Missionary positions: Christian, modernist, postmodernist

Curr Anthropol. 2001 Feb;42(1):29-68.


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.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology / history*
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Missionaries
  • Morals*
  • Religious Missions / history*
  • Sexual Behavior / history*