Why is the "missionary position" called that?
In the above column, Cecil repeats the myth that the term "missionary position" was coined by unidentified natives as a reaction to shocked missionaries' proselytization against unorthodox sexual positions. To his credit, Cecil mentions that there is no hard evidence supporting this assertion.
However, Robert J. Priest (yes, yes, the coincidence is rather amusing) in his article "Missionary Positions: Christian, Modernist, Post-Modernist" (Current Anthropology vol. 42 no. 1, Feb 2001), carefully picks this story apart. I'm not sure how much academic fair use rules allows me to post, but here is the abstract (it shouldn't be too hard to get a copy of the article):
In the late 1960s and early 1970s “the missionary position” became widespread as a technical expression for face-to-face man-on-top sexual intercourse. It was accompanied by standard (and undocumented) stories as to the origin of the expression, stories featuring missionaries and either Polynesians, Africans, Chinese, Native Americans, or Melanesians. By the late 1980s and 1990s the expression had become a core symbol in modernist and postmodernist moral discourses. This paper examines accounts of the origin of the expression, provides evidence that it originated in Kinsey’s (mis)reading of Malinowski, analyzes the symbolic elements of the missionary-position narrative as synthesizing modernist objections to Christian morality, analyzes the “missionary position” in postmodernist narratives as synthesizing postmodernist objections to modernist morality, and explores some of the functions of this myth within the academy.
Briefly, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski conducted fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands during World War I and wrote an ethnography, The Sexual Lives of Savages in North-Western Melanesia
(1929). The book describes many things, including sexuality among Trobrianders. Much later, Alfred Kinsey, the researcher of sexual behaviour (and subject of a recent movie) wrote his famous book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
(1948), along with Pomeroy and Martin. In it, Kinsey writes about the American preference for face-to-face man-on-top woman-below intercourse and says,
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.' (p. 373)
No such account appears in Malinowski's book, and the story is apparently a garbled misremembrance of Kinsey's. Trobrianders do mock the missionary position (Malinowski 338), but Malinowski makes it clear that it is said to have been learned from "white traders, planters, or officials" (p. 338). Kinsey probably remembered medieval Catholic teachings prescribing the man-on-top thing and connected it to the Trobriander mockery by filling in the blanks in the story with Christian missionaries. Malinowski does mention a practice introduced by missionaries which Trobrianders found rather curious, but he was speaking of holding hands in what the Trobrianders call misinari si bubunela
, or "the missionary fashion".
Priest mentions that,
Kinsey only reports a story; it is not until the late 1960s that writers begin to use the expression for this position in intercourse. Some of them clearly cite the story in a form (with references to Malinowski) that can only have come from Kinsey (Graves and Patai 1963; Gotwald and Golden 1981:339; Camphausen 1991;Westheimer 1995). Many had doubtless tried without success to document Kinsey’s reference and, rather than cite a clearly faulty source, decided to cite no source at all. Despite extensive efforts, lexicographers and sexologists have turned up no usage of this expression prior to Kinsey. (Priest 30)
Priest even cites the Straight Dope as one of the many sources perpetuating the missionary position story. The next part of the article is taken up with why this urban legend should have become so popular (Priest's main argument is that it serves as a symbol of Christian/religious ridiculousness and zealotry and that critics of such will use whatever they can in their attacks, including garbled and made up evidence).
The rest of the article is a philosophical discussion of the place of missionaries, religion, and Christianity in anthropology, the social sciences, and the modern academy. It's mostly interesting only to those of us who like to discuss post-modernism and moral discourses.
Anwyay, this is my contribution to the fighting of ignorance.