In this series I am going to examine the way that the psychosexual programming inherent in patriarchal societies has entirely shaped modern default behaviours around sex.
At their simplest, these behaviours can be described as the ‘three M’s’: married, monogamous and missionary (position). The three M’s describe the conditions under which most sex in patriarchal societies occurs. One can add further sub-clauses, such as at night, in a bedroom, and behind closed doors and curtains.
“What’s wrong with that?” you may ask. Nothing’s wrong with it. But that’s a lot of hoops to jump through before two people can have sex in a way that society accepts as emotionally legitimate. And that means a lot less sex, which is the aim in patriarchy. For procreation only, thank you. That’s because sex is regarded as fundamentally shameful. All those sub-clauses reinforce the notion of sex as something that must be hidden because of its inherently corrupt nature.
That brings us to the first of the three M’s: married. In biblical and pre-biblical times women weren’t allowed to be single. They had to be betrothed to a man who would support them in exchange for work, sex and children. There were practical reasons for this: in those violent times, every woman had a duty to bear children to increase the tribe. Moral reasons too: sexually uncontrolled women were undesirable as they threatened the stability of the tribal unit.
From these simple, ancient imperatives came the belief that only sex within marriage was morally acceptable, a belief that has held almost total sway for the last five millennia or so. The marriage ceremony itself was, in part, a sign that the patriarchy granted a particular couple the right to have sex. It is only in the last half-century that the moral prohibition on sex outside marriage has waned.
While the patriarchal driver for marriage is clear, that for monogamy is less so. Cultural studies of monogamy reveal it was adopted to control inheritances. In The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality, Wilhelm Reich demonstrates how the Aboriginal clan system recycles wealth to the ruling males.
The issue with monogamy and its alternatives—polygamy and polyandry (multiple wives or husbands)—was originally about the number of marriage partners. It wasn’t about only having a single sex partner. In biblical times, all successful males, polygamous or not, had female slaves at their disposal. Their wives, however, were chattels subject to death for sleeping with anyone other than their husband. In Sex in History, G. Rattray Taylor writes that in Rome, Greece and the biblical Middle East, “adultery was a property offence.”
But as monogamy became entrenched in Western society, religious obsession with sexual iniquity imposed a moral prohibition on sex with anyone other than a man or woman’s lawfully wedded spouse. Here again we see the dread hand of sexual shame, the notion of sex as sinful (corrupting); that sex is only acceptable within a socially sanctioned, lifelong marriage blessed by patriarchal authority.
In the confetti-clouded delirium of their wedding day few spouses question the potential emotional minefield underlying their relationship
Into the 21st century, that moral prohibition remains in force and adultery retains a significant social stigma. The problem with the moral compulsion for monogamy is the shame-based emotional fallout that occurs when a marriage fails. The worst affected victims are often the children of the warring couple, but in the confetti-clouded delirium of their wedding day few spouses question the potential emotional minefield underlying their relationship. Instead, they rush to the wedding bed where their first sexual union usually takes place in the…
Why the missionary position? For starters, it is obviously a masculine-dominant position. Actually, it’s pretty much the only masculine-dominant position. Most others put the woman in charge—or, at least, give her the opportunity to flee.
And that gives us another clue about the propensity for the missionary position in patriarchal societies. Patriarchy was originally about the survival of the most violent. The lure of sexual access to the enemy’s women created an incentive for male violence. The missionary position is the rape position. It’s the position that gives the (usually) physically weaker woman the least wriggle room. Carting off women as sexual trophies from wars has, thankfully, largely ceased but the sex position associated with this behaviour is often our default setting.
That leads us nicely into the second instalment of this series on patriarchal sexual behaviour: the overriding male urge to penetrate and ejaculate.