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A 1999 study by the Kinsey Institute examined the definition of sex based on a 1991 random sample of 599 college students from 29 U. states; it reported that while "virtually every college student they surveyed considered penile–vaginal intercourse to be sex," and 19–20% said that anal intercourse was not sex, 60% said oral-genital contact (fellatio, cunnilingus) did not constitute having sex.

One possible reason for this distinct biological feature may be formation of strong emotional bonds between sexual partners important for social interactions and, in the case of humans, long-term partnership rather than immediate sexual reproduction.

For humans in particular, cooperative behavior in a community and, by extension, sexual activity reinforce social bonds between individuals and may form larger social structures.

Sexual intercourse may be defined by different words, including coitus, copulation, coition, or intercourse (which is typically shorthand for sexual intercourse).

The term coitus is derived from the Latin word coitio or coire, meaning "a coming together or joining together" or "to go together", and it describes a variety of sexual activities under ancient Latin names, but usually refers exclusively to penile–vaginal penetration.

In most mammals, the anatomy of the reproductive organs and some circuits of the nervous system are specifically organized for heterosexual copulation.

Copulation corresponds to a succession of innate sexual reflexes: erection, vaginal lubrication, lordosis behavior, immobilization, intromission, pelvic thrust and ejaculation.

Oral sex consists of all the sexual activities that involve the use of the mouth and throat to stimulate genitalia or anus.

It is sometimes performed to the exclusion of all other forms of sexual activity, and may include the ingestion or absorption of semen or vaginal fluids.

These copulatory reflexes are controlled by hormones and facilitated by sexual pheromones.

Unlike mammalian copulation, where copulation is a reflex controlled by hormones and influenced by pheromones, human sexual intercourse is mostly a voluntary and learned activity that is performed in order to obtain sexual rewards (i.e., pleasure or procreation).

Reproductive sexual intercourse between non-human animals is more often termed copulation, and sperm may be introduced into the female's reproductive tract in non-vaginal ways among the animals, such as by cloacal copulation.

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