Monday 16 May 2011

The Position of the Missionary

I was reading an anthropological work of 1929 called The Sexual Life of Savages,when I came across this passage:

When we go on a love making expedition we light our fire; we take our lime gourd (and chew betel-nut) we take our tobacco (and smoke it). Food we do not take, we would be ashamed to do so.We walk, we arrive at a large tree, we sit down, we search each other's heads and consume the lice, we tell the woman that we want to copulate. After it is over we return to the village.

Other than the betel-nut, that is my method precisely.

You may wonder, dear savage reader, why I was reading this and the answer is that I promised you a post on the missionary position and it is from Malinowski's Sexual Life of Savages that the term ultimately derives. However, the term appears to be a Big Mistake and a calumny on poor missionaries. Here are the two relevant passages:

Above all, the natives despise the European position and consider it unpractical and improper. The natives, of course, know it because white men frequently cohabit with native women, some even being married to them. But as they say: "The man overlies heavily the woman; he presses her heavily downwards, she cannot respond (ibilampu)."

Well, each to his own, I suppose. But you may well notice that there is no mention of missionaries in this passage. Nor do they pop up anywhere nearby. I checked. The missionary fashion doesn't appear until a hundred and something pages later and it's not a sexual position. Here's the full passage:

Even courting is conducted most decorously. Scenes of frequent occurrence in an public park in Europe, after dark or even before, would never be seen in a Trobriand village. Holding hands, leaning against each other, embracing. . . are not permitted to lovers in public. I observed once or twice that Yobukwa'u and his betrothed used to lie together on a mat in broad daylight decorously leaning against each other and holding hands, in a manner which we would find perfectly natural in a pair of lovers soon to be married. But when I mentioned this in discussing the whole subject with some natives, I was told at once that it was a new fashion and not correct according to old custom. Tokolibeba, once a famous Don Juan, now a peppery old conservative and stickler for proprieties, insisted that this was misinari si bubnela, "missionary fashion", one of those novel immoralities introduced by Christianity. He spoke with as much feeling and righteous indignation as the late Rev. C.M. Hyde of Honolulu might have against heathen pruriency.

So, you have the awkward European coital posture, and the scandalous European habit of hand-holding. They're described separately and are utterly distinct. Who could possibly confuse the two?

Alfred Kinsey, that's who. In a book of 1948 he refers to The Sexual Life of Savages thusly:

Malinowski. . . notes that caricatures of the English-American position are performed around the communal campfires, to the great amusement of the natives who refer to the position as the ‘missionary position’.

No. Malinowski does not. Not in the slightest. The missionary fashion he describes is holding hands. The sexual position he describes is the European position.

By such mistakes is language formed; and those poor missionaries can only weep at the injustice of it all.

The Inky Fool's sermon went down rather well.

P.S. This post was meant to come out on Friday, but a combination of technical problems and personal faineancy have delayed it until now.


  1. That was really interesting, thanks for sharing

  2. Giulia De Dominicis16 May 2011 at 17:49

    Hi! Your blog has been nominated for our Top 100 Language Lovers 2011 competition.
    Read more here:
    Good luck!
    Giulia - On behalf of the and Lexiophiles team

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.