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Derived from the past participle of the Latin verb coire, meaning "to go" or "to come together," the term coitus indicates a specific act of sexual intercourse that also is known as coition or copulation. This "coming together" generally is understood in heteronormative terms as the penetration of a woman's vagina by a man's penis in a way that joins their bodies via their genitalia.


During coitus the man and woman insert the erect penis into the vagina and then begin to move their hips repetitively in back-and-forth thrusting or rocking motions to create friction as the penis moves within the vaginal canal, thrusting until orgasm and/or penile ejaculation occurs. Penile-vaginal penetration and the joining of two bodies are the principal physical characteristics of coitus, distinguishing it from sexual acts such as genital petting, masturbation, and other nonpenetrative or solitary sex acts.

The term coitus may be modified to signify specific kinds of sexual intercourse other than penile-vaginal intercourse, such as coitus interfemoris, or femoral coitus, the thrusting of a penis between the closed thighs of a partner; intermammary coitus, the thrusting of a penis between the breasts of a partner; anal coitus, the penile penetration of a partner's rectum; and oral coitus, the stimulation of the genitalia by the mouth and/or tongue. Each of these modifications avoids the possibility of pregnancy as an outcome of sexual intercourse; this indicates that another standard characteristic of coitus has been an emphasis on human reproduction.

Coitus remains the primary means of human reproduction, yet men and women often engage in coitus for purposes of recreation, pleasure, and social, spiritual, or religious imperatives that may not include reproduction as the end goal of sexual intercourse. Because coitus is engaged in for nonreproductive purposes, birth control is a regular consideration and possible concern for sexually active men and women. Historically, the most common methods of birth control have been coitus interruptus (the withdrawing of the penis before ejaculation) and coitus reservatus (the delaying or suppressing of ejaculation), although coitus reservatus also is associated with male and female sexual pleasure; for example, it is endorsed in Tantric teachings as a method of increasing a man's psychosexual energy. Coitus interruptus and coitus reservatus may be supplemented by birth control devices such as condoms and female birth control methods. Because coitus is linked to both procreation and pleasure, it has been regulated, controlled, and shaped through sociocultural customs and codes that dictate acceptable contexts and even positions for intercourse.


According to Vatsyayana's ancient Indian manual for lovemaking the Kama Sutra (c. fourth century ce), there are more than sixty possible positions for sexual intercourse and more than five hundred variations of those positions. Yashodhara's number, however, includes minuscule differences in limb placement and even in the sounds made during coitus. Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi's Arabic sex manual The Perfumed Garden (c. 1410 ce) draws from the Kama Sutra but reduces the number of possible sexual positions to twenty-seven. According to the anthropologist Edgar Gregersen (1983), the range of positions may be understood as combinations of the following coital characteristics: four general postures of partners—lying, sitting, squatting, and standing; two general orientations between partners—face-to-face and rear entry; and three general positions of "dominance"—man on top, woman on top, and side by side (Gregersen 1983). Although no single position is more "normal" or "natural" than another, Gregersen states that cultural differences indicate a general preference for a particular position. For instance, the most popular position in European and North American societies has tended to be the "missionary position," whereas many African societies have demonstrated a preference for side-by-side intercourse. The four most common coital positions can be described as follows.

Lying Face to Face, Man on Top

Also known as the missionary position in Western English-speaking nations, this was considered the proper sexual position by Christian missionaries who attempted to spread its practice in consonance with Saint Paul's religious teachings that "women should be subject to their husbands" and that husbands must demonstrate their dominance in copulation (Gregersen 1983, p. 58). In this position the man and woman face each other with the woman lying on her back and the man poised or lying atop of her.

According to the sexologists Joann DeLora and Carol Warren (1977), the position may be varied to adjust stimulation and even power differentials. For example, "the woman may place her legs together, between those of the man, allowing less vaginal penetration, or she may draw her knees up toward her chest with the man between her legs, thus facilitating deeper penetration. The man may lie with his body resting on the woman's, with much body contact, or he may use his arms and legs to keep his weight off her body, permitting her to move freely and be a more active partner. Also he may sit back on his heels and lift her buttocks to rest on his thighs, allowing either of them to stimulate her clitoris manually if she desires it" (DeLora and Warren 1977, p. 68).

Lying or Sitting, Face to Face, Woman on Top

The earliest representations of the woman on top position can be found in the art of ancient Mesopotamia (c. 3000 bce). The man reclines or sits, and the woman straddles him, either resting most of her body against his or sitting atop him with her torso upright. This position allows the woman greater movement and ease for self-stimulation of her breasts and/or clitoris, and it may be varied by the woman choosing to face away from her partner or placing her legs between his legs for less penetration. DeLora and Warren note that some of the benefits of this position are that the "woman has more freedom of movement than the man and the position is more tiring for her than for him. However, most males have more ejaculatory control in this position than in some others where they must take a more active role" (DeLora and Warren 1977, p. 68).

Lying Face to Face, Side by Side

Considered the least tiring position for both partners, this position may be the preferred posture "when one (or both) of the partners is tired, sick or old. It can also be used during the last months of pregnancy" because it limits the depth of penetration and the physical energy expended to engage in intercourse (Gregersen 1983, p. 60). The partners lie on their sides facing each other, and the woman may wrap her top leg over the man's hip or lift her leg to varying heights to allow a greater or lesser depth of penetration. The leg placements of both partners may vary according to their personal preferences. As in most face-to-face positions, lying side by side "allows for freedom in sex play and displays of affection" (DeLora and Warren 1977, p. 68).

Rear-Entry Position

This position also is known as coitus in retro (entry from behind). Christians who believed the missionary position to be the "civilized" or devout position associated rear-entry coitus with bestiality. Interestingly, animal themes have been used across cultures to describe rear-entry sexual intercourse. For instance, in Western English-speaking countries such as the United States "doggy style" has been a popular label; in Middle Eastern Arabic-speaking cultures it has been known as "after the fashion of the bull;" in China variations of rear-entry sex have been described as the "Leaping Tiger"; and the Kama sutra titles numerous variations of rear-entry coitus as "congress of a cow," "congress of a goat," "forcible mounting of an ass," and the like.

Although there are many postures of rear-entry coitus, determined, for instance, by the partners' choice to stand, lie, or kneel, all require that the man enter the woman from behind. According to DeLora and Warren, most rear-entry positions "allow for deep penetration" (except when a woman lies flat on her stomach) and "provide opportunity for manual clitoral stimulation" (DeLora and Warren 1977, p. 71).

Each of these descriptions of coital positions uses the heternormative vocabulary common in the discipline of sexology and in sex manuals. However, each position can be executed by males engaged in anal coitus or women engaged in mutual genital stimulation.


An examination of how coitus has been performed, understood, and depicted across cultures and historical periods shows great deviations in sexual beliefs and practices. Even within a particular culture sexual customs and beliefs may differ considerably. For instance, Aleksandr V. Gura (2005) in his study of coitus in Slavic folk culture noted that although Slavic Christians believed sexual intercourse to be "unclean" and even spiritually dangerous, regional customs associated with that common belief varied significantly. Russians and other Orthodox Slavs tended to cover religious icons or turn their faces to the wall and remove the pectoral cross during coitus. However, in northern Russia newlyweds could not receive communion or confess their sins for a year after consummating their marriage because of their contamination. Other Slavs thought that an "imprint of impurity quite often remained on the young wife until giving birth to a child," and Bulgarians thought that premarital sex or adultery might cause drought or hail (Gura 2005, p. 30). Gura's study demonstrates the motivation of social groups to interpret and regulate sexuality according to religious and/or medical beliefs, a motivation that is common to most cultures. Gura's work also indicates that the social and religious mores about coitus easily shift and change with regional differences and sociohistorical contexts.

The ways in which sexually active partners understand coitus and choose to engage in sexual intercourse are shaped most often by the religious, medical, and civil discourses of their historical context. Because coitus is linked directly to human reproduction, most societies have created religious and/or civil institutions such as marriage to regulate reproduction. The two most common sexual regulators across cultures and historical periods have been religious and civil codes that attempt to restrict sexual intercourse to marriage and the prohibition of sexual intercourse with a close relative, also known as incest. Because coitus is necessary for human reproduction, few cultures or societies prohibit it entirely. There are, however, often strict prohibitions for select groups, including members of religious orders such as Roman Catholic priests and Buddhist lamas, for whom sexual acts are prohibited almost entirely as part of spiritual training and religious protocols.

Many historians and cultural critics who have charted the changing beliefs and codes that inform sexual practices indicate that there is no normal or singularly natural way to engage in coitus. Rather, such scholarship has tended to show that sex is socially constructed and that coital practices may be infinitely varied. However, culturally based studies of human sexuality often depict the general trends or dominant beliefs that govern sexual practices so that it is possible to understand how sexual norms shift according to cultures and historical eras.

The sociologist Gail Hawkes in Sex and Pleasure in Western Culture (2004) traces ideas about sex in European and North American societies from ancient Greece through the twentieth century. According to Hawkes, most philosophers and physicians in ancient Greece considered sexual desire and pleasure crucial to both men's and women's physical and spiritual health so long as intercourse was practiced in moderation and for rational purposes. Sexual desire and pleasure therefore were not considered sinful but were associated with a reasoned connection to the divine. Hippocratic (medical) practitioners advocated coitus, which could include male intercourse with other males, as essential for a person's general health: "Sexual activity aids sleep, encourages strong masculine growth, 'predisposes the soul to tranquility' and 'dampens immoderate ardour'" (Hawkes 2004, p. 38).

Such beliefs were not shared by the Stoics (300–50 bce), who renounced physical pleasure as a means of participating in divine reason. Their teachings were drawn upon by the Gnostics (100–200 ce), who "supplied a more uncompromising basis for the early Christian" sexual beliefs (Hawkes 2004, p. 45). Gnostic teachings went so far as to categorize marriages as either "pure" or "defiled" on the basis of the couple's engagement in sexual intercourse. "A defiled marriage was one in which sexual intercourse takes place. A pure union demanded sexual abstinence as a necessary route to perfection—the means by which the body can be controlled and transformed" (Hawkes 2004, pp. 45-46). The Gnostic association of sexuality with bestiality had a powerful influence on the development of the view of the body in Western Christianity.

It was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that European and North American societies began to regulate through civil law sexual activities between men and women, men and men, and men and animals. Hawkes states that although "sex between men and women had always been valued more highly as the norm, homoerotic encounters between men, especially in the upper classes, were [previously] tolerated" (Hawkes 2004, p. 100). During that time surgeons and physicians, increasingly working outside a religious framework, began both promoting "the physical emotional and social advantages" of sex and focusing on issues of female sexuality. Those medical authorities specifically promoted the necessity of sexual arousal in the woman, giving detailed accounts of foreplay, methods to enhance sexual pleasure, and the value of vaginal orgasm (achieved via coitus) for a woman's health.

Western cultures have demonstrated ambivalence in regard to religious, scientific, and civil understandings of sexuality. Michel Foucault (1980) described how sex and sexuality emerged as key political concerns of Western societies in their attempts to order and manage the lives of individuals. Much of this social control, according to Foucault, takes place via discourses of power or authority such as those emerging out of religious, state, or medical institutions that both regulate and shape the ways in which individuals view their sex and sexuality.

In the twentieth century the discourses and codes regulating sexual intercourse became increasingly secularized or medicalized in most Western or westernizing nations. Social movements such as the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States promoted sexual liberation in part through a woman's control of her reproduction through the use of female contraceptives such as the birth control pill and the loosening of socioreligious endorsements of marriage as a prerequisite to sexual intercourse. Men and women participate in the normalizing of sexuality and their sexual practices to the extent that they are subjected to and become invested in the categories, classifications, and norms propagated by scientific and administrative discourses.


Sexual science at the turn of the twentieth century began undermining eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions that reproductive heterosexuality is a natural given. Sigmund Freud, for instance, argued that social forces define and redefine sexual mores and taboos. Sexual instinct rooted in the desire for sexual pleasure, according to Freud, had become "subordinate to the purposes of reproduction," and therefore, any sexual activity that "aims solely at pleasure is given the uncomplimentary name of 'perverse' and as such is proscribed" (Hawkes 2004, p. 150). If the regulation of sexual behavior based on reproductive imperatives was shown to limit human sexual practices, the recognition that neither coitus nor sexual pleasure in general must be equated with reproduction suggests there is no single truth about sexuality.

The cultural critic Angus McLaren (1999) posits that sexuality is too complex and diverse for there to be truths about it. However, the equation of sexual pleasure with heterosexual reproductive coitus has proved to be a resilient notion for interpreting and understanding human sexuality. "Most people," McLaren stated, disregard or "lament the notion that nature no longer provides a solid basis upon which the organization of sexuality can be built" (McLaren 1999, p. 223). Both in popular conceptions of human sexuality and in later-twentieth-century scientific studies of sexuality, heterosexual coitus remained the idealized sexual activity and the perceived inevitable outcome of most sexual activities, including petting and masturbation.

This continued elevation of coitus as the ultimate or ideal sexual act is what Margaret Jackson (2002) termed "the coital imperative," establishing heterosexual coitus as the normative sexual practice against which all other sexual activities are measured. Even Alfred Kinsey's mid-twentieth-century findings on the prevalence of tabooed sexual behaviors such as bestiality, homosexuality, and masturbation among Americans employed coitus as the standard by which sexual practices were determined. Practices such as "pre-marital petting and masturbation were regarded as important merely as a means to an end—the avoidance of sexual 'maladjustment in marriage,' defined as the failure of women to achieve orgasm from coitus" (Jackson 2002, p. 85).

Significantly, the modern emphasis on coitus as the preferred means for a woman to achieve orgasm both implies that a penis is necessary to female sexual pleasure and ignores data suggesting that the majority of women achieve orgasm through clitoral stimulation or masturbation, not through penile-vaginal intercourse. Similarly, the work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson tended to emphasize the penis as "indispensable to the release of female sexual tension" (Jackson 2002, p. 86). In general, the insistence among scientists on a biological model of sexuality (with an emphasis on reproductive sex) and on the importance of penile-vaginal penetration as the end goal of sexual activity inevitably privileges the penis as the primary agent of sexual intercourse and pleasure. "Such an analysis" Jackson stated, "automatically rules out the possibility that our fore-mothers engaged in sexual practices with other women, or in non-coital sexual expression with men, and practiced coitus only for the purposes of reproduction" (Jackson 2002, p. 87). Scientific discourse can inscribe prevalent gender biases through the privileging of coitus as the primary goal of any other sexual activity.

The coital imperative is in part a product of scientific models and programs that emerged in the early twentieth century that promoted the "training of heterosexuality" (Hawkes 2004, p 155). According to such programs, "First the sexual instinct must be channeled towards penetrative sex. Second, the couple must be trained in achieving mutual orgasm." Third, women must be encouraged to prefer the vaginal orgasm of coitus over clitoral orgasms associated with masturbation and other nonpenetrative sexual activities (Hawkes 2004, p. 156). Promoted by sexologists and physicians who took on the "regime" of training heterosexuality, coitus became the ultimate and most "natural" sexual act. The continued prevalence of such values may help explain why terms such as sex and sexual intercourse continued to be synonymous with coitus in the early twenty-first-century.


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                                     Kristina Banister Quynn