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How Long Should Sex Really Last?

Communication and honesty matter more than prowess.

A recent question, posed at the end of another essay here, asked about the writer’s erection going limp after 20 minutes of sexual intercourse. My immediate responses (to myself, of course) were "Wow!" and “No wonder.”

And then the sex therapist in me kicked in: “No one response is normal. There is a wide variation in the way individuals enjoy sex…” which is true. Still, 20 minutes of in-and-out vaginal sex is near the outer extreme. The average is 3 to 5 minutes. According to a recent survey, vaginal sex that lasts one to two minutes is “too short," and vaginal sex that lasts 10 to 30 minutes is considered “too long.” This begs the question, "Considered by whom?”

How long an act of intercourse lasts has many variables: his age, the newness of the couple to each other, whether other sexual acts included, whether there are breaks in the action, whether the man was drinking beforehand, etc. Also, when surveyed about their sex lives, many men tend to exaggerate: Three minutes becomes 15 in the blink of an eye.

In some acts of vaginal sex how long it lasts is determined not by the man but by the woman. (The same is true of anal sex in a male couple.) The receiving partner might have expressed a desire for a long session so the active partner will do his best to last longer than he might otherwise, sometimes using erection enhancers. More likely, the receiving partner will lose interest, become dry, and/or intercourse might go from pleasurable to painful. So the issue then would be not how long the active partner can last but how long it’s pleasurable to the receiving partner.

The two determinants are not always in sync: He might take longer to orgasm than the passive partner would prefer; or climax sooner than either he or his partner would like. Sometimes a change in positions, or more than one, will ease discomfort for one or both and allow the active partner to remain so. If there is such a momentary interruption is that counted on the time clock?

That’s one of the many subtleties that would interfere with a straight answer to the original question of how long sex should last. Given the assumption that any sex act is supposed to be pleasurable for both parties, how long it should last will be determined best by the people involved and no one else. How do we clock it if they break for oral or manual sex, or pause for conversation, or a request for faster/slower, higher/lower adjustment?

Granted, I am the one who included “should” in the title, but that’s the way the question is most often posed to me. I also hear frequent questions about how to last longer when a man's partner would prefer a brief more intense sexual event than a longer, drawn-out session.

So, of course, the answer to the question of how long sex should last is “as long as we are both enjoying it, and not one second longer." And that is how that's determined: communication.

Don’t assume. Ask, or speak up. A conversation about sexual preferences can only improve the game.

Facebook image: Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock

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