The average length of intercourse in Europe is about eight minutes, but there are big variations, says one expert.
The average length of intercourse in Europe is about eight minutes, but there are big variations, says one expert.

How long does sex normally last before climaxing?

For sure not all night, in case you might have thought so.

Published

How fast is too fast? And what is actually normal?

It’s common for both young boys and young girls to think that intercourse should last a long time, according to Tore Holte Follestad.

He heads the Norwegian Society for Clinical Sexology (NFKS) and is the assistant general manager at the Sex and Society clinic in Oslo. This is where young people come to get help with their sexual health.

“All genders think this is how it’s supposed to be. Guys think they should have a huge penis that will last for an outrageously long time in bed. And everyone thinks that when the penis enters the vagina, it's shared pleasure and fireworks for all parties,” he says.

“A lot of girls experience pain and discomfort and wonder what to do. But if you have an hour of intercourse, it's no wonder you hurt,” says Follestad.

In a Norwegian study published in the Journal of Public Health in 2009, 27 percent of men reported having premature ejaculation problems, including more younger than older men.

Perhaps some men have a misperception of what is normal and necessary?

“Yes, absolutely,” says Finnish psychologist and sexual therapist Patrick Jern.

He heads the Department of Psychology at the University of Turku and researches premature ejaculation.

Normal versus desirable

Patrick Jern is researching premature ejaculation.
Patrick Jern is researching premature ejaculation.

If you look at the average length for intercourse in Europe, it’s about eight minutes, but that varies dramatically, says Jern.

And statistically, it is normal to deviate up to seven minutes from the average.

“According to the statistics then, any intercourse that lasts between one and 15 minutes would be considered ‘normal’”, the Finnish researcher says.

“It’s usually the case that about 30 percent of men who are asked worry about not being able to control their ejaculation well enough. But only one to two percent of men report that intercourse usually takes about one minute or less,” says Jern.

“So it’s pretty common for people to worry about this, even when objectively they have normal intercourse duration,” he says.

Bente Træen and her colleagues – in a new study that they haven’t yet analysed the data from – surveyed people on the last time they had intercourse.

Træen was also one of the researchers behind the 2009 study in which many Norwegian men reported problems with premature ejaculation.

In the new study, the researchers asked men whether they had experienced premature ejaculation during the past year, and over a period of three months. They did not ask how fast the men reached orgasm.

“Premature ejaculation is probably a real problem for those who experience it,” says Træen.

Researchers involved in the 2009 study reported that sexual problems among married or cohabiting couples may be linked to less physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction with the partner.

Therapists chime in

In a study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2008, American and Canadian couples therapists estimated the ideal duration of sexual intercourse.

Conclusion: anywhere from seven to 15 minutes.

Under two minutes was too short, they thought. And anywhere from ten to 30 minutes was too long, according to the combined responses from the therapists.

A study in the same journal from 2005 suggests huge variability in how long sex lasts for heterosexual couples.

Five hundred heterosexual couples from five countries timed their intercourse over a four-week period.

The couples initiated sex after starting a stopwatch, and foreplay and afterplay weren’t counted.

The shortest intercourse duration in the study lasted 55 seconds, while the longest bumped along for over 44 minutes.

The median intercourse duration in the study was just over five minutes, but appeared to get shorter with participant age, and the duration also varied slightly between the five countries.

What is considered statistically normal is one thing. But another thing is what you and your partner want in your sex life.

If you as a man can have intercourse for five to six minutes, but still find this too short – what should you do?

Bente Træen is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo
Bente Træen is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo

Shift away from negative focus

You can always raise your concerns with your doctor, or with a psychologist or sexologist.

And you can still get help even if you don't qualify for a diagnosis.

“Treatment in that case might initially consist of so-called psychoeducation,” says Jern.

“That is, the man receives information about the normal length of sexual intercourse and at the same time learns that there’s a lot of variation between people and couples. And of course also that there are different ways to have sex that can be just as enjoyable.”

“The idea is to shift the focus from negative thinking and worrying about your own ability – to focusing on the pleasure and having a good time with your partner or partners,” Jern says.

What exactly is “normal” ejaculation?

Jern says that for patients who feel they climax too soon, the most important thing is to explain that they don’t have any medical or biological problem, even if they are unable to have sex as long as they’d like before ejaculating.

“We’re talking about natural variation in a biological reflex,” says Jern.

Some men tend to come so fast that they can't even begin penetration, and then trying to have children can be difficult.

But that's unusual, according to Jern.

Men who seek help for premature ejaculation almost always do it out of a desire to have better sex – not with the goal to fertilize an egg cell.

“And then the patient's subjective experience is the focus, rather than the number of minutes and seconds intercourse usually lasts."

Too few people know enough, says Tore Holte Follestad at Sex and Society)
Too few people know enough, says Tore Holte Follestad at Sex and Society)

Too many people don’t know enough

Tore Holte Follestad is the assistant general manager at Sex and Society, Norway’s largest centre for sexual and reproductive health. He sometimes tells young patients that it is common for intercourse to last only three to five minutes.

He finds that a lot of people are relieved to hear that.

But he acknowledges that statistics that measure how long it takes for men to reach orgasm with penetration can be misleading, and that they don't reveal anything about how the partner was doing and what might have happened before and after sex.

“Intercourse lasts for three to five minutes – but for whom?” Follestad asks.

“A lot of the knowledge revolves around the man's performance in bed,” he says.

He says that girls who come to the Sex and Society clinic often ask: How do I manage to have an orgasm when I can't even fit my finger in my vagina? And one question guys might raise is: We had sex for a really long time, but she didn't orgasm even though my penis is big enough.

He believes a lot of people get the impression from porn that men should have a perpetual giant erection. But the fact that this myth is allowed to survive also has to do with the fact that as a society we’re not very good at talking about sex.

“I think that stimulating the clitoris in the context of intercourse is something people aren’t aware enough of – not in sex education, in porn, or in communication in general.

“Too many people don’t know enough, or anything, about how important the clitoris is for good feelings and orgasms,” says Follestad.

Like expecting men to orgasm without touching the penis

Sexual pleasure is a very important motivation for women to have sex, and most women in relationships find it important to have an orgasm when having sex, according to a Finnish study published in Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology in 2016.

In a study of more than 50 000 Americans, 95 percent of heterosexual men said they most often or always had an orgasm when they were sexually intimate; 89 percent of gay men, 88 percent of bisexual men, 86 percent of lesbian women, and 66 percent of bisexual women responded similarly.

Among heterosexual women, 65 percent said they usually reached orgasm, according to the 2004 study in The Journal of Sex Research.

But if a female partner is struggling with reaching orgasm, having longer intercourse isn’t necessarily the right medicine.

According to the Finnish study, both women's sexual self-esteem and good communication played a role, along with several other factors.

And in a 2015 survey of American women, only about 18 percent responded that penetration by itself was enough stimulation to orgasm. Researchers presented their findings in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy.

Thinking that women can have an orgasm without stimulating the clitoris is like thinking that men should be able to have an orgasm without touching the penis, according to British sexologist Karen Gurney, who authored the book Mind The Gap.

Often what is measured in research is how long penetration itself lasts. And the end point of the sex act is set at the end of penetration.

Useful to distinguish

“My personal opinion is that of course it’s absurd to focus exclusively on when penetration begins and ends,” Jern says.

But that data is useful in research on premature ejaculation, because there’s such a great difference between how many people feel they’re struggling with premature ejaculation on the one hand, and on the other hand, how many actually have objective symptoms, Jern says.

“If you only relied on people’s subjective experiences of premature ejaculation, about a third of all men would qualify for a diagnosis. That wouldn’t be appropriate,” he says.

“By contrast, if we only considered penetrating vaginal intercourse lasting less than one minute, only one to two percent would qualify for a diagnosis.”

“It wouldn't be possible to identify people who are just worried without cause, without also focusing on how long intercourse lasted before the man climaxed,” he adds.

According to Jern, health professionals should ask men about their own experience of symptoms and also about how long their intercourse tends to last when assessing them for premature ejaculation.

What causes premature ejaculation?

Some men do struggle to control their ejaculation over a longer period of time.

They always climax in less than a minute or two, whether they want to or not, and it affects their sex life, their partner and themselves.

“The short answer as to the causes of premature ejaculation is that we don’t know,” says Jern.

Some research suggests that certain diseases may affect it, like MS, he says.

Jern used twin studies in his research on premature ejaculation, which showed that some heredity seems to be involved.

“This isn’t particularly interesting in itself, since almost everything is hereditary to some degree. Premature ejaculation is about as hereditary as political orientation. That is, 30 percent of the variation in premature ejaculation symptoms can be explained by genes,” he says.

Very little research on premature ejaculation is available, says Jern.

But we do have some knowledge about what the problem is linked to.

“Poor self-esteem, problems in the relationship, loneliness, and negative sexual experiences can all impact ejaculation,” he says.

But whether the chicken or the egg comes first, or whether the causal relationships go both ways, is still unclear.

One more myth?

Do men want to last longer in bed just for the sake of achievement?

Maybe not. Many men may simply want the sex not to end right away.

When researchers asked 150 couples how long they wanted the entire sex act, including foreplay, to last, both men and women responded that they would like the duration of intercourse to be longer than it usually was for them.

The study also clearly showed that men had a fairly good knowledge of what women desired.

But both men and their female partners, on the other hand, underestimated the men’s ideal duration of foreplay and intercourse.

Translated by Ingrid P. Nuse

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no