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How can we have sex if he finishes before we even get started?

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snapplefact asks:

I have an amazing boyfriend. He's thoughtful, considerate and sweet - not to mention super cute - everything I've ever wanted. He likes me a lot, too, and he's always telling me how much he likes me and how beautiful I am and all that good stuff. The problem is, I think he likes me a little TOO much. We haven't had sex yet, but I don't know if we can! The problem is that he appears to be a premature ejaculator. When we mess around, he comes unbelievably quickly - and he doesn't even get hard first. He keeps telling me he's really nervous because he's never been with anyone as great as me before, which is really nice, but I'm getting REALLY frustrated. I want to have sex with him but how can I do that if I can hardly touch his penis without it going soft, or worse? I don't know what to do.

Heather Corinna replies:

Your boyfriend sounds awesome. And how quickly he ejaculates right now really doesn't have to present any problems if neither of you treat it like a problem.

Just so you know, a lot of sex educators and therapists have big problems with the term and concept of "premature ejaculation" (PE) as it's been frequently defined (same goes for erectile dysfunction, for that matter, for similar reasons). Let me explain why.

For the most part, that term has been popularized by pharmaceutical companies so they can try and make the big bucks from it, much in the same way the "female sexual dysfunction" (which most often boils down to women simply needing or wanting different kinds of sex with partners than they're getting) has been. Sometimes, especially from a pharmaceutical standpoint, PE has been defined in such a way that if a man lasts less than however-many-minutes, he has PE. And that's problematic, for a couple of reasons.

"Premature ejaculation" is broadly defined as when a man routinely -- as in, not once or twice, but as a pattern, over time -- ejaculates earlier than he or his partner would like. That could be about ejaculating in two minutes, twenty minutes or even two hours. Or, if I have a male partner who I'd prefer lasted an hour because I assume (and often incorrectly) that I need that for me to reach orgasm, that would make nearly any male partner I ever have had a premature ejaculator by definition.

There's no one "right" amount of time for anyone, of any gender, to reach orgasm or to ejaculate. That's something personal, arbitrary, and where preferences differ from person to person and from experience to experience. As well, there are men who ejaculate in a minute and a half of intercourse who are perfectly happy with their sex lives and the same is true for their partners: by most definitions of PE, those guys don't have PE. And yet, another group of guys who ejaculate in that same amount of time who are not happy about it would be classified as having PE. See all the flaws in this?

Whether PE is defined as being about a certain period of time, or about a given person's ideas of what they want, you can see how it's often not useful in either case. And with what you're talking about, it probably isn't an issue at all. Stick with me and I'll fill you in more on why.

I think the idea of PE illuminates some of our cultural deficits in terms of the limited ways we can sometimes view and experience bodies, gender, sex, sexuality and sexual partnership. Our expectations of people's sexual bodies often aren't realistic or truly about the individual, even though sex is supposed to be all about personal expression. Our ideas about what a given gender needs to do sexually for the others satisfaction or their own are often skewed and don't represent most people well. The pervasive cultural and heterosexist idea of intercourse as the only "real" sex, or as the be-all-end-all of sex doesn't accurately reflect the sex lives of most couples who feel they have satisfying sex lives. And that's just the icing on that cake.

When we're talking about sex for reproduction, it makes no difference if someone ejaculates five seconds into intercourse or twenty-five minutes in: if there is ejaculate it's always possible to create a pregnancy.

When it comes to the purposes of both partners reaching orgasm from any kind of sex, it also often makes little difference. That's so especially since a) the majority of women with male partners won't reach orgasm from intercourse alone no matter how long a guy "lasts," b) it's common in partnerships of all types per gender, be they male/female, male/male, female/female, trans male/male or otherwise for any two people not to both reach orgasm from any one given sexual activity, and c) people feeling happy and satisfied with their sex lives is never as simple as how long someone sustains an erection for, or if any one sexual activity is always doable or results in orgasm for both partners. Would that it were that simple: I'd have a lot less work to do in a week.

Just so we're on the same page, let's put some averages in your hands so that you (and your boyfriend) can have a realistic idea of male bodies when it comes to this. For those of all ages, male-bodied people tend to self-report that, on average, they reach orgasm and/or ejaculate from intercourse within around 5-10 minutes after it begins. For men 18-30, six and a half minutes is the average duration of time time much current study not based on self-reporting supports. Men can tend to self-report longer erection times, just like they will tend to self-report larger penis sizes than are actual: this is likely due to cultural pressures felt, much in the same way that many women will tend to say they weigh less then they do because of pressures to be thin.

Other studies have suggested shorter times: Alfred Kinsey's data on the matter reported that that three quarters of men ejaculate within two minutes of stimulation in over half of their sexual experiences. For young men in their teens, it's relatively common for ejaculation to happen even more quickly. All of these averages are simply the reality of male bodies. This is what male bodies tend to do, so if anyone has the expectation that erection will often last for much longer than those kinds of figures, it's often not a realistic expectation. If you hear people talking about sex lasting for hours and hours, they're either fibbing, or they don't mean the intercourse went on that long (which actually doesn't tend to feel good for most people): they mean they were in bed for hours and did all kinds of sexual activities, probably including breaks to talk, snuggle or massage each other, to just make out or even to run to the fridge and grab a snack.

There's also a developmental curve to this. It's normal and typical for younger men to reach orgasm more quickly, and/or for men to whom masturbation or partnered sex is new. As men go through puberty, into adulthood, and older than that, the length of time erection is sustained usually gets longer. But on the other hand, on average, younger men also have shorter refractory periods. In other words, often, after a younger man reached orgasm and/or ejaculates, it takes a shorter period of time before he can become aroused and erect again, whereas for older men, that turnaround time is often longer.

Issues with PE and that terminology aside, someone is not likely to be considered to have PE if it's not an ongoing problem in an established relationship. Now and then, men will orgasm or ejaculate quickly, just like women will sometimes. It's pretty normal for men (like women) to feel nervous or anxious with new sexual partners, especially when they have strong feelings for them or big concerns about that person's perception of them. A lot of cultural pressure is also put on men by men and women alike to be sexually "potent" and it also ties in to a lot of men's gender identities and notions of their masculinity: it's a more loaded thing for men than a lot of women realize.

It's particularly common for men to experience some sexual effects like quicker-than-usual ejaculation with new partners, or when sexual partnership on the whole is new to them. And when we are talking about PE, it's well-understood that the dynamics of a relationship are a factor: if a man feels pressured by his partner to last a certain amount of time, or his partner shows frustration when he doesn't, that will tend to be part of why PE is happening.

Sexual arousal and orgasm isn't actually something that happens mostly in our genitals. It happens primarily in our brains and neurological systems, but creates effects we can feel genitally and can happen due in whole or in part (but also without) to genital stimulation. When any of us, of any gender, feel sexually excited or reach orgasm it's literally mostly in our heads (the ones on our shoulders). In other words, it is very fueled and influenced by about what we're thinking and feeling emotionally. So, how he feels in his head about you and about sex (with you and in general), but also any worries about when he ejaculates and your reaction to that greatly influences what happens with his body. If he feels or gets the message from you that you'll be disappointed with him if he doesn't last a certain amount of time; if he is worried about coming before he or you would like, he's more likely to do just that. Just like if you were deeply worried about that, you would be, or like if you feel very tense about pain with intercourse, you're more likely to experience that too, because what's going on in our heads gives our bodies messages they respond to. (How many female-bodied people can you think of who are literally crippled with anxiety they'll come too soon the way some men can experience feeling that? Probably none. How many women are there who feel, or have partners who feel, that they come too soon? Very few. It's actually pretty interesting to connect these dots.)

So, when it comes to the worries and nerves, to feeling over-excitability about being with someone or being attracted to someone, that usually is something where a person just needs some time to get comfortable and feel secure with that new partner. This is one of the reasons why plenty of people find that developing a sexual relationship gradually, rather than racing straight to genital sex or intercourse, works best for them and their partners. Taking more time can allow people the opportunity to develop a comfort zone with a partner so they feel more secure with any kind of sex. More time for some people is days, for others weeks, for others it's months or more: it really depends on the individual and the relationship.

No matter what the deal is with when he ejaculates, obviously we all want our partners to be as comfortable as they can be, so what you can do to help with that nervousness is just give him that time, and be supportive of and chill about whatever time it takes for him to get there. You can build trust and reassure him that it's always totally okay no matter when he reaches orgasm and/or ejaculates. After all, isn't it totally okay no matter how quickly (or not) you might reach orgasm with a partner? If there's no right or wrong amount of time for you to get there, he (or other guys) shouldn't be held to a different standard.

What actually matters most, and what is most relevant, is if a person and their partner are enjoying themselves. And more often than not, both or all partners in sex can experience pleasure and enjoyment no matter how quickly one partner reaches orgasm. What equals a satisfying sexual experience and sex life for people tends to be more about things like attentiveness and responsiveness, creativity and spontaneity, a spirit of exploration and experimentation, an ability to go with the flow and be open-minded and open-hearted, sensitivity and awareness and for the love of Pete, a sense of humor and playfulness. And without those things, someone being able to keep it up a few minutes longer, or to have intercourse or not isn't likely to offer anyone much.

To boot, in my experience and based on years and years of talking to people about their sex lives, my firm impression is that the sooner people who invest a whole lot in intercourse figure out that getting Tab A into Slot B, that getting intercourse to "work" is not the sexual Valhalla many think it will or should be, the better. By all means, I've got no beef with intercourse, nor do I question that plenty of us often find it a wholly enjoyable endeavor whether we or our partners reach orgasm from it or not. But the notion that it is sex, rather than sex really being a whole world of things, physical and otherwise, we all can do to explore our sexual feelings and desires together is something anyone who has worked in sexuality for a while can't avoid knowing is deeply problematic. Rather than resulting in amazing sex lives for people, those kinds of ideas and ideals more often seem to be the hurdle many people need to get over to get to great sex lives. So, I'm of the mind that when there are opportunities to view intercourse differently right from the get-go in a relationship, they're just that: rarely problems, often opportunities. But if you view them as problems, you and your partners are likely to miss the otherwise quite helpful boat.

My friend and colleague, Cory Silverberg, the Sexuality Guide for About.com said some great things on this topic recently:

...the idea of premature ejaculation presupposes that there is a clear end goal, and that you’re getting there too soon. It also presupposes that extending sex is an obvious goal of sex. If you’re ejaculating before you want to, or before your partner wants to, the first thing you ought to do is ask yourself, what is it that I want to extend? Is the sex I’m having good enough to want to make it last longer? Am I coming quickly because really, there’s not much to wait around for? And do I want the goal I set for sex to be one that requires a stopwatch to evaluate?

What if all you wanted from a sexual encounter was to feel good? If ejaculating prematurely feels bad then you’ve got a good reason to learn to control ejaculation. If it doesn’t, then maybe what’s required is a conversation with your sexual partner about what they want, and how you can make sure you both get what you want, how you want it.

So, let's say that for now, when you're new to him and any kind of sex with you is new to him, that he can't sustain an erection long enough for you two to have intercourse. If so, that's okay: after all, intercourse is only one kind of sex, and it's not one that's likely to be very fulfilling without also including other kinds of sex in the mix, such as oral sex for both of you, digital/manual (with fingers and hands) stimulation of your clitoris and other parts of your vulva, making out and the exploration of your whole bodies, not just a few inches of them. If it's too soon for intercourse to be doable, then figure you both have plenty of time to explore all of those other activities together, which don't offer the possibility of any less pleasure for both of you than intercourse can, and may even offer more. Figure you have time to experiment with and get acquainted with those so that if and when the time comes for intercourse, it'll be a whole lot more likely to feel good for both of you. You'll also then be able to bring all the sexual communication skills you learned with these other activities to that table, which is fantastic.

Of course, I should also perhaps mention that I don't know what "messing around" has involved for you two, but different kinds of stimulus tend to feel different and also often have different effects and results. If he's ejaculating quickly with dry humping or oral sex, that may or may not mean the same thing happens with vaginal intercourse (including once a condom is put on: that can often extend time of erection for many men). Too, this can also be a matter of you both just learning what the best pace is here: it may be that he wants or needs more time in a given episode of sexual activity before you touch his penis in any way.

Here's another thing to know if you don't already: if you are a woman who really enjoys vaginal intercourse and/or also one who can orgasm that way? An erection is not required for a very similar set of sensations or to reach orgasm that way. Fingers and hands can do the exact same thing, and it tends to feel very similar, save that the sensation can sometimes feel even more intense because it can put more isolated pressure on specific parts of the inside of your vagina which feel most sensitive. That's actually something plenty of women and their partners often do after (or instead of) intercourse for women who want to reach orgasm that way. With male/female relationships, it generally takes longer for women to reach orgasm than men from intercourse, so that's one easy solution. And if you prefer to reach orgasm first, you two can certainly do things that way, too.

Do know that if and when a partner reaches orgasm before their partner, even if their genitals feel or are done with for them -- for the night or for the moment -- that doesn't mean that person doesn't or can't still feel aroused, or feels finished with sex just because one part of them is. For most partners who are really into each other, sex isn't done (and doesn't feel over) until everybody feels done, and seeing you continue to experience pleasure, continuing to participate in that with you with other body parts, is usually something partners enjoy and feel good about. A lot of people describe men as a group as people who simply roll over and fall asleep when they reach orgasm, or who only care about their own sexual pleasure. That's about as accurate as descriptions of women as a group all being emotionally desperate, catty or moody all the time. For the most part, men in sexual partnerships with people they care for and like a lot are quite invested and interested in their partner's pleasure.

I'm going to leave you with a few more links I think will help, and would probably be great if you both could read. If you both can get on the same page with this stuff, and he can understand that YOU understand the real-deal, and are totally fine with whatever his body can or can't do on a given day (just like I'd hope he is about yours), you're both bound to feel a whole lot better about all of this.

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