Sex & Relationships

Sexual Intercourse: Let’s All Be Brief and Average

Why does the media stick to an outdated, offensive and boring definition of sex?
The Associated Press, under the headline "Sex Takes 3 to 13 Minutes," has given the world a sneak-peek at the science of quickies. A study to be published next month in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, based on a survey of sex therapists, concluded that the "optimal amount of time for sexual intercourse was 3 to 13 minutes."

I scratched my head on that one, until I read that "the time does not include foreplay." And then the bulb went on. Well, two bulbs went on. First, why are they using those tired, narrow definitions of "sex" and "foreplay" -- as if they were separate activities? And second, what if "intercourse" isn't in your sexual vocabulary, although you're having fabulous erotic experiences? Or if your idea of intercourse involves neither a penis nor a vagina?

What's sex?

This conflation of "sex" and "sexual intercourse" is as outdated an idea as the prohibition on wearing white shoes after Labor Day or the belief that birth control causes promiscuity. Let's get real.

Penetration is one of many sexual activities. Others are oral sex, nipple pinching, butt squeezing, clit rubbing, ball tickling, breast binding, toe sucking and, did I say clit rubbing? The actions that constitute "sex" -- undistinguished from "foreplay" -- are as varied as the people who do them.

If a couple has kissed and touched and teased and stroked and sucked until both of them are totally satiated -- but they haven't screwed -- is that not sex? If someone has a fetish -- say they are wild about stockings -- and they get off humping the silk-encased thigh of their partner -- is that not sex?

What's intercourse?

Intercourse isn't right for everyone and isn't required for reaching an ecstatic orgasm. Sometimes you want penetration and luckily there are a number of possible spots to penetrate with a number of body parts -- from fingers to tongue to penis -- and non-body parts -- from dildos to ben-wa balls to fruit.

But the AP report on this study seems to be all about heterosexual penile/vaginal intercourse and even that is very limited and limiting. Not only do people feel varied levels of enthusiasm about such sexual intercourse at various times of their lives (or months), some people cannot perform that particular activity at all. There are plenty of reasons for this, including the thinning of the vaginal walls with age, medications that prevent strong erections, a personal safer sex guideline or simply no inclination for copulation.

Don't gay and lesbian people have sex? Do their activities fit this definition of "sexual intercourse"? And the woman who drizzles lubricant in her cleavage and then presses her breasts together as her male lover pumps, is that intercourse? Does anal sex constitute intercourse? What about fisting?

The article's general thrust is that you shouldn't feel bad about having such short-lived sex, since it appears to be the norm. In fact, the piece includes a promise that this study will "ease the minds" of those worried about the stopwatch. In support of low expectations, Marianne Brandon, a clinical psychologist, is quoted as saying, "There are so many myths in our culture of what other people are doing sexually. Most people's sex lives are not as exciting as other people think they are."

Perhaps if the sex therapists encouraged the broadest exploration of pleasure, we wouldn't have to resort to measuring such a narrow notion of sex. Separating "foreplay" from "sex" is as logical as separating tea from water. It's in the mix that we find the thrill and satisfaction.
Sue Katz has published journalism on the three continents where she has lived; her topics range from Middle East peace movements to the impact of aging on sexuality. Visit her blog at
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