The short answer is that according to sexperts, it depends. "The exact length of sex play is really up to you," says Donna Oriowo, PhD, a sex therapist in SimplePractice's network. "Are you going for a quickie, or are you in for a long, passion-filled night? Depending on which way you’re going, how much time you take [to climax] will vary. Be sure to be present in your body—it will tell you when you’ve had enough."
If you do want to put a time parameter on how long should sex be, though, you could go by how long it takes to climax during P-in-V sex, in particular. While data varies and is hugely personal, a main directive is to keep the orgasm gap in mind.
A 2020 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that it takes 14 minutes for vulva-owners in relationships (which, for the purposes of this study were heterosexual and partnered relationships) to orgasm during penetrative sex, which included additional maneuvers and positions. Compare this to the average time it takes for penis-owners to ejaculate, which research has noted to be on average between five and seven minutes, and it's clear that folks who have different anatomy have different needs for how long sex should be.
That said, for a vulva-owner, penetration alone is rarely what leads to orgasm, so penetrative sex doesn't necessarily mean better sex. In fact, it can often mean the exact opposite—especially if you're unprepared.
"When you're not prepared for an 'all-nighter,' that's when you can really cause the vagina some real pain, agitating micro tears, which then causes the vagina to need some days of recovery time.” —sexologist Marla Renee Stewart, sexologist
"[Even though the] vagina is incredibly durable, it's important to know that if you want to go 'all night long,' you have the lube to take you through it," says Marla Renee Stewart, sexologist for adult-wellness brand and retailer Lovers. "When you're not prepared for an 'all-nighter,' that's when you can really cause the vagina some real pain, agitating micro tears, which then causes the vagina to need some days of recovery time.”
But what about the other side of things? Is it possible to have sex that's way too short? Well, if a person involved suffers from premature ejaculation—which is characterized by reaching climax in a minute or less after stimulation or penetration—length of time for sex does matter.
"Duration is important when it becomes a problem—when the desired duration is not achieved due to an involuntary lack of ejaculatory control," says Patricia López Trabajo, founder CEO of Myhixel, an ejaculation-control device. "This can lead to frustration, insecurity, or lack of self-esteem and can be a handicap to having better sex and more fun in bed.”
In this situation of sex that's not long enough, there are many options for being able to troubleshoot. One is simply to expand one’s definition of what sex is—because in general, it shouldn’t be defined as limited to P-in-V. "Sex is more than just intercourse; sexual intimacy is everything that happens before, during, and after the act, and it depends on the connection between the people involved," says López Trabajo.
If premature ejaculation is a reason why your sexual play ends early, there are also strategies to try that can help. Myhixel TR ($239) is a therapy device with a companion app that "trains" a penis owner to last longer. And in a pinch, something like Promescent Desensitizing Delay Spray ($25) can decrease stimulation intensity and lengthen the time to ejaculation.
Ultimately, though, the experts agree that sex is over whenever the participants want it to be over, not when one or both parties climax (or don't). And if you’re looking to wrap things up, it’s okay to express that. Sometimes, someone is so eager to please their partner that they actually need to hear some variation of, "I'm all good."
"If they have reached their climax and you haven't but you’re still done, it’s okay to say something like 'hmmm, I’m satisfied,'" Dr. Oriowo says. “Sometimes we spend too much time thinking about the orgasm instead of sexual fulfillment of satisfaction. On the other hand, if neither of you have reached a climax, but you’re done, switch gears in another sexy way.”
Dr. Oriowo suggests that you can let them know you would like to watch them finish up. Stewart also suggests dirty talking your partner to orgasm. There’s a lot of ways to play, so feel free to follow your intuition... or just say "time’s up," if your clock has truly run out.
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