Sexuality is about the act of mating. Unlike other animals, humans do not have sex simply for the purpose of achieving pregnancy (reproduction). We also have sex for the enjoyment of the pleasures of sexual intimacy (recreation) and to form the bonds that keep couples committed to each other for the decades needed to support family life (deferred reproduction).
‘Intercourse’ refers to interaction between two or more people. So ‘social intercourse’ means
conversations between individuals. The strict definition of ‘sexual intercourse’ is any sexual activity engaged in with a lover thereby contrasting with masturbatory activity alone. Confusingly ‘sexual intercourse’ is often used interchangeably with ‘intercourse’ to mean vaginal intercourse. This is why Kinsey preferred the term ‘coitus’.
We can differentiate between three distinct categories of sexual activity.
First there are manual contacts where we touch by using our hand or fingers to stimulate (by stroking, caressing or massaging) the sex organ (called masturbation) or other parts of the body. Most people discover orgasm for the first time by masturbating alone. Masturbation can also be used with a lover but less commonly to the point of orgasm. Any activity short of intercourse itself, is called ‘petting’. When followed by intercourse it may be called ‘foreplay’.
Secondly there are oral contacts where we kiss by using our mouth or tongue to stimulate (by licking, sucking or kissing) the sex organ (called oral sex) or other parts of the body. Oral sex performed on a man (called fellatio) is much more common than oral sex performed on a woman (called cunnilingus). Cunnilingus is strongly associated with lesbians. A heterosexual man may offer cunnilingus as part of foreplay, with the aim of increasing a woman’s arousal or pleasure.
Thirdly there are genital contacts where a man penetrates a lover’s body (called intercourse or penetrative sex) with an erect penis. The sensations of being penetrated do not lead to orgasm in themselves. Orgasm depends on stimulation of the sex organ. So the focus of penetrative sex is the orgasm of the male penetrator. Homosexual men have anal intercourse (also called anal sex). Anyone (including lesbians) can use a phallus such as a dildo or vibrator to penetrate a lover’s vagina or anus. A woman can use a strap-on dildo to penetrate a lover, called ‘pegging’.
Most animals mate by the male making a simple one-off insertion that fertilises the female. Only male mammals employ an extended thrusting technique in order to mate. There is no obvious advantage to increasing the time needed to mate. It means that the male has to rely on the female being willing to allow a longer time for him to impregnate her. This inefficiency has probably come about purely because of the pleasure the male obtains from the stimulation of intercourse. It is possible that the technique evolved as a result of the increased complexity of the mammalian brain.
To ‘have sex’ means to ‘engage in sexual activity with a lover’. For heterosexuals ‘sex’ almost always means primarily intercourse (penetration and thrusting until male orgasm and ejaculation). Any other activity is described as ‘foreplay’. Men have about as much interest in the clitoris as women have in the penis. This is because our sex organ provides ourselves with pleasure but does nothing for a lover. Even when a sex organ is capable of penetration (as the penis is), it cannot cause another person’s orgasm. For them to orgasm, they must stimulate their own sex organ. This is a key misunderstanding of intercourse.
We can differentiate between at least three approaches to intercourse.
Firstly, there is intercourse plain and simple. A man penetrates a woman’s vagina with his erect penis and thrusts until he ejaculates. He then rolls off or pulls his penis out and carries on his business. This is the most common approach used by heterosexual couples. It focuses on male gratification, where a man uses a woman’s vagina as a receptacle for his semen.
Secondly there is fantasy-style intercourse as portrayed in erotic fiction, which includes a variety of other genital activity such as oral sex. What epitomises this scenario is the proactive role of the woman. The woman initiates sexual activity, encourages the man to stimulate her and provides turn-ons (facial expressions and vocals) that assist with male orgasm.
Thirdly there is intercourse that is preceded by ‘foreplay’. This involves the man pleasuring a woman. The woman may reciprocate to the degree she feels willing or comfortable to. A man may invest in pleasuring a woman if he is sensitive to the fact that sex provides him with so much pleasure. He may also hope that a woman will be more interested in participating in sexual activity if it involves some sensual pleasure for her.
… the idea that it is a man’s role to ‘give’ the woman an orgasm during intercourse. … this idea also often puts the man in a no-win situation since the information he has been given – that thrusting during intercourse should bring a woman to orgasm – is faulty. (Shere Hite 1993)