The most rewarding part of being a woman is dealing with society’s crushingly heavy expectations for every aspect of your life. So fun. From weight to hair to yes, even labia, it’s hard not to wonder if you’re “normal.” Of course, a subject as fraught as sex doesn’t escape this kind of must-measure-yourself-against-a-common-yardstick behavior.
There’s nothing like listening to friends chatter their about endless sexual sessions when you and your partner routinely tap out around 10 minutes. Or, on the flip side, hearing that your friends orgasm rapid-fire when for you it takes so long you sometimes want snacks or a nap break. So what do you do when you find yourself wondering how your time in the sack stacks up? We did the math for you, so you can just go ahead and focus on feeling good.
Science doesn’t have much to say on the subject of how long sex should last, but an illuminating New York magazine piece from September 2015 corralled much of the relevant research.
One landmark Journal of Sexual Medicine study published in 2005 found that the median length of intercourse was 5.4 minutes, although other research has found medians of up to 7.5 minutes, Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth, told New York. While those stats can make for good conversation starters if you’re at an especially freewheeling party, they completely ignore foreplay (giving you flashbacks to people from your past, perhaps?). It’s also worth pointing out that so far, studies of this kind focus on hetero couples when obviously people don’t only get with others of the opposite sex. No matter who you’re sexing, PIV is not the be-all and end-all.
“Sex is more than just intercourse, and the time you allot to it should include the time to generate arousal both mentally and physically,” sex therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist Ian Kerner, Ph.D., author of She Comes First, tells SELF. “That can mean lots of touching and foreplay, sharing a fantasy, reading erotica, watching porn together, or roleplaying some sort of kinky scene.” Getting fully aroused can help you achieve orgasm more quickly, so major points there if that’s what you’re after.
But how quick is too quick?
In a 2008 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, sex therapists said intercourse that lasted 1-2 minutes was “too short,” 3-7 minutes was “adequate,” 7-13 minutes was “desirable,” and 10-30 was “too long” (interesting that there’s some overlap between their opinions on “desirable” and “too long”). But a 2004 study in the Journal of Sex Research that did actually include foreplay found that on average, people were indulging in 11-13 minutes of foreplay followed by 7-8 minutes of intercourse, which sounds positively luxurious compared to the previous numbers. Still, the participants generally wanted sex to last for double the time.
I’m no scientist, and I’m sure some of the discrepancy is about one partner or the other not feeling satisfied, even though they had a good amount of sex time-wise. But some of it must definitely come down to people thinking they need to not only measure up to some societal sexual bar, but launch themselves over it like erotic pole vaulters, besting everyone else in the competition. You don’t have to do that. Sex length is a mutable goal, anyway.
“Sometimes you really want to have a quickie, sometimes you want to have really intense lovemaking, and sometimes you want to do something that’s really fun and adventurous. The kind of sex you want to have affects the length of the sex,” says Kerner. (Of course, if you’re frustrated by something like a partner having premature ejaculation or your not being able to orgasm, that’s a different story and worth working on.)
When it comes down to it, stressing about timing is a surefire way to take even longer.
“Sex should definitely last long enough for both partners to achieve mutual pleasure, generally in the form of orgasm,” says Kerner. Since it’s a myth that every woman can orgasm every time, the way you define satisfaction is up to you.
“A lot of women worry, especially when receiving oral sex, thinking, Is this taking too long? Are they enjoying themselves? How soon am I going to come?” says Kerner. “That kind of anxiety can really delay orgasm and inhibit pleasure.”
Letting go of those thoughts is key to reaching orgasm in a time that feels comfortable to you (I know, it’s like the sexual version of telling you not to think of a purple elephant, but it’s true). One way to make this easier is by getting turned on to the point when all higher-level brain functions basically cease to operate. “I always encourage couples to engage in as much outercourse as possible before intercourse,” says Kerner. “The more outercourse you engage in, hopefully the higher your level of arousal and the closer you get to orgasm” before you move on to the main event, whatever your main event may be.
And the more turned on you are, the less brainpower you can devote to anxiety about your performance, so the more you free yourself up to just enjoy it. No one’s timing you.