one of the first sexual urban myths is that Christian moralists invented “the missionary position.” Did they? The legend is founded in fact. During the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, missionaries heading for Africa and the lush South Pacific Islands did indeed promote this position as an alternative to the “unnatural” mating customs of “savages.” They took their direction from St. Paul, who cautioned women to keep quiet in church and be submissive to their husbands. “Submissive” obviously meant male-prone-above, immobilized-female- flat-on-her-back a way to keep seductive, sexually powerful women under the control of men. Missionaries also extrapolated that because Adam was created before Eve, and Eve was created subject to Adam, a female should never be above a male.
The problem with these arguments, of course, is that early Christian moralists, including St. Paul, were so clearly uncomfortable with sex, even in marriage, that the best they could do was denounce sex and women in general terms. Being celibate monks, they could hardly have attempted to advise the faithful on the intricate details of coital positions and they certainly never encountered any literature like the Kama Sutra or Chinese pillow books written years before Jesus.
The whole truth is, the male-above-prone-female position was popular for centuries before the Renaissance. Evidence from ancient pottery and art in the Fertile Crescent (a.k.a. the legendary land of Eden), also makes it unfair to credit Christian missionaries with being the first and only advocates of the male-above position. Three thousand years before Christianity, the two most popular positions were woman-on-top and rear entry; artisans also occasionally showed the male-above position. Through art, we know that Early Greeks, Romans, Peruvians, Indians, Chinese and Japanese enjoyed male-above-female sex because it reinforced their social position of power and control.
Although the ancient Chinese enjoyed sex in many positions, they preferred man- on-top because, according to lore, males were born face down and women were born face up. The Kagaba natives in Colombia also preferred male-above sex, because 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. Likewise, some tribes in Kerala, India, still believe that only this position allows the conception of warriors. And half a century ago, in 1948, seventy percent of American men told Alfred Kinsey and his team of researchers that the only position they’d ever tried was the so-called missionary.
But many societies beg to differ. The Bororo Indians of Brazil think it’s insulting for either partner to be above the other when mating, while residents of Bali find man-on-top to be impractical and clumsy. They prefer the Oceanic position, in which the man crouches between the woman’s thighs as she lies on her back, legs bent, ankles or calves on her partner’s shoulders. In this position, the woman could kick the man off her if his foreplay doesn’t turn her on. In Peru, the Cashinahua people also prefer the Oceanic variation, except when they have sex in a forest stream to avoid insect bites. To keep things steady in this situation, man-on-top is first choice.
If anyone should be given credit for the popularity of the missionary position, historians agree it should be Artemidos, a second century Greek philosopher and interpreter of dreams, who declared this position “the only proper and natural” one, because it affirmed the domination of men over women. When Greco-Roman Stoics picked up on this, male-above-female sex moved to the top of the chart. Natives of Tuscany even declared ventral-ventral sex la posizione angelica, the angelic position.
According to anthropologists who study mating practices, there seems to be only one society that relies exclusively on the missionary position with absolutely no foreplay. This is a small, isolated rural Irish community which anthropologists call the Inis Baeg. Although it’s a Celtic society, and therefore technically pre-Christian, they were colonized by Catholic missionaries, so it’s therefore unknown from which culture they learned their preference.
There is a biological argument in favor of the missionary position, too: male-above sex promotes fertility by keeping the opening of the vagina higher than the seminal pool, which, in turn, helps sperm get into the womb and find the egg. And although it is tempting to argue that only humans could have invented such an intimate coital embrace, the male and female bonobo-dwarf chimpanzees of Zaire have regularly enjoyed the relaxing delights of male-above sex for eons. Female bonobos even enjoy face-to-face “genital rubbing.” But that is another story. n°