Seven minutes in heaven: Why 'enough' sex might be too much

    Classes have started again, and most of us are sadly watching what little free time we expected to have fly out the library window and disappear. We’re lucky to get enough time to eat and sleep for a few hours a night, and maybe squeeze in an hour every week for an episode of Gossip Girl. But it seems like we might as well kiss sex goodbye now, since there’s no way our schedules have room for those extra hours.

    Wait! Put down the calendar and back away from the chastity belt. Maybe we don’t have to give it up after all. Apparently middle-schoolers got something right — it turns out seven minutes might be all we really need.

    Time flies…in bed. Photo by inocuo on, licensed under Creative Commons.

    A study published in the May issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine surveyed members of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research and asked them to rate the amount of time that heterosexual intercourse should last (dividing lengths of time into “too short,” “adequate,” “desirable” and “too long”). But that’s easy! I know that one! The answer is “forever”, am I right?

    Well, actually, no. The results looked a little more like this:

    • 1-2 min was determined to be “too short”
    • 3-7 min was “adequate”
    • 7-13 min was “desirable”
    • and 10-30 min was “too long”

    Before we all fall over in shock or start making ‘that’s what she said’ jokes about the categories, there are a couple of things to keep in mind about this survey. The first is, obviously, that it doesn’t include anything about same-sex couples: it’s all about penis and vagina. This isn’t discrimination; according to Dr. Eric Corty, who led the survey, the choice was made to focus on heterosexual couples because they’re the majority and so there’s more information available. Okay, fine, but I do think that including same-sex couples would have been interesting.

    Second: The seven minutes in the survey does not include foreplay. The study isn’t discouraging foreplay; it just keeps its focus only on intercourse. This doesn’t mean you should apply this to real-life situations. Because, let’s be serious, unless you only have seven minutes until the cops break down the door and drag your partner off to prison, you’re probably not skipping straight from sitting down in front of the TV to making the beast with two backs. And, more importantly, why would you want to? Foreplay is awesome. It should not be forgotten. Ever.

    The study may not say anything about foreplay, but it does raise some extremely important points. Most people do have certain expectations about how long sex is “supposed” to last — or at least how short it shouldn’t be. Yet, at some point, most of us have also had an overwhelming incident with chocolate cake or Halloween candy that proved once and for all that there can be too much of a good thing.

    “People who have the idea it should last 30 or 60 minutes are doing themselves a detriment,” said Corty, a clinical psychologist at Penn State Erie. “It’s just not comfortable after a while. Every good thing must come to an end.”

    Corty said that he decided to conduct the study simply out of curiosity. He said he had always been interested in knowing the answer to this question and figured other people would be interested as well. Yet it’s more than an issue of interest. It’s about our health and, really, our happiness.

    In our health-obsessed society, you can find (often contradictory) information on the best or right way to do almost anything. There are nutritional labels everywhere, individually-tailored workout plans and the government is even stepping in in some places to stop us all from getting so fat. Yet when it comes to sexual health, the amount of misinformation floating around is ridiculous. The point is, if this is what health professionals are saying, it should not be news.

    But most people who have heard about these results (myself included), have been surprised, to say the least. It doesn’t fit at all with our concept of what sex “should” be like. Which begs the question: where exactly is that “should” coming from? Where did we all get the idea that sex isn’t good sex unless it lasts for two hours and someone pulls a muscle?

    Dr. Corty isn’t quite sure. “I’ve thought about where the message comes from, and I couldn’t give you a definite answer,” he said. “I blame the media, to a certain extent. But the media’s not just making it up by itself. It has to come from somewhere.”

    Dr. Mary-Lou Galician, a media literacy advocate, author and head of Media Analysis and Criticism at Arizona State University, is more willing to condemn the media directly. “Mass media does create or at least help support and foster unrealistic expectations,” she said. “These expectations lead to a general lowering of one’s happiness and standards.”

    According to Galician, mass media tends to portray sex as something that is both easy and wonderful every time. Look, we all know better. Nothing is perfect, and certainly nothing is perfect all the time, especially not something so dependent on human error as sex. Everyone’s had at least one bad experience; maybe you were too drunk to enjoy what was going on, or realized halfway through that this person really wasn’t that attractive and totally lost interest. Maybe your partner had no idea what they were doing and you were too tired or didn’t know them well enough to try to fix it.

    “The media normalizes for us many behaviors that are not normal,” she said. “Some of them are downright stupid for real people to follow or model. But people do, because they make it seem so normal.”

    That’s the real problem here. We have these totally unrealistic ideas of what is supposed to be happening in bed, and when these things inevitably don’t happen, we feel like we’re doing something wrong. We’re setting ourselves up for a lifetime of disappointment and perceived inadequacy. I know most of us at Northwestern are crazy perfectionists, but there are some regions (like the ones in your pants) where you need to let go of that need to do everything just so. Especially when your ideas are actually, scientifically wrong.

    “There is this impression, this myth that men always have rock-hard penises and last all night long,” says Corty. “To the extent you buy into that myth, you’re bound for disappointment. Things almost never work out that way.”

    This doesn’t mean you have to go into sex expecting to be disappointed — it’s just that we need to be more realistic about our expectations. And it’s not like trying to force things to last longer than they should is the only (or even a good) way to improve your sex life. You know what does make sex much better and more fulfilling, though? No, you can’t get it from one of those strange emails in vaguely imaginary foreign languages, and it doesn’t involve two claw-footed bathtubs on a mountain. It’s called talking to your partner. This isn’t “The Talk“, so don’t get scared. It’s just basic communication, and a lot of us tend to forget about it or be too shy to say anything — which, as Galician points out, is totally ridiculous.

    “We have this idea that we shouldn’t have to say or explain [to our partner] what we like, because you rarely see or hear that in the media,” she says. “But in reality, different people like different things. If you’re embarrassed to speak to your partner, how are you ready to get undressed and share body fluids with them?”

    Seriously. You may not be ready to break out the dirty talk, and that’s fine, but at least have the confidence to tell your partner that nibbling on your ear isn’t sexy — it’s just wet. And stop thinking that just because James Bond can please a lady while hanging upside-down from a helicopter for three hours, you can too.

    “We have to focus on critical thinking about the portrayals that people may be operating on,” says Galician. “Ignorance is never bliss. Ignorance only leads to more ignorance, and not knowing things does not keep people from doing things.”

    We all have to learn from our mistakes at some point, but there’s no reason to create false expectations that we don’t need and can’t fulfill. It’s just going to make us unhappy in the long run.

    “I’m hoping we can get the information out and it becomes part of human sexuality,” says Corty. “People can stop rolling their eyes when they find out, and start to realize that it’s normal.”

    This information isn’t going to ruin anyone’s sex life. In fact, it’ll probably improve sex (or at least the satisfaction level) for a lot of people. It’s nice to know that you’re not doing something wrong.

    And it doesn’t mean you have to settle for that seven-minute quota, either. After your seven-to-thirteen minutes are up, there’s no reason why you can’t wait a few minutes and then do it again.


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