How Long Should Sex Last? Here’s What Sex Therapists Say
Updated: Jun. 15, 2021
Medically reviewed by Tia Jackson-Bey, MD
When it comes to sex, insecurities abound. You might wonder whether you look OK naked or if you’re doing this move right. Or you might get hung up on whether you’re moving too fast—or too slow.
Look, sex is intimate. And being that vulnerable with another person can have you questioning everything including the best time to have sex, how often to have it, and how long it should last.
However, the word “should” can be problematic. Using this phrase can add a level of shame and self-criticism to something that should be all about pleasure and connection, rather than a specific timetable.
That’s why sex therapists have a lot to say about how long sex should last. Here’s what they want you to know.
What is the definition of sex?
Before we can discuss how long sex should last, there are a few nuances to cover, including the definition of sex itself.
First, sex can be with yourself, a partner, or more than one partner, according to sex therapist Douglas Braun-Harvey, cofounder of The Harvey Institute, which conducts sexual health trainings and consultations.
Then there’s the question of when sex “begins” and “ends.” The answer may differ depending on who you ask.
For example, some might say sex begins when there is penetration, while others might say it starts during foreplay. People may feel sex ends with an orgasm, but others may count cuddling. There’s no right or wrong answer.
Sex therapist Sari Cooper, founder of the Center for Love and Sex in New York City, says that, generally, what most people think of when they say the word “sex” is a penetrative sexual act that ends in one or two partners coming to orgasm.
“The term sex is not helpful here, as it is most frequently hetero-male focused and may not include sexual scenarios that don’t include orgasms,” she says. “Many studies leave out a large range of sexual acts and folks who identify with different orientations.”
When working with clients, Cooper uses the term sex as a large umbrella term that includes an extensive range of erotic and sexual actions that don’t always include orgasms. This encourages people to feel more confidant about their erotic desires.
(Here are 12 things sex therapists wish you knew).
The climax isn’t the end
There’s an inherent problem with using orgasm as a sexual finish line.
If how long sex lasts relates to one partner’s orgasm, then it leaves out the timing needed for another partner to reach orgasm, Cooper says. Think about heterosexual partners: a man and a woman may not reach orgasm at the same time.
According to Cooper, some studies say the median time it takes men to reach orgasm through vaginal penetration is about five to six minutes. And one of the few studies to explore women’s needed length of time before orgasm in an erotic scenario found that it takes an average of 13.4 minutes.
Not only does focusing on the time to climax get tricky for male-female partners, but it also leaves out those who never have orgasms or those who can’t orgasm with every encounter, which is not uncommon, says licensed psychologist Rachel Needle, the codirector of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes..
So, how long should sex last?
If you’re self-conscious or concerned about how long your romps last, know that the consensus among sex therapists is that there’s no absolute or standard time range for “good sex.”
Placing emphasis on how long you had sex actually inhibits physical intimacy, according to Braun-Harvey. “It focuses on a standard that leads to less pleasure and less connection with oneself or partner,” he says.
Sex therapist Dulcinea Alex Pitagora says that it should last as long as both parties are consenting and enjoying sex. And that may range from a matter of minutes to a number of hours.
Depending on a handful of factors, somewhere between five to 20 minutes is what most find desirable, Needle says.
What determines your preference?
Other factors that play a role in the duration of sex include age, sexual orientation, sexual function, medical conditions, sexual goals, and contextual factors.
Whether you’re male or female can play a big role in how long you prefer to have sex. That’s because women often need more stimulation prior to penetration and generally don’t climax as quickly.
“A Canadian study, for example, found that female same-sex couples reported much longer durations during individual sexual encounters than men and women in mixed-sex or male same-sex relationships,” Cooper says.
Other research on mixed-sex couples and clinical experience points to women needing more time to experience sexual satiation in a sexual scenario, Cooper says.
It’s important to remember that what people want and enjoy is different when it comes to all things related to physical intimacy, including how long it lasts or whether or not you reach orgasm.
So the duration of a satisfying sexual encounter has a lot of wiggle room, so to speak.
The benefits of a “quickie” vs. slow sex
People like quickies, brief sexual encounters, for different reasons.
According to Needle, they can be fun, spontaneous, intense, and exciting. They are also proof that you don’t need an extended period of time to have enjoyable sex.
“For those who are pressed for time, quickies can be great to stay physically connected and have more sex,” she says. “Sex of a longer duration can sometimes be exhausting physically and emotionally.”
Quickies can help break up your regular sex routine and boost excitement and sexual energy too. In fact, Needle says having quickies as part of your sexual repertoire can be good for your sex life and for a healthy relationship.
Other people enjoy quickies because they’re an easy way to connect with a partner, Cooper says. These people also feel comfortable that there will be future times in which they can have longer experiences, so there’s no pressure for long encounters.
“Some male clients have expressed their need to have quickies because they’re concerned about keeping their erections or they’ve had a problem with premature [uncontrolled] ejaculation,” Cooper says.
And if quickies aren’t your style, that’s OK.
“Some people take a long while to release the stressors of their lives and need a long warm-up time to become turned on and physically aroused, so, they prefer longer, sensual outercourse [as opposed to intercourse] sessions,” Cooper says.
(Here is more advice for a successful relationship.)
Other important things to remember for quality sex
Learning more about yourself and what you need for sexual satisfaction is key for good-quality sex. Cooper focuses on empowering people to understand their own anxiety and stress levels and to learn techniques to lower them when it comes to sex.
“Once partners are more relaxed, they’re more able to communicate their desires without expressing or hearing judgement, rejection, or criticism,” she says. “It allows partners to expand their sexual menu to include experiences that they each find pleasurable.”
Plus, if you can get out of your own head, you’ll be able to read and enjoy your partner’s sexual signals and stimulation, Cooper adds.
Having open and ongoing communication about your and your partner’s desires, needs, and pleasure will lead to more satisfying sex. And it’ll do you more good than controlling how long each encounter lasts.
Skip the timer and do this instead
Hopefully, you understand that keeping an eye on the time is one way to kill the mood. Instead, opt to learn more about your sexual needs and desires.
“My top tip for couples or singles is to remove the term ‘should’ from their vocabulary and begin to describe how they want to feel before, during, and after an experience,” Cooper says. “For example, ‘I want to feel so desired and pursued that you’re willing to take your time and seduce me slowly for the three days before our next intimacy date.’”
Sexual satisfaction is about so much more than duration. Focus more on being present and enjoying the encounter and all of the arousal and sensations that go along with it.
Next, check out these sex mistakes you’re probably making.