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The missionary position

The missionary position is a man-on-top sex position in which the woman lies on her back and the partners face each other.[1]

Variations of the position allow varying degrees of vaginal tightness, clitoral stimulation, depth of penetration, participation on the part of the woman, and likelihood and speed of orgasm. These variations may involve the woman closing her legs with the man spreading his while penetrating, for better clitoral stimulation, also referred to as the Starfish position , along with the woman resting her feet on the bed, lifting them up high into the air, or wrapping them around her partner; or placing one or more pillows under her buttocks.

It appears in ancient artwork of the Romans, Peruvians, Indians, Chinese and Japanese.

A common myth states that the term "missionary position" arose in response to Christian missionaries, who taught that the position was the only proper way to engage in sexual intercourse. This explanation probably originated from Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male through a confluence of misunderstandings and misinterpretations of historical documents.[2][3] Tuscans refer to the position as "The Angelic Position" while some Arabic-speaking groups call it "the manner of serpents."[4]

The missionary position is often preferred by couples who enjoy its romantic qualities afforded by copious skin-to-skin contact and opportunities to look into each other's eyes and kiss and caress each other. The position is also believed to be a good position for procreation.[5][6] In heterosexual sex, missionary allows the man to take charge of the rhythm and depth of thrusting, and some couples enjoy the feeling of the man "taking" the woman while she relaxes. Some couples are put off by the assumption that the missionary position is "standard," or that women want to be "taken." It is also possible for her to thrust against him by moving her hips or pushing her feet against the bed, or squeeze him closer with her arms or legs. The missionary position is less suitable for late stages of pregnancy, or when it is desired for the woman to play a more dominant role.



Ancient Greek pottery art

The missionary position has been used at least for millennia if not longer since it is also used by the great apes[7][8] as well as other primates.[9] Robert Francoeur notes that evidence of the missionary position's use appears in ancient pottery and art in the Fertile Crescent as well as in the art of Early Greeks, Romans, Peruvians, Indians, Chinese and Japanese.[10] The majority of the positions described in the Kama Sutra involve the woman lying on her back with her legs in a variety of positions.[11] According to Canongate, ancient art shows missionary as being less popular than woman-on-top positions in Ur, Greece, Rome, Peru, India, China and Japan.[12] But Francoeur states that the ancient Chinese preferred male-on-top because of their belief that males are born face down and women face up. Kagaba natives in Colombia preferred missionary because of the stability it offers; 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.[10] Some Kerala tribes believe that the male-on-top position is the only way to conceive warriors.[10]

In Greece, the missionary position was originally an unpopular position. Beds existed, yet not as we know them today, and men would marry girls 14 or 15 old, which created a height differential. These factors made the rear-entry standing position more convenient.[13] However, circa the second century, Artemidos popularized the missionary position among Greco-Roman Stoics, declaring it "the only proper and natural" position due to the flow of semen.

Although the Bible does not mention sexual positions, from the 6th to 16th centuries, Church authorities taught that intercourse should be face-to-face, man-on-top, primarily because they believed that semen flows with gravity, leading to conception.[14] Exceptions were made for couples dealing with illness, obesity, or pregnancy. The medieval Catholic Church observed that animals copulated in the ventro-dorsal ("doggy style") position, and concluded that it was unnatural to humans. According to John Bancroft's Human Sexuality and Its Problems, Thomas Aquinas believed that crimes against nature included intercourse in "unnatural" positions, with the missionary position being considered the only natural one.[15] Benjamin Shepard wrote: "for Aquinas, any sexual act other than missionary position intercourse – man on top of woman – was assumed to be a sin of irrational gratification, of lust."[16] Protestants did not communicate proper sex positions, and the Catholic Church eventually abandoned its discourse on the topic.[17] Simon Hardy wrote that the missionary position was used to distinguish "bestial and civilized sex."[18]

Others who held that missionary was the only permitted position included Alexander of Hales and the author of De secretis mulierum, who suggested that nonstandard positions might result in birth defects.[19] Ruth Mazo Karras states that William Peraldus' treatise Summa de virtutibus et vitiis distinguished between sins against nature that were "according to the substance" (intercourse other than vaginal) and "according to the manner, as when a woman mounts."[20] Nicholas Venette's 1770s-era sex manual praised the missionary position as the "common posture...which is most allowable and most voluptuous."[21] Numerous sources have reported that in the United States, some states had outlawed positions other than missionary between husband and wife, or will grant a divorce to a woman whose husband makes love to her in another position. While many states formerly outlawed oral sex, anal sex, buggery, or other "unnatural" acts, no US law has banned ventro-dorsal heterosexual sex, or specified which partner needed to be on top.[22]


Before the release of Alfred Kinsey's work, the missionary position was known by several names, including "the matrimonial", "the Mama-Papa position", "the English-American position", and "the male superior position".[23] In 1948, Kinsey published the male volume of the Kinsey Reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. He described the American preference for the position and called it "the English-American position." Discussing Malinowski's The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Wester Melanesia, Kinsey wrote, "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.'"[23] To date, lexicographers and sexologists have not found use of the term "missionary position" prior to Kinsey.[24]

In 2001, Robert Priest examined the origins of the term and concluded that Kinsey had confused several factors in accidentally coining the term.[23] First, according to Malinowski, Trobrianders played and sang mocking songs under the full moon, and not around a campfire. In Sexual Behaviors, Kinsey wrote that the Trobrianders mocked face-to-face man-on-top woman-below intercourse, but does not give context. He mentioned the position was learned from "white traders, planters, or officials", but does not discuss missionaries. Kinsey also recalled that the medieval Catholic Church taught the position, and upon seeing the natives mocking it, assumed that missionaries had taught it to them. Finally, Malinowski wrote that he saw an engaged Trobriand couple holding hands and leaning against each other, which the natives described as misinari si bubunela — the "missionary fashion." Upon accidentally combining these similar facts, Kinsey invented a new phrase despite believing that he was reporting an old one.[23]

From then on, the story of the name's "origin" was retold until it became largely accepted, and its connection to Kinsey and Malinowski faded. Writers began using the expression for intercourse in the late 1960s, and as Alex Comfort's bestseller The Joy of Sex (1972) and the Oxford English Dictionary (1976) spread the term "missionary position", it gradually replaced older names.[25] By the 1990s, it had spread to other languages: Missionarsstellung (German), postura del misionero (Spanish), missionarishouding (Dutch) and position du missionaire (French).[26]

Basic position

During intercourse in the missionary position, the woman lies on her back, with her legs either spread flat, drawn up toward the chest, or wrapped around the penetrating partner. The woman can wrap one or both of her legs around the man at various heights: at the back of his legs, at the buttocks or back, or over his shoulders. Generally, the higher the woman lifts her legs, the deeper the penetration. The man lies on his belly on top of the woman, with his legs between the receiving partner's legs, and his penis at the same level as the woman's vagina to facilitate penetration. Pillows (especially firm ones) are commonly used in the missionary position.[27] A wedge- or ramp-shaped pillow can relieve pressure on the top person's hands and arms,[28] and strategic placement can manipulate the depth and angle of penetration. Placing a pillow under the woman's buttocks can lift her pelvis — a Playboy article suggested placing it under her hips to increase pressure on the clitoris,[29] and Men's Health recommended placing it under the small of her back;[30] each of these methods grants deeper penetration. Raising the clitoris generally allows easier access to it in this position. Using a pillow can also help the woman arch her back and avoid backache.[31]

Some couples take advantage of the position's plentiful skin-to-skin contact, in order to achieve a "slip and slide effect" by smearing a small amount of lubricant on one of the partner's stomach and chest. Lubricant can also be used on the penis to reduce friction and stimulation, slowing the man's orgasm. Women are less likely to be affected by lubrication as their orgasm is caused mostly by indirect stimulation.[32]


Legs up

This type of legs up missionary, called "the anvil", allows the deepest possible penetration.

"Legs up" variants involve the woman raising her legs. These were exceptionally popular in Ancient Greece and were commonly depicted on Attic pottery of the Classical Period.[33] The conspiring women in Aristophanes' Lysistrata likely refer to it when they take an oath "not to lift high their Persian slippers" (οὐ πρὸς τὸν ὄροφον ἀνατενῶ τὼ Περσικά ou pros ton orophon anateuō tō Persika).[34]

In one variant, the woman may lift and slightly bend her legs, resting her feet flat on the mattress. This shortens the distance between the vagina and cervix, and it can place more friction on the G-spot.[citation needed] The woman may find this more comfortable than the standard position,[35] and it can allow her to push against the man's thrust, giving her some control over the rhythm.[36]

Putting the woman's legs on or over the man's shoulders provides the deepest possible penetration. This variant is sometimes called "the anvil".[37] This position aims the head of the penis at the posterior fornix. When the legs are held mid-level in this way, the penis can achieve great depth while stimulating the G-spot and achieving more friction on the top of its shaft.[citation needed] Former call girl and madam Xaviera Hollander believes one disadvantage to legs high positions such as the anvil is that there is minimal clitoral contact; moreover, a woman may have trouble reaching orgasm in these positions because she feels ridiculous.[38] The penetration may also cause the penis to hit the cervix, which can cause discomfort if too much pressure is applied,[39] or pleasure if the penis grazes the cervix.[40]

Riding high

In the riding high missionary variant, the man enters the woman in the normal fashion but then shifts his body up and forward toward her head. He then rocks back and forth, stimulating her clitoris with his pubic bone, or base of his penis. This results in more consistent clitoral stimulation at the cost of a man's deep thrusting; accordingly, some men prefer to use it during only part of sex.[41]

Perceived advantages and disadvantages


There are many appealing psychological aspects of the missionary position. It is often regarded as a romantic position because the man and woman face each other and may maintain eye contact; there is potentially a greater amount of skin-to-skin contact than in any other position; and the couple can hold each other in their arms, which can easily segue into cuddling when sex is over. Partners may engage in other intimate contact, such as kissing, or guiding each other's hips with their hands.[42][43][44] The position also allows partners to engage all of their senses at once.[38]

Some women enjoy the feeling of total submission or being trapped.[45] Once in the missionary position, it is nearly impossible for a woman to escape sex; women who enjoy being passive and carrying the man's weight may find the missionary position the most rewarding.[46] Some women find it appealing knowing that the man has control of the rhythm and depth of his thrusts. They may find it easier to reach orgasm because they do not have to focus on what they are doing.[47] The missionary position may also be ideal for women who want to be "taken" by the man and want to feel overpowered.[48] In contrast, feminist Germaine Greer writes that any sex act where a heavier partner makes the lighter one take on their weight is "sadistic".[49]


According to Hollander, thrusting alone is typically insufficient to bring a woman to orgasm; "What does bring her to climax is having a nice stiff penis in there, plus weight, pressure, and friction on her entire genital area (especially that lively little she-devil, the clitoris), as well as on her thighs and stomach. It’s the way a man presses down on her, puts his weight on her, and rubs her with his body that makes her have an orgasm."[38]

The missionary position is commonly chosen for the first time a couple has sex. Thomas Stuttaford notes that it may be more comfortable to do so: "The discomfort of early penetrative sex, if there is any, is usually related to tension in the pelvic or thigh muscles and/or anxiety that has prevented the usual vaginal lubrication. Muscles of the pelvic floor are more relaxed if, initially, the missionary position is chosen and a couple of pillows are arranged under the woman’s bottom so her hips are tilted upwards."[50] The simplicity of the position makes it well-suited to the inexperienced.[51] The Lovers Guide states that missionary lends itself well to sex with a new partner as it is "a romantic yet fairly unadventurous sex position" that is "non-threatening and loving" and "lays neither partner open to strangeness, anxiety and unfamiliarity."[48]

On the other hand, Sacha Tarkovsky warns women against using the missionary position when giving a man her virginity, as "You are not in control, and it will be more painful and you cannot do anything but lay there and take it. "She recommends positions such as woman on top that allow the woman to control the speed and pressure at which she loses her hymen.[52] However, it may not be necessary to completely forgo missionary the first time; Alphonso Sirtle suggests starting with woman on top until the hymen is torn, and then possibly switching to missionary or whatever other position is preferred.[53]

The missionary position allows easy entry into the vagina. The man can use force and gravity to help himself in,[54] and the position allows the woman to relax her vaginal muscles and help her partner guide his penis gently in with her hand.[55] Suzi Godson notes, "In an observational study carried out in The Netherlands, magnetic resonance imaging was used to study the male and female genitals during coitus. The images illustrate the very natural fit of the male and female genitals in [the missionary] position. The penis has the shape of a boomerang – one third of its length consists of the root of the penis – and the vaginal walls wrap snugly around it."[50][56]

According to Sexual Health Resource, "The man-on-top sex positions are very good for couples who are trying to have a baby, because penetration can be very deep. If the woman holds on to her legs behind her knees and draws her thighs right back, sperm can be deposited deep in the vagina – at the neck of the womb. This provided the best chance of conception occurring."[5] Journal-a-Day notes, "This position permits the penis to lock securely within the vagina and hence there is no waste matter of ejaculate. For adult males with short members and low sperm cell counts, this is very beneficial."[6] Getting Pregnant Tips notes the importance of not using too large a sex pillow though as it can cause the sperm to pool behind the cervix.[57] Francoeur states that "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."[10] Nonetheless, according to BabyCenter, "There's no evidence that any particular sexual position is more likely to lead to conception."[58] Donnica Moore counters this by stating that while there are no scientific studies regarding the best sexual positions for baby-making, the missionary (man on top) position is typically considered optimal for conception.[59]

Pregnancy Info points out that the missionary position may become increasingly awkward for pregnant women as their belly begins to grow.[60] The March of Dimes notes, "Positions that work before pregnancy and early in pregnancy can be uncomfortable or even unsafe at later stages of the baby’s development. For example, a woman should avoid lying flat on her back after the fourth month of pregnancy, because the weight of the growing uterus puts pressure on major blood vessels."[61] David Port states, "Beginning early in the second trimester, doctors tend to discourage pregnant women from supine exercise. And the missionary position is exactly that kind of exercise, at least if the activity lasts more than a few fleeting moments."[62]

The deep penetration and large hip thrusts of the missionary position can cause the man to reach orgasm quickly compared to other positions, which can be problematic if the couple seeks to reach simultaneous orgasm.[63] The male reaching orgasm first can be disruptive to sex, as 50% of penile erection is lost immediately after ejaculation,[64] making him more likely to inadvertently slip out of the vagina, especially during the strong pelvic contractions of female orgasm. In addition to the standard methods for treating premature ejaculation, Zachary Veilleux notes that this problem can be overcome by workarounds such as changing positions frequently (which studies have shown delays male orgasm by a factor of 2-3), using lubrication to reduce friction (friction stimulates the male but is not as important in female orgasm), or switching to cunnilingus for awhile when close to ejaculation, and then switching back when ejaculation is no longer imminent.[32]

The missionary position is sometimes derided as a plain vanilla sex position.[65] Archer notes, "To all the sex gymnasts, this kind of banal preference looks lazy, unimaginative and uninformed," but she rebuts this by pointing out the existence of variations: "Missionary is kind of like tofu: You have to add your own flavor."[66] Perhaps due to the ubiquity of this position, its typical role as the first position used by couples, its tendency to put the man in control of speed, tempo and depth, its ability to cause him to quickly reach orgasm, and the fact that it is literally a "male-superior" position with the man on top, missionary is sometimes associated with men who are dominating and uncreative and selfish about sex. According to Gina Ogden, "the cultural missionary position – man on top" is not conducive to romance since "If a relationship is based on authoritarian control, keeping one person on top and the other underneath, it gets old pretty fast – for both partners, really".[67] In Women Who Love Sex, Ogden writes, "Think what will happen to the missionary position when women, en masse, opt for pleasures that stir body and soul instead of continuing to do good-girl intercourse by the book."[68] In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, the main character ridicules the idea of women making decisions by saying that one might as well say that the woman lies on top of the man when they are making the baby.[69]

The missionary position has potential for clitoral stimulation in several ways. Christakos points out, "This position can give the woman plenty of clitoral stimulation if the man leans forward thus rubbing his pelvic bone against her clitoris."[70] Emily Queenie Chung notes, "Also, this position is the easiest for a woman to stimulate her clitoris manually."[71] Sexual Health Resource notes that also "the man can reach under and stimulate his partner using his fingers on her clitoris" although "the man has limited use of his hands" (presumably this would depend on the variant of the position used and whether the man's hands are occupied holding himself up).[5]

Sex in the missionary position, as a form of physical exercise, may be slightly more vigorous for the man than in other positions. A study conducted by Bohlen et al. found that "man-on-top coitus required more metabolic expenditure than woman-on-top coitus" and that the heart rate during man-on-top sex was higher than in self-stimulation, partner stimulation, or woman-on-top.[72] But one study showed that there was no difference in heart rate or blood pressure when comparing these two basic positions, while another showed only a minor decrease in oxygen consumption or exertion with the 'man-on-bottom' technique during orgasm.[73]


Among humans, the missionary position is the most commonly-used sex position.[6][45] In his seminal study Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), which focused on American women, researcher Alfred Kinsey stated that 91 percent of married women surveyed reported using this position most often, whereas nine percent reported using it exclusively.[74] A Journal of Sexual Medicine study entitled What Kind of Erotic Film Clips Should We Use in Female Sex Research? An Exploratory Study selected 18 film clips out of a sample of 90 that were found by the women studied to be particularly mentally appealing and visually arousing. 21% of the original 90 involved the missionary position, but 33% of the final 18 involved missionary.[75] Fewer than 10% of sexually active persons rarely or never use the missionary position.[76] According to Francoeur, the Brazilian Bororo Indians eschew missionary, finding it insulting for either partner to be above the other during sex. Balinese shun the man-on-top position in favor of the "lotus position", in which intercourse is performed while the man is sitting down and the woman is squatting on top of the man's legs while facing him, and she moves her hips up and down. The Inis Beag practice the missionary position exclusively, without foreplay.[10] In addition to humans, the missionary position is also used by certain other species including bonobos[77], gorillas[78] and armadillos.[79]


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