vatican" and that "there is every reason to believe that he continued to make the statement even knowing that it was false." Having occasionally been tempted to embellish a tale to get a rise out of an audience, I can't be too harsh on the old voyeur, who whatever his defects materially advanced our understanding of sex. Just the same, I'm happy now to help set the record straight.

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