For almost a decade before I had sex, I knew that “bad” sex had something to do with a man’s lack of control causing the whole thing to be over too quickly. Through bawdy movies and the sorts of double entendres that flew around on late night chat shows, I gathered that, for a man, ejaculating too soon was a major faux-pas. This was years before I’d even experienced what ejaculating was for myself.
Though I bitterly lamented not having the opportunity to be bad at sex during high school, I did have ample time to ensure that, if and when the time came, I would not embarrass myself by being a “two-pump chump.” And so, as lonely but determined 14-year-old pimpleton, I leaned in and invented edging.
Edging refers to masturbating or having sex to the edge of orgasm and then withdrawing—often several times—before having an orgasm. I edged with the hopeful intention of one day being a better partner but I soon found that it also made my orgasms more powerful and um, productive. Though despite what I thought at the time, I did not, in fact, invent it.
Several years later, the time came and I immediately embarrassed myself. I put on the wrong music, wore way too much cologne and, bizarrely, pre-gamed by rubbing toothpaste into my private parts. I did not, however, ejaculate until we’d heard all of Hey Jude, Revolution, Get Back, and the first half of Don’t let Me Down. Almost fifteen minutes of The Beatles Past Masters Volume Two had transpired while we were having honest-to-goodness sexual intercourse. All my ingenuity and hard work had seemingly paid off.
“Well, that lasted for a lot longer that I imagined,” said my more experienced girlfriend.
I now realize that she probably didn’t intend this to be a compliment. Still, that’s how I took it at the time and for years afterward, I was sure that satisfactory intercourse went on for fifteen minutes or more. I certainly liked it that way so I used that figure as a benchmark for years.
I was in a particularly promiscuous patch during my mid-30s by the time I began to sense that going longer isn’t always appreciated. That message really hit home when, during an OkCupid date, a partner told me to “wrap it up.”
“I’m wearing a condom,” I told her.
“No,” she replied, employing the accompanying the circular hand gesture. “I mean, I’m good.”
There I was, trying my hardest to extend the experience for our mutual benefit while she’d had more than enough. What she knew and I didn’t was that I’d guilelessly humped us out of what Florida-based clinical sex therapist and researcher Lawrence Siegel refers to at the “Goldilocks range”—a duration of intercourse that most people would describe as being just right.
“Most people, regardless of age, gender, or orientation will have both an upper and lower limit for sexual satisfaction,” he tells me. “The ‘Goldilocks range’ is between eight and thirteen minutes, which is generally reported as most satisfying. In spite of what most may think, people rarely go longer than that.”
This range is backed up by a 2008 study that saw US and Canadian sex therapists quizzed about intercourse that was considered too short, too long, and just right, based on their work with thousands of patients spanning several decades.
Siegel adds that the average amount of time people actually spend having penile-vaginal or penile-anal intercourse is five to eight minutes. This is a range partially backed up by research including a 2009 paper that sought to get a handle on intravaginal ejaculatory latency time or (IELT). Researchers used a hidden timer to measure how long it took for men from five countries (The Netherlands, UK, Spain, Turkey, and the US) to orgasm and ejaculate after their penis was inserted into the vagina. That’s your IELT. Condom use and circumcision were noted though foreplay was not timed and no same-sex couples were included in the study.
Researchers found that men from Turkey had the shortest IELT (4.4 minutes) while men from Great Britain had the longest, at around ten minutes. The median was just about six minutes or about two minutes less than the beginning of the range that most people consider the lower end of the duration for satisfying sex.
When I ask Siegel why IELT would be shorter than the length of times most people regard satisfying sex to take, he explains that men are biologically predisposed to ejaculate relatively quickly with intercourse and that most other animals do too. “During intercourse, males are most vulnerable so there is a biological imperative to drop the seed and get out of there,” though he adds that this “evolutionary holdover” can be—if you’ll excuse the pun—overcome.
Unlike other animals, humans can wrest control of their arousal patterns—particularly as most of us have sex indoors and not in full view of apex predators. Indeed, Siegel says that it's imperative for both partners to learn how to establish an awareness and understanding of both themselves and each other in order to really learn how to be in sync with each other.
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There has to be something to the idea of men and women’s sexual responses not lining up quite right. After all, it was frequent references to men and women being out of sync that had set me on a path to being something of a sex marathoner.
I mean, just look at this graphic—disseminated by the University of California at Santa Barbara—depicting men’s and women’s sexual response cycles. It clearly depicts the man shooting his bolt before the woman climaxes—what’s more, it shows that her orgasm could be the first of many while the man’s penis immediately shrivels into dormancy after orgasm. And then there was that stat I’d read over and over: On average, women required around twenty minutes of sexual activity to have an orgasm.
“So the real story is that the twenty-minute duration isn't actually based in research,” says Rob Perkins, co-founder of OMGYes, an organization that conducts large-scale, nationally-representative studies about the specifics of sexual pleasure.”Sexual pleasure doesn't get research funding, so myth and misinformation get passed around and repeated without getting checked by fact.”
Writing for Medium, regular Tonic contributor Suzannah Weiss went on the hunt for where this twenty-minute figure came from and concluded that it was either from interviews conducted by Alfred Kinsey and published in his 65-year-old book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female; Kinsey’s successor Paul H. Gebhard’s data on on the length of foreplay before intercourse; or just as likely pulled out of thin air and repeated so much and so often that it acquired a patina of truth.
In her story, Weiss also cites a meta-analysis of 32-studies on the subject authored by Indiana University professor Elisabeth Lloyd. Lloyd found that that only one in four cis women consistently orgasms through intercourse and comments that as many of the these women could be stimulating their clitorises during intercourse, it’s likely fewer still.
One upshot of that little nugget is that the duration of intercourse is just one of many factors that can affect whether a sexual experience is satisfying, not just for cis women but for everyone. “I think much of our sexual satisfaction comes from what we do and share before intercourse and after,” Siegel says.
I suppose that we’re fixated on the right duration of sex because jokes and epithets relating to coming too soon are just easier to write than zingers pertaining to an inability to learn your partners’ preferences, skimping on foreplay, an ignorance about anatomy, an inability to make partners’ feel desired, or having uninspired sex. Luckily, a primer on how to mitigate such impediments to sexual satisfaction can be found here.
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