Does the missionary position even need defending?


Quillette is a strange site. It tries to hide its unpleasant reactionary perspective beneath a pretense of academic objectivity, but it’s like trying to pour perfume on a garbage dump — it just makes the whole thing even ickier. Usually the reek oozes through most pungently in their numerous articles promoting pseudo-scientific racism, but the latest stinker that has bubbled to the surface is an article on sex.

Titled A Modest Defence of the Missionary Position, it immediately trumpets its pointlessness. Why? Is there some political faction or avant-garde wing of the culture wars that has denounced certain sexual positions? Does anyone care, outside of religious fanaticism (one thing I don’t think Quillette favors), what postures you assume in your intimate heterosexual moments?

No.

So the author has to manufacture an anti-missionary position position held by those annoying third-wave feminists.

In the post-#MeToo, third wave feminist climate, it often feels as though, in order to be an ethical progressive women, I need to search out and identify aspects of our society that are sexist, oppressive, unfair. Much of this takes the form of critiquing tradition, which we view as largely inhibitive and repressive. Pointing out oppression, raising consciousness, is women’s strategy for getting out from under the patriarchy. “The Future is Female” signals that it’s our turn to be on top.

So of course the author gets very literal with Simone de Beauvoir: “All sex is rape”, “It is he who has the aggressive role”, etc. None of this is about the missionary position, but about control and dominance and how sex can be used as a tool of oppression. We’re going a bit far afield here, you know, from the specifics of who is concerned about what position you favor.

Then it gets ever more airy and soft-focused. Sex is wonderful and beautiful and part of our nature and an essential aspect of the relationships between human beings. OK, even if I grant that kind of greeting card optimism, what does that have to do with the missionary position?

Our erotic nature is the very foundation of human civilization, which is grounded in the bonds of affection and mutual care that result from the promptings of our sexual instincts combined with deeper emotions of love, self-giving, esteem, and friendship. If we view sex as the fulfillment of our natural instincts, then we really have no grounds to take offence at sexual harassment, or even sexual violence, since it would simply and unashamedly be the expression of male animal sexual aggression. It is rightly unthinkable to define our sexual nature as wholly instinctive. To do so would puts us at the mercy of appetite and invites brutality.

I don’t even know what point she is trying to make here, that simultaneously sexual harassment is perfectly normal as a consequence of instinctive male aggression, and that maybe we should throttle it back just a little? Throughout there’s this implicit idea of what male and female (and only those two!) natures ought to be, and a weird vibe about the beauty of heterosexuality, as long as it fits her preconceived mold. “Normal” is best, and she has a very traditional view of normal. She’s willing to nod condescendingly at people who do things differently, but ultimately the best way to “encounter our deepest selves” is to conform to social expectations, even in your most private moments.

“The ancients,” writes Camus in The Rebel, “even though they believed in destiny, believed primarily in nature, in which they participated in wholeheartedly. To rebel against nature amounted to rebelling against oneself. It is butting one’s head against a wall.” There is a kind of tragic heroism in rebellion. And a kind of deeply human beauty in it—rebellion, too, seems to be our nature. But there is also a uniquely human courage in participating in nature wholeheartedly, with abandon. The irony is that what we often consider the most boring, the most quotidian, the most comically old-fashioned, and unremarkably ordinary way to have sex with another is also the way we encounter our deepest selves because we transcend ourselves to find union with another.

Sheesh. Fine, lady, you have a preferred sexual position. Talk to your partner about it. You don’t have to convince everyone else that your favorite way of boning best reflects the transcendent nature of humanity or that it’s encoded instinctively in our psyches. There are a lot of people in the world who don’t fit your pattern, gay/lesbian/asexual people, or people with specific kinks, and they’re all part of glorious human diversity, too.

Comments

  1. Joe says

    “To rebel against nature “. What does that mean? How do you rebel against nature?

  2. chrislawson says

    Something tells me she found that Camus quote via Google, not by reading The Rebel.

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Looks to me like the position itself is not being “defended” [scare quotes yes], it is the exclusionary argument that needs defense. IE only Missionary Position, all other positions are perverse and must never be explored.
    Is what I see being such a free thinker, everything is worth exploring to investigate, to find the best for each person. What do I know, I’m just wacky.
    Thank you

  4. A. Noyd says

    Going by classical erotic art from around the world, pretty much all imaginable positions, realistic or not, count as “old-fashioned.” The missionary position is only special because it had particular moral significance attached to it.

  5. alixmo says

    Sorry, I have not read the complete original article (which one always should do, since the “devil is in the detail”), so I judge what I have read here. Knowing the general anti-feminist tendency of Quillette, I spotted several red flags. Red flags that make me think that the talk about the missionary sex position is mostly “code”, metaphor.

    The article suggests that “feminists” supposedly have a problem with the missionary position, that they see it as a symbol of submission of women to men, that “being on top” would be the “feminist” way to have sex.

    Then it continues to talk about “tradition” and “nature” (another big red flag). In circles like Quillette, Jordan Peterson etc., “nature” practically always gets misused to justify old-arse hierarchies and reactionary “unchangeable” facts.

    Here I see the same trick at work:
    With many “beautiful” words and phrases (which stylistically reminded me of a creepy sermon) and (in Sam Harris’ manner) avoiding being to outright, always leaving an “out” open – this article wants women to “rebel” against feminism and give in to seemingly “boring” “nature”.

    The missionary position is a metaphor for women’s “natural” traditional role in live, in society.

    A role that is seemingly submissive to men, but, oh, so fulfilling and beautiful. “Transcendental”. Ugh.

  6. alixmo says

    @Joe #1,

    The answer is: Women “rebel against nature” by not giving in to their “natural” (“biological, traditional”) role, by not being submissive to men.

    Context and knowing the general ideology of Quillette prove that this is the correct answer.

    “Feminism” is wrong because it “rebels against nature”. See: to be sexually “under” a man is only metaphor – women should be “beneath” men in society, hierarchy, too.

    Women can only find true fulfillment and “transcendence” by giving in to nature, by following biology and becoming a mother and respectful wife.

    Catholics make that a dogma: men and women are “complementary”, not equal. Never equal!

    (Now, someone bring me a bucket, I got to puke.)

  7. microraptor says

    Joe @1: I believe it involves eating cooked foods, wearing clothing, building complex structures that are intended to last for years to live in, crafting tools, and creating art.

  8. alixmo says

    @microraptor, #7,

    All true. Most of the “good” stuff and civilization itself can be viewed as a departure (of sorts) from nature.

    But in this case, the author is using metaphors to declare that feminism is “unnatural”. From context and general ideology of Quilette, I just see no other interpretation.

    Maybe you all here know that and I look like an idiot, stating the bloody obvious.
    I am (relatively) new here and English is my second language. I may not get all the hints and all the jokes…

  9. KG says

    Something tells me she found that Camus quote via Google, not by reading The Rebel. – chrislawson@2

    Well if so, I for one can’t blame her. Having enjoyed (in English translation) two of Camus’ novels, I tried The Rebel. Couldn’t get past page 5.

  10. d3zd3z says

    I had a hard time reading past: “It’s true that vanilla is rarely anyone’s favourite flavour, but nobody dislikes it.” Many people prefer vanilla, and I personally dislike it. The rest of the article seems filled with similar over generalizations.

  11. says

    No, the missionary position doesn’t need defending.

    Even if one wanted to write a defense for it, that would be a really short text: “Some people enjoy using the missionary position during sex. If you are one of them, feel free to use this position and have fun.” I cannot think of anything else somebody could legitimately say in defense for this particular sex position.

    That being said, I read the article in its entirety, and I believe that the title was misleading—the article wasn’t about defending people’s freedom to use whichever sex position they find most enjoyable.

    I found this article odd. Ambiguous. Unclear. It’s as if the author wanted to argue in favor of something, but didn’t want to clearly articulate what exactly it was that she was defending. While reading it, I frequently found myself wondering what was her point and what exactly did she mean with some sentence or paragraph.

    Anyway, I understood this article as being about women submitting during sex:

    What I’m speaking of here, as a key component to women’s sexuality, is feminine submission.

    Here’s another quote:

    Only rarely does a casual hookup lend itself to a sexual encounter worth remembering with a secret smile and a happy shiver. It is in trusting, loving relationships where a woman feels free to submit to her desire for submission that she discovers new depths of herself precisely because she surpasses the limits of her own will. Men discover new depths of themselves when they feel that the fulfillment of their will occurs through the women; the man too must surpass the limit of himself in order to satiate his desire by finding its end in another, in her. His aggression finds its denouement in her yielding.

    If I had to summarize the main point of the article, I’d try this: “Women are naturally submissive. The most enjoyable sex for them is the kind that makes them submit to their male partners. Thus women must submit during sex, because otherwise they won’t be enjoying it as much. The missionary position allows women to submit, thus that’s what women should pick.”

    This is how I interpreted the message of this article. I’m not sure, though, because I found the writing style really ambiguous.

    Obviously, I found this article disgusting. Never mind stupid. Some women enjoy being submissive during sex. Some men enjoy being submissive. It depends on each person, and has nothing to do with their gender. Moreover, for a submissive person it makes more sense to do kinky BDSM stuff rather than just stick to the missionary position all the time.

    By the way, when it comes to sexually submissive people, I wholly support them seeking sex that allows them to submit. If that’s somebody’s kink, they should just go for it and have fun. What pisses me off is when people stop discussing this topic in gender neutral terms. Saying that all women are submissive and all men are dominant is bullshit, it’s offensive, it’s harmful.

  12. unclefrogy says

    this

    but ultimately the best way to “encounter our deepest selves” is to conform to social expectations, even in your most private moments.

    is I think one of the key ideas that motivate conservatives. it is an overwhelming need to have everything conform and themselves to conform especially to “traditional accepted authority”
    the highest things are social norms and accepted values the very idea of questioning anything is deeply troubling.
    I only read what was posted here but as it is a subject that is traditionally not talked about in clear plain language especially in public might help to explain why very little was clear enough to know what the hell she was on about.
    And yes it did read like some weird sermon but without the jesus references
    for all that the article advised to not go against nature without asking what nature actually is and forgetting one of the dominate aspects of nature, change. So the advice is resist change resist any newfangled ideas. In this example I am not sure what new would mean or when it would go into effect from my casual observation there is little that is very new in sexual relations if thousands of years counts as old. If anyone can be said to go against nature it would be the unquestioning reactionary who always seem to resort to force to try to prevent any variations from their accepted prescribed norms. It is not just what they do and think it is that everyone else should do and think the same regardless of any effect on them personally.
    The very existence of different ideas is an existential threat that can not be tolerated.
    uncle frogy
    uncle frogy

  13. alixmo says

    @unclefrogy #14,

    Quote: “…the highest things are social norms and accepted values…” (for conservatives).

    There is much truth to your analysis in your post.

    I think the article is testimony of a new trend in conservatism, an attempt to lure people in who are not yet firmly on their side. Mostly younger people. “Public intellectuals” who sell old ideas of conforming to traditional norms and “natural” hierarchies are in vogue. Jordan Peterson is their kingpin. And Quillette is affiliated to the “Intellectual Dark Web”, selling the same anti-feminist propaganda. This is an example for it.

    This article, in a convoluted form, wants to discredit feminism as “unnatural” and female sexual submission as natural and good. In a next step, this works as a metaphor: in the conservative-traditional world-view, women are “by nature” “followers”, men “by nature” leaders and protectors. Hence women should not only submit to them sexually, but also socially.

    Jordan Peterson and many other “trendy” conservatives are promoting exactly that, the return to traditional gender roles. Peterson (and not only he) is saying that women, deep inside, want to be dominated, lead by men. Women, he tells us, are happier when they follow traditional, “natural” roles. Feminism, he surmises, is wrong, because it tells women to behave in an unnatural way, which makes them unhappy. Feminism is therefore dangerous, because women fight for a goal that is actually “bad for them”. They would be happier if they would submit to men, because that is their nature.

    This much more subtle form of anti-feminism is much harder to detect than the usual blatant misogyny which came up since “Gamergate”.

    Worse, this kind of anti-feminism made it into quality newspapers, magazines and TV shows. I saw Peteron in a popular Swedish talk show; he is also a favorite of “rebellious” conservatives in Germany who publish his nonsense like words of wisdom.

  14. nomdeplume says

    The determination of some people to lay down laws about which body parts we are allowed to gain pleasure from in our sexual partners, and how we gain that pleasure, is one of the great puzzles of human psychology.

  15. alixmo says

    @Andreas Avester, #13,

    Thanks for reading the whole article. What you said about it proved my suspicion that the article is an anti-feminist piece which praises female submission to men, sexually and, in broader terms, also socially.

    This is in the vain of Jordan Peterson’s “work”, who also promotes the reactionary idea of traditional (“natural”) gender roles and thinks that women would be “happier” if they would “submit” to them.

  16. cartomancer says

    These sorts of articles leave me scratching my head somewhat. I know a fair number of people see sex in terms of power dynamics of dominance and submission, but to me the whole idea is a pretty abhorrent one. I’ve always seen sex as an exercise in equality, unity, mutuality and collaborative effort – as a thing people do together rather than a thing one person does to another.

    The idea that whoever is vertically above the other has some kind of superior status or power seems really weird to me. Like saying that whoever is closest to the window is the more intelligent one, or whoever’s arms are straightest is the fastest one, or whoever is more tired is considered more beautiful. They’re all complete non-sequiturs.

    Mind you, my usual sex position is the less than popular “in the next village along, masturbating tearfully to cherished memories of him” position, so what do I know?

  17. DanDare says

    There was a fairly clear set up for sexual harrasment being natural and trying to prevent it or punish it being rebellion against nature.
    This whole sub culture works by creating feeling clouds and getting people to feel justified as if they had thought things through.

  18. says

    Cartomancer @#18

    I know a fair number of people see sex in terms of power dynamics of dominance and submission, but to me the whole idea is a pretty abhorrent one. I’ve always seen sex as an exercise in equality, unity, mutuality and collaborative effort – as a thing people do together rather than a thing one person does to another.

    Role playing scenarios that involve elements of dominance and submission isn’t bad or abhorrent. If some person who happens to be a masochist thinks that being tied up and getting spanked feels pleasurable, then they should be free to do that. Role play is perfectly compatible with “an exercise in equality, unity, mutuality and collaborative effort – as a thing people do together.” In such cases two (or more) people who share the same kink negotiate the scenario so as to make sure that everybody who’s involved enjoys whatever they have agreed to do. In the BDSM community, a dom is expected to give their sub pleasure and pay close attention to sub’s preferences and wishes rather than just do whatever the hell they want without caring about whether the sub is also enjoying it.

    There’s a problem only when one person tries to coerce somebody else into doing something they don’t want to do, when they try to make sex (and the relationship in general) exploitative rather than something both parties can enjoy. Seeing sex in terms of power dynamics of dominance and submission tends to be a problem outside of the BDSM community, because that’s where a wannabe dominant person can start trying to dominate over another person who isn’t a masochist or submissive.

  19. says

    DanDare @# 19

    There was a fairly clear set up for sexual harrasment being natural and trying to prevent it or punish it being rebellion against nature.

    Firstly, sexual harassment definitely isn’t natural as in “inevitable.” Secondly, I think it’s not even natural in any possible wider meaning of the word “natural.”

    Anyway, even if I was willing to grant a premise that sexual harassment is natural (I’m not, I’m saying this for the sake of an argument), it still wouldn’t justify accepting and tolerating sexual harassment. People rebel against nature all the time. It could be possible to argue that murder and theft is natural, yet we still outlaw it anyway. Cancer is definitely natural, yet doctors fight it. Hypothermia is also natural, because humans don’t have a sufficient amount of body hair to prevent our bodies from freezing to death. Nonetheless, we wear clothes in order to prevent deaths caused by hypothermia. Even when it comes to inevitable natural occurrences like earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornadoes, we still create systems (like building codes and early warning systems) that are meant to mitigate the negative impact of these natural occurrences.

    Humans decide in what kind of environment we want to life. We modify our environment. We even regulate our own behavior (like banning murder or theft). If humans decided to tolerate sexual harassment, it would be an intentional choice, it would be us deciding in what kind of society we want to live, rather than just accepting what’s inevitable and “natural.” Whenever humans decide that some natural occurrence is undesirable (like cancer or hypothermia), we fight it. Not fighting “naturally occurring” sexual harassment would mean considering it desirable.

  20. Pierce R. Butler says

    Does the missionary position even need defending?

    Christopher Hitchens’s book by that title has come in for some unmerited attacks, maybe some otherwise.

    Marilyn Simon (our esteemed host for some reason declines to give her name) might have emitted one, but apparently has not yet done so. I surmise her time would seem better spent studying the ceiling.

  21. mountainbob says

    Had no idea what a/the quillette was or is. Turns out it’s an on-line mag based in Australia, established by a female person named Claire Lehmann. Still have no idea what point the lengthy quotes was intended. Uff da!

  22. alixmo says

    @mountainbob,

    the article mirrors the talk of certain religious circles that praise submission of the wife to the husband. There are many articles and blogs etc. around, talking about the virtues of “Godgiven”/”natural” female submission to men. Quillette`s views on feminism are in many ways similar to religious views, even if the editors “say” that they are skeptics. Just as Jordan Peterson (who Quillette endorses) is mirroring the traditional religious views on gender/gender roles and even “talks up” religion, especially Catholicism.

    This is now a common pattern: people who claim to endorse non-religious values and skepticism defending and appreciating religious views on gender (and also hierarchies, the “structure”, comfort and the “Moral compass” that religion supposedly gives). Another example that comes to my mind is the infamous “Bell Curve” author Charles Murray, who claims to be agnostic, but endorses religion.

  23. PaulBC says

    @Andreas Avester “Even if one wanted to write a defense for it, that would be a really short text: “Some people enjoy using the missionary position during sex. If you are one of them, feel free to use this position and have fun.” ”

    “If you are two of them” might be a somewhat better formulation, but otherwise I agree.

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