When I was about nine years old, I saw something disturbing. It was a sunny afternoon, and I’d wandered aimlessly into the bedroom of my best friend’s teenage sister. As I was leaving, I remember my eyes being drawn to a large, brightly colored cartoon, which had been torn out from a magazine and stuck to the wall by her bed. The image showed two naked figures — a man and a woman, from what I could tell — whose bodies were tightly entangled. Their limbs were twisted, their mouths were open and their backs were hunched. Whatever they were doing, it looked painful and uncomfortable. I wondered, mournfully, if these poor people were okay.
Eventually, my eyes drifted to the words beneath the image. “Position of the week,” it read, “mindblowing sex moves that will make him beg for more!” My small brain was quickly confused, and within seconds, my sadness had switched to shame. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew, somehow, that it was all wrong.
In the years since, little has changed. These days, sex positions are still being hailed as the salve to all our sexual woes, with many magazines, newspapers and publishers regularly releasing their own guides on the topic (at the time of writing, there are around 6,000 “sex position” books available to buy on Amazon). All of them make the same lofty promises, and are centered around the claim that, if you try intercourse in an uncomfortable way, your sex life will enter new stratospheres of pleasure. In Men’s Journal, for example, they share their positions that will get you off “every time” (like “The Amazon,” where the woman is on top and the man has his knees cramped by his ears). In Cosmo, they offer moves that will “satisfy allll your cravings” and give you “multiple orgasms” (try the “Trick Or(al) Treat,” where you add fucking Reece’s Pieces to your blow jobs). Even Durex guarantees that trying an elaborate new sex position will help to “maximize” your pleasure.
However, my childhood feelings of sadness and bewilderment remain the same. Sex positions are both dumb and overrated. Yes, there are some occasions where a list of new moves might be helpful — say, if you’ve got a bad back, or you’re looking for COVID-friendly ways to update your carnal repertoire. But what’s with all these awkward, pretzel-themed acrobatics? Halloween-themed missionary — are you serious? The best position according to my moon sign? What?
Is anyone out there actually doing this? Am I supposed to be doing this?
It’s worth stressing now that my issue isn’t with sexual variety. Everyone is different, as are our interpersonal chemistries, so figuring out what positions work for you is important and requires some experimenting. But good sex is a complex art — and, despite what most magazines tell us, “intense orgasms” aren’t guaranteed just by doing a series of awkward, bodily contortions. In fact, a lot of these moves seem to be purposefully uncomfortable and unflattering. Take “Froggie Style” for example: It’s like Doggy Style, but instead of being on their knees, the receiver squats over, like Gollum, while being entered from behind. Or there’s “The Helicopter,” where the woman (or bottom) lies with their head in their hands, ass upwards, while the man (or top) balances backwards on it. He then enters her, while licking her feet. It’s never really taken off, for some reason.
Other positions just look painful, and even dangerous. The most immediately perilous is “The Butter Churner” — also known as “The Pile Driver” — which sees the receiver lie on their back with their legs up by their ears and ass in the air. The person on top stands over and enters them, while simultaneously trying not to break their neck with their thrusts. According to Women’s Health, the “extra rush of blood into your head will increase the ecstasy.”
Mmm, okay. But will it though? Or are we just confusing ecstasy with near-death adrenaline?
One redditor even found herself in the hospital, in need of a blood transfusion, after trying out “The Mating Press,” which is essentially missionary, but the bottom tucks their legs up by their ears and the top squats above, like a clamp. “I jokingly said afterward that I needed some Advil cause I doubted I could walk,” the redditor wrote. “Next thing you know I’m at the emergency room. Twelve hours I was in the ER unable to move due to the extreme pain.” Somehow the position had caused a ruptured cyst and internal bleeding. “Recovery will be long,” she added. “My body is totally wiped. But at least I can say the sex was good.”
WAS IT, THOUGH?
Of course, these are extreme examples, but even the simpler suggestions are kind of pointless. The moves on most of these sex position roundup lists are derivative and almost identical — just the same six positions, updated with a new name and slight limb adjustments. The “Leap Frog”? That’s basically Doggy Style, as is “The Snake.” It’s particularly noticeable on the longer lists — Women’s Health is offering 46 here — which are just packed with repeats and minor replications (number 11 and 21 are just THE SAME position!).
And yet, for decades (centuries, if you count the Kama Sutra), we’ve been obsessed with promoting these new sex positions, making sure they have names and jamming as many of them as possible into a sex session. It’s a cultural fixation that doesn’t make much sense, especially when you consider that only 18 percent of women can come solely from penetration anyway. Shouldn’t we figure out how to do that before we try to fuck in a handstand?
What’s also notable is the fact that none of these supposedly “mind-blowing” positions have ever really taken off. Despite all the options that are apparently available to us, missionary remains the most popular position in the U.S., followed closely by Doggy Style, Cowgirl and Reverse Cowgirl. According to sex expert Tracey Cox, this is mainly because the average couple tends to alternate between just two or three positions.
In other words, most people aren’t all that interested in trying complex new moves, and increasing the number of positions in a given encounter isn’t really associated, in any way, with good sex. Instead, comfort seems to be the main priority.
So then, how do we explain the constant stream of sex position lists, subreddits and books? And why do we still conflate these complicated bodily movements with “good” sex? It could be down to the fact that we’re being tricked by both porn and Hollywood, which present us with polished, neatly choreographed sex scenes that skip out any awkward fumbling. But for sex educator Lola Jean, it’s more likely down to the fact that our sexual prowess is tied tightly to our athletic ability. The more fit and flexible we appear, the more desirable we will supposedly be in bed — which is why frequently changing positions and embracing the more challenging ones can make us feel more confident.
“I remember distinctly wanting to be flexible for the sake of being attractive or desired,” Jean tells me. “But fast forward a decade or two, I’ve had a lot of sex and I talk to people about sex a lot more. I have never heard about any greater pleasure achieved due to one’s flexibility. Having a bendy partner sounds like more of a bragging right than something that is physically and practically beneficial.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to improving sex, our focus seems to be firmly on the physical rather than the mental. The media will always tend to push quick-fix solutions, like a list of “explosive,” “orgasm-inducing” sex positions, as it’s significantly easier than speaking candidly with your partner about what you want, or how your sex life could be improved. The former may require a foundational level of physical fitness, but the latter requires genuine vulnerability. “People don’t want to have to do the work or change or ask themselves uncomfortable questions,” Jean explains. “It’s easier to blame [bad sex] on a position change than the fact that you’re not as good of a lover as you thought you were.”
There is also such a thing as too much choice, and this obsession with quantity — switching up positions every few minutes to seem dynamic, experimental and interesting — ultimately sacrifices quality. If you’re changing positions more than two or three times in a short session, maybe it’s time for you to stop, go to the mirror and ask yourself: What are you trying to prove?
For this reason, these constant sex position compilations may be doing more harm than good. Because of their ubiquity, it can be easy for people to see them and assume that they’re a key factor in improving a lackluster sex life. But in fact, while a new move may occasionally be fun to try — especially when stuck in the daily, repetitive grind of lockdown — they’re a small part of a much larger puzzle. It’ll take more than a “Wheelbarrow” or a “Standing 69” to save your sex life, so why not prioritize being open and comfortable instead?
“Sex positions are more important for finding a position that works for your genital makeup or combination than it is for being a rockstar in bed,” adds Jean. “No one practice — or position — is going to be the answer for everyone, and sometimes it takes a lot more work and, most likely, communication to get you out of that rut.”
Although, credit where it’s due: If anyone manages to successfully enjoy “The Butter Churner” without needing a blood transfusion, I would be very impressed.