A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why is the "missionary position" called that?

August 21, 1992

Editor's note: Please see the update Assuming the missionary position … again.

Dear Cecil:

Can you tell me why the missionary position is called the missionary position? If the woman gets on top, is that the heathen position? Is there a difference between the Lutheran missionary position, the Methodist missionary position, and for that matter the Zoroastrian missionary position?

Cecil replies:

Victor, you're so juvenile. Learn to be serious, like me. The legend behind "missionary position" is this: Early European missionaries discovered that native peoples, while going about the business of propagating the species, often used unorthodox positions — positions that people today spends thousands of dollars on Kama-Sutra sex therapy to learn. (OK, I exaggerate: the alternative position usually mentioned in this connection is the so-called dorsal or dog-style position, in which the man approaches from the rear.)

Shocked, the missionaries declared that only the couple-facing/man-on-top position was acceptable before the Lord. How the missionaries became apprised of what position the natives were using I don't know, but I suppose if it becomes apparent that everybody else in the village is having a lot more fun than you are, you make it your business to find out why.

That's the legend, at least. It may not be true. The earliest citation for "missionary position" in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1969, and the Random House unabridged says the term first showed up circa 1965-70. In other words, it may have been invented by 60s hipsters who looked down upon the uncool Presbyterian proselytizers of an earlier age. In any case the missionary position was not some Anglo invention; surveys suggest it is, and no doubt always has been, a common sexual position in most of the world.

Come-on lines for the '90s

Dear Cecil:

Having read the straight dope on the missionary position (what about the emissionary position, Cecil?), I thought the Teeming Millions would like to know that a more elegant word for the dorsal position exists, and that a gentleman desiring to initiate intercourse with his lady pal need not embarrass them both by saying, "Let's do it doggy-style, Babs." Instead he can purr (with foreplayful huskiness), "Barbara, my dove, let us retrocopulate." No question about it, there are amazing delights to be discovered in a good unabridged dictionary.

Cecil replies:

Thanks, Dave. I bet you're a riot on dates.

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