What is the “normal” duration of sex?

Credits : iStock

You don’t have to be a scientist to have asked yourself the question. Grabbing the headboard after a roll in the hay that was far too quick for your liking, you are sure to have asked yourself: what is the “normal” duration of sex? How long does it last for most people?

Well be aware that scientists asked themselves the same question! They formulated it differently, in an obscure and almost comical way: what is the average intervaginal ejaculation latency time?

Of course, sex is far more than the simple insertion of a penis into a vagina, followed by ejaculation. But it can be difficult to determine what does -and what doesn’t – count as foreplay, and what exactly can be defined as sex. For the sake of simplicity and precision, here we are going to focus on the period going from initial penetration to ejaculation.

However, measuring the average duration of sex is no mean feat. So why not just directly ask people how long it takes them, we hear you say? Well, this method poses two major problems. First of all, the time spans reported are liable to be overestimated. It is too tempting, socially speaking, to pretend that you are at it all night long.

500 couples were timed

Next, we are not necessarily capable of saying exactly how long sex lasted for. Sex is not, in principle, an activity during which your eyes are on a countdown timer on your bedside table. However, to try and get an estimation without any timed assistance could prove difficult, particularly when a couple are in the throes of passion.

The best study, among others which sought to estimate the average duration of sex in the general population, was carried out on 500 couples coming from various parts of the world. With the aid of a timer, the couples had to measure the duration of their sexual relations over a period of four weeks.

Yes, you heard us: as strange as it may seem, the participants had to press on the start button when the penis was inserted, and press on the stop button during ejaculation. You are sure to object that this action is likely to kill the mood, and that it isn’t exactly natural. But it is rare for science to reach perfection, and this is the best method we have found to date!

Duration of sex: from 33 seconds to…. 44 minutes!

So then, what were the results? The main finding was that the duration varied considerably between couples. The timespans (calculated based on all of the incidents of sex recorded over the period of four weeks) went from 33 seconds for the shortest, to 44 minutes (that’s 80 times longer!) for the longest lovemaking sessions.

sex timer
Sexy huh? Matthew/Flickr, CC BY

It is thus clear that there is no “normal” duration for sex. The average duration (or the median, in fact, technically), based on measurements taken by all of the couples, was 5.4 minutes. This means that, if we were to rank all of the participants, from the shortest to the longest lasting, the couple in the middle of the group lasted for an average of 5.4 minutes over the period of four weeks.

The study also revealed some secondary findings. For example, the use of condoms did not appear to have any effect on the duration of sex, no more than circumcision did. These results had the merit of challenging certain traditional beliefs about the relationship between the sensitivity of the penis and efficacy in the bedroom.

The geographical origin of the couples didn’t have much influence either – except for in Turkish couples, who appeared to last significantly less long (3.7 minutes) than couples in the other countries included in the study (Holland, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States). The age of the participants, on the other hand, did have an impact: the older a couple were, the shorter sex tended to last, contrary to popular beliefs (rumours which are sure to have been spread by men of a certain age).

Why does sex last so long?

When we consider things from an evolutionary perspective, debates on the duration of sex all culminate in one question: why is the duration of sex so long? The only thing that justifies sex is, it appears, the delivery of sperm into the vagina. So why, then, all the thrusting in and out? Why, rather than slipping the penis inside and moving it back and forward several hundred times each time, do we not simply put it in once, ejaculate, and go and drink a lemonade?

Before responding “because it’s fun!”, remember that evolution doesn’t put any stock in fun for the sake of fun. It only “creates” things in a way that makes them pleasant, which is a criteria that was only filled if it motivated our ancestors to pass their genes on to the next generation. For example, even if we enjoy food, we don’t spend five minutes chewing each bite, in order to appreciate the taste. That would be ineffective. Therefore, we have evolved in such a way that this doesn’t appeal to us, and we would even find it off-putting.

Although it is impossible to provide a definitive explanation for the duration of sex, the shape of the penis does give us some clues. In 2003, researchers showed – with the help of artificial penises and vaginas, as well as corn syrup to serve as sperm – that the ridge that surrounds the head of the penis removed syrup that was already in the vagina.

This experiment showed that the man’s repeated movements could have evolved in order to get rid of any sperm left behind by other men, and thus to ensure that at the moment of ejaculation, their little swimmers had the best odds of reaching the egg first. This phenomenon could also explain why men feel pain when they continue these movements after ejaculation – as such movements run the risk of the man removing his own sperm.

So what can we deduce in the end from all of these results? If I could give you some advice, try not to think about it too much when you’re between the sheets!

Brendan Zietsch, ARC Future Fellow, The University of Queensland 

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How many times a month should a man ejaculate to stay healthy?

Why peeing before sex is a bad idea!