My Partner and I Were Making This Huge Mistake in Bed — Are You?
My Partner and I Were Making This Huge Mistake in Bed — Are You?
I thought she wanted me to keep going. She thought I wanted to keep going. Turns out neither of us particularly wanted to keep going. Do you see where this is going?
For my partner, Kristen, and I, our sex generally happens in three main phases. First, foreplay. Second, she climaxes from manual stimulation. Third, we have intercourse until I climax. (That’s oversimplified, sure, but you get the point.)
Recently, in a post-coital conversation, we discovered something crucial about phase three: it was lasting too long… for both of us. I was spending most of my energy trying not to climax, assuming she wanted it to last longer. Meanwhile, because Kristen doesn’t orgasm from penetration, she was thinking, “This has been fun, but I wish he’d kinda hurry up.”
After dating for a full year, how did we fail to realize this foundational misunderstanding about our sex life? What influences have shaped my (often misguided) expectations about my partner’s pleasure and my own sexual performance? And how can partners improve their dialogue to maximize each other’s comfort and pleasure?
How Insecurities Fueled My Sexual Expectations
Kristen and I communicate really well about a lot of things, including sex. Still, my erroneous assumptions about endurance are so deeply ingrained, I never even considered discussing them (and neither did she). Since our conversation, I’ve been exploring what these assumptions are, exactly — where they come from, how they’ve shaped my personal sexual identity, and how they manifest themselves in my intimate relationships.
Some of my need to extend our intercourse was about my desire to pleasure my partner, and much of it, I realize, was also about grappling with my own anxieties. Yes, I have high standards for myself sexually because Kristen deserves the best in bed, and in all places; it’s about her. It’s also about me: I tie my sexual performance — specifically my ability to bring Kristen to climax, as well as my stamina during intercourse — to my masculinity and overall self-esteem. I need to please her because I need to feel manly, to feel adequate.
Turns out I was setting unrealistic standards for myself, all based on societal pressures and not on her pleasure or mine.
Facts and Myths About Sexual Endurance
Before reading on, try to guess what sex therapists say: How long would intervaginal sex need to last in order for it to be “adequate” or “desirable”? How long for sex to be considered “too long” or “too short”?
Go ahead and guess. I’ll wait…
Ok, time’s up.
The answer, according to sex therapists in a 2008 study, is that intervaginal coitus among heterosexual couples — not including foreplay — lasts about 3 to 13 minutes. The therapists broadly deemed 1-2 minutes “too short,” 3-7 minutes “adequate,” 7-13 minutes “desirable,” and 10-30 minutes “too long.” More recently, in 2019, University of Florida professor Laurie Mintz, author of the book Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters — And How to Get It, told NBC News that for the average heterosexual couple, penetration lasts 3-5 minutes.
And yet, for many guys, including me, I felt pressure to last longer without checking to see if that’s what my partner desired, too.
Sources of Pressure to Last Longer in Bed
“If a man develops sexual perceptions and expectations from porn or movies, he may put unrealistic and undue pressure on himself,” says Dr. Paulette Sherman, psychologist and host of The Love Psychologist podcast. “He may ignore real-world cues from his current partner and fail to ask her what she desires and needs.”
Like many men, I derived much of my early sexual (mis)education from porn, including untrue lessons about endurance. I remember filling my parents’ computer with untold viruses by downloading hardcore scenes where men and women are having intercourse for over an hour, with the man having no problem lasting that long and the woman depicted as enjoying every moment of it, to the tune of multiple vaginal orgasms.
Of course, it’s now that I see those scenes as unrealistic, doctored, or otherwise distorted by movie magic and medical interventions. My 12-year-old self, however, when my notions about sexuality and pleasure were being formed and solidified, didn’t. Even now, as an adult man with plenty of real-life sexual experience, I’ve internalized a lot of those unrealistic and dangerous standards.
Music, movies, and pop culture, too, reinforce norms about outsized sexual endurance in men. I’ll admit I feel the heat of embarrassment when Missy Elliott says she doesn’t want a “one-minute man” or when Saweetie looks to “ride the dick all night.” Perhaps “all night” is what Saweetie wants, but it’s not what all women want — or what all men should be expected to provide.
The penis moves in “rhythms and tides,” Sarah Byrden, a sex educator and speaker, said in a 2019 interview. “It is not designed to be consistently erect as it is depicted in all kinds of media — able to be erect inordinate amounts of time — and that is where huge performance pressure comes.”
And if 10-30 minutes is “too long” for most women, “all night” could be veer towards boring and/or painful.
Orgasm: The Real Key to Pleasure for Both Partners
When we talk about pressure to perform in bed among men, we are often talking about sexual stamina during intercourse. And yet, while penetrative sex is important and desirable for most heterosexual couples, the female orgasm — as opposed to the length of intercourse — is, according a 2016 study, by far the most important single predictor of sexual satisfaction for women.
The study also notes that female orgasms are important for heterosexual men, too, who feel as though they have the physical responsibility to stimulate their partner to climax and, as I’ve experienced, tend to feel inadequate if their partner doesn’t orgasm.
Academics continue to document and understand the “orgasm gap” between the sexes: that 95% of heterosexual men report they usually or always orgasmed during sex, compared to 65% of heterosexual women, who were the least likely of all groups across gender identities and sexual orientations.
There is much to be said here about the societal emphasis on men’s pleasure and the devaluing of women’s, but for the sake of this piece, the point is that, for most heterosexual women, achieving orgasm is more important than long-lasting intercourse, especially because most women won’t climax from intervaginal coitus alone.
In a 2015 study, 36% of women reported that clitoral stimulation helped them orgasm during intercourse, whereas only 18% orgasmed from intercourse alone. Like many women, Kristen requires clitoral stimulation — sometimes in addition to penetration, but often without it — in order to climax.
“What I’m trying to fight against is the pervasive myth that orgasms from vaginal penetration — including the ‘g spot’ — are better, more ideal, the right way,” wrote Mintz, “when in fact the vast majority of women need clitoral stimulation to orgasm.”
Scientists also note that physical factors like kissing, petting, and foreplay increase the likelihood of a woman’s orgasm. Even more important were mental and emotional factors, like emphasis on orgasm, sexual self-esteem, along with openness of sexual dialogue with partners. Additionally, the 2016 study reveals that “a relationship that felt good and worked well emotionally, and where sex was approached openly and appreciatively, promoted orgasms.”
Better Communication — And Better Sex — Going Forward
“Couples miscommunicate about each other’s comfort, needs and desires in bed because they are afraid to bring it up,” says Sherman. “They write the script or story for their partner instead of asking them and listening. This can cause communication gaps, resentment, and awkwardness in bed.”
As with so many issues in a relationship, good sex is about finding out what each partner wants, what each partner can give and marrying the two. It’s about communication, collaboration, and compromise.
These days, after Kristen climaxes from manual stimulation and we begin intercourse, we’ve set clearer expectations and enter phase three with open dialogue.
As for the general agreement we’ve landed on? I’ll keep going until she’s ready, and then she’ll tell me to finish, at which point I’ll almost certainly be ready to climax (practically on command). It works well, because a) she gets to go for as long or short as she wants, b) I don’t have to guess how long is “long enough” and put undue pressure on myself to keep going, and c) when she commands me to finish, it’s really hot.
And sure, it doesn’t always work out perfectly. If I’m worried about climaxing before she’s ready, I can pull out for a time and we can do, you know, other stuff. Or sometimes I do end up climaxing before she says to; it’s not perfect, but we talk about it, and it’s OK. We’ll try again next time.
While Kristen and I have strong communication and great sex, both dimensions of our relationship — and the intersection of the two — are still a work in progress.
In other words, we’re getting there, but we’re not finished yet.
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