Pyou have to be a scientist to ask the question. As you lean against the headboard of your bed after intercourse that is far too short for your liking, you may have already wondered: what is the “normal” duration of intercourse?
Know that scientists ask themselves the same question. They just phrase it differently, in an obscure and almost comical way: what is the average latency of intravaginal ejaculation?
Of course, sex isn’t just about inserting a penis into a vagina and ejaculating. But it can be hard to figure out what’s in it and what’s not – should you count initials, and if so, which ones? For the sake of simplicity and precision, we will therefore focus on the period from penetration to ejaculation.
Five hundred couples timed each other
Measuring its average duration is not an easy task. Why not ask people directly how long they take, you might say. Well, this method would have two major problems. First of all, the given estimates run the risk of being overestimated. It is indeed socially tempting to claim that your antics continued late into the night.
So we are not necessarily able to say how long it lasted. In principle, sex is not an activity where our eyes are riveted on the alarm clock placed on the bedside table. However, it can be difficult to give an estimate without help if the action was particularly uplifting.
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The best study, among those that have attempted to estimate the average length of the period leading to ejaculation in the general population, was conducted among five hundred couples from different places on the planet. They had to use a stopwatch to measure the duration of their sexual relationship over a period of four weeks.
Yes, you read that right: As strange as it sounds, the contestants had to press the button Start at the time of penile penetration, then on the pimple stop during ejaculation. You will probably object that such an action is likely to affect the mood of the participants and that it does not really fit into the natural order of things. But science rarely achieves perfection, and this method is the best we’ve found.
From 33 seconds to… 44 minutes!
But to what results? The main takeaway is that these vary considerably from one couple to another. Each couple’s average (calculated from all their sexual encounters over a four-week period) ranges from 33 seconds for the shortest duration to 44 minutes (80 times longer!) for the longest.
It is therefore clear that there is no “normal” duration of intercourse. The average duration (median actually technically), measured from all the pairs, amounts to 5.4 minutes. Which means that if we rank all the participating couples, from shortest to longest intercourse, it comes in the middle at an average of 5.4 minutes over this four week period.
The study also revealed some secondary lessons. For example, the use of condoms does not seem to have a bearing on the duration of the report, more than the possible circumcision of the man. These findings have the benefit of challenging some traditional beliefs about the relationship between penile sensitivity and effectiveness in bed.
Geographical origin doesn’t have much influence either – apart from Turkish couples, whose reports seem to be significantly shorter (3.7 minutes) than those of the other affected countries (Netherlands, Spain, UK and USA). The age of the participants, on the other hand, is not neutral: the older a couple is, the shorter the sexual relationship, contrary to popular belief (certainly acted by men of a certain age).
Why is it taking so long?
As a researcher interested in the subject of evolution, all these debates about the duration of intercourse lead me to a question: why does it take so long at all? The only thing that justifies intercourse, it seems, is the delivery of sperm into the vagina. Why all these back and forth movements? Why, instead of sliding his penis in and pulling it out hundreds of times with every intercourse, not just insert it once, ejaculate, then go for a lemonade and move on?
Before you answer me “Because it’s fun! remember that evolution does not value fun as such. It only “designs” things to make them comfortable, that criterion is met if they encouraged our ancestors to pass on their genes to subsequent generations. For example, even if we enjoy food, we don’t spend five minutes chewing each bite just to enjoy it anymore. That would be ineffective. So we have evolved in such a way that it looks disgusting to us today.
Although it is impossible to give a definitive explanation for the duration of our intercourse, the beginning of an answer can be given by the shape of the penis. In 2003, researchers showed – using artificial vaginas and penises, as well as corn syrup to act as sperm – that the ridge that surrounds the head of the penis draws away the syrup that already existed in the vagina.
This experiment shows that the male’s repetitive movements could be aimed at removing the sperm left by other males, thus ensuring that at the time of ejaculation his little swimmers have the best chance of reaching the egg first. This phenomenon could also explain why the man feels pain when he continues these movements after ejaculation: he would then risk evacuating his own semen.
Finally, what can we conclude from all these results? If I can give you some advice, try not to think too much about it in the middle of your lovemaking.
*Brendan Zietsch, Associate Professor, University of Queensland