Sexual Wellness

How Long “Should” Sex Last?

| 03/24/2021

a clock depicting length of sex Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

People are hella anxious about making sex last long enough. In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of concern among penis-owners, specifically those who identify as male.

One study found that the average cis man takes about seven minutes to ejaculate during vaginal intercourse. Another study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine reports that six minutes is the average amount of time penises last from erection to ejaculating. As for clit-owners, it takes about 20 minutes to reach climax … assuming they’re having the kind of sex (mutual masturbation, vaginal sex, oral sex, perhaps anal sex) that can give them orgasms.

Which brings me to the whole question on which this article hinges: Why are we, in the year of our Lord 2021, so obsessed with lasting a long time in bed, or worrying about taking too long in bed? 

It’s impossible to boil down such a complex set of questions to a single answer, but what it basically comes down to is that we have a destructively narrow view of what “sex” is (i.e. heterosexual couples having penetrative sex), a view that is perpetuated by sexual shame, purity culture, and a lack of comprehensive sex education.

If you’re frustrated by this answer, I’d postulate that you’re a person who is currently concerned about either your endurance, or your partner’s endurance, in bed. (Or you’re a penis-haver concerned about sexual dysfunction issues like erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation.) In any event, let’s talk about it.

Where does this obsession come from?

We need to reframe our understanding and definition of sex.

The idea that “sex” is only sex if it’s penis in vagina intercourse is restrictive, damaging to sexual health, and will leave the vast majority of people unsatisfied, especially if they have a vulva. (It’s also not helpful that many academics focus on issues like “intravaginal ejaculation latency time,” or that researchers don’t include “minutes of foreplay” when using their stopwatches to calculate the average duration of sex.)

The idea that the sex act should “last a really long time” comes out of a long history of equating longer sexual intercourse with more orgasms…which highlights the deep lack of anatomical and sexual education we have in this world. “Most people would likely report wanting sex to last a long time, but this self-reporting can be problematic,” says Dr. Lanae St. John, a board-certified sexologist and author of Read Me: A Parental Primer for “The Talk”. “It goes along with the peacocking [and] posturing lots of folks do about their sex life.” 

Basically, no one is learning about how sexual pleasure actually works and as a result, they try to fit into what we think makes them “normal.” People enjoy being normal. We want to be a part of the group, whatever the cost

If intercourse is not going to give you an orgasm, why would you want it to last five hours? You wouldn’t.

Less than 20 percent of women and clit-owners say that vaginal penetration is sufficient to provide orgasm. Sex therapists and other experts believe it’s probably more like 3 to 5 percent, considering those within that 20 percent are likely getting clitorally stimulated indirectly in one way or another. 

If intercourse is not going to give you an orgasm, why the hell would you want it to last five hours? You wouldn’t. You’d walk away with a vag chafed like sandpaper.

Lasting long enough for…what?

When we say lasting “long enough,” we have to ask what it is exactly we’re lasting long enough for in the first place. Is it our egos? Our partner’s orgasm? A fear of being rejected for coming too quickly? 

Holly Richmond, Ph.D., a somatic psychologist and certified sex therapist, says that this question is crucial to understanding the orgasm gap. Since there is such a large disparity between how long it takes a clitoris-owner and a penis-owner to have an orgasm, an “average duration of sex” of five to seven minutes is not going to cut it.

“Time” doesn’t matter literally at all.

If you’re concerned about how long sex should last, you need to expand your education, because time straight-up does not matter at all if everyone has an orgasm and/or feels sexually satisfied at the end of their sexual encounters. “Great sex is not measured in quantity (either by how many times you have it or by how long it lasts) but rather in quality,” Richmond says. “Some people experience the most arousal from quickies, while others enjoy extended sensual experiences.” 

It takes communication and understanding. This means actually talking to the person you’re having sex with and figuring out what you want to get out of the sexual activity. If minutes are important to you for whatever reason, “ask your partner to determine what time frame they enjoy most, and from that answer you’ll have a sense of how much duration actually matters,” Richmond explains. 

I’d guess there are very few people who would say, “If sex doesn’t last at least 13 minutes, I won’t come.” Because just thinking logistically, that isn’t how desire, arousal, and orgasm work. They can’t be quantitatively measured because every single body is different and enjoys different things. 

There is no “right amount” of time for sex to last. The only people who can determine that are you and your partner. Open your mind to thinking of “sex” in broader terms than P-in-V intercourse. 

If the sex you’re having leaves both you and a partner feeling sexually satisfied: THAT is the right amount of time to devote to sex. And this will change depending on your moods, the time of day, and where you’re at in life. Stop stressing out about whether you’re normal and go have more orgasms. Pleasure is a resource that never runs out.

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