The way popular culture depicts it, sex is all we want, all we think about, all that really motivates us. So why is it that once we get down to doing it, it’s over in no time?

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Reporting at New York, Maureen O’Connor ponders a substantial shift in go-time: in 1948, a Kinsey report that found 75 percent of men ejaculated within only two minutes, whereas according to Rachel Hills’ recently-published book The Sex Myth, the median start-to-finish time is between 5.7 and 7.5 minutes.

According to O’Connor:

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What’s changed? The sexual revolution, for starters, which made female sexual pleasure a public goal for men for the first time. In 1970, Masters and Johnson boldly defined all heterosexual men who came before their partners more than 50 percent of the time premature ejaculators. Modern doctors tend to be less doctrinaire about who must orgasm when, but they do agree on some rules of thumb. According to a 2008 survey of sex therapists, sex is “too short” when it lasts one to two minutes. “Adequate” is three to seven minutes, and “desirable” is seven to 13. The range for “too long” went up to 30 minutes. Anything longer, like “more than 40,” will henceforth be known as “too Kanye.”

And yet 80 percent of men and women think they want the deed to last at least 30 minutes, according to a survey O’Connor cites from 2007. Her main preoccupation in the piece is rightly this disconnect—why is longer-lasting sex the mainstream depiction of good sex, when the reality is so much less action? Why is “going all night” seen as the sexual ideal?

All this is to say nothing of same-sex sex, the studies on which O’Connor notes are woefully outdated. That said, it appears everyone, no matter their sexual inclination, wants more foreplay and more intercourse. Referring to the findings of a 2012 University of New Brunswick study, O’Connor writes:

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They reported an average of 11 to 13 minutes of foreplay, and seven to eight minutes of intercourse. (Even though they were describing the exact same encounters, the men consistently reported both acts as lasting a minute or two longer than their partners did.) But everyone — male and female — wanted the entire encounter to be roughly double the length it was. Women wanted eight more minutes of foreplay and seven more minutes of intercourse; men wanted five more minutes of foreplay and 11 more minutes of sex.

But when you’re having sex, do you really note the time? Have you ever tried to pay attention to it? Writing for The Hairpin, Haley Mlotek certainly hasn’t. In a piece about horny cognitive dissonance, which she defines as when “you’re trying to get it but your brain won’t stop talking to you for one goddamned minute,” Mlotek opens up another question: how does one evaluate “good” sex at all?

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Good sex for her has nothing to do with length, which isn’t even mentioned, but rather by how much the deed hijacks your brain so you don’t have to live in your own head for a few minutes—the ultimate artificial drug-free escape:

If sex was good, I thought, I wouldn’t think about what I looked like, or what my partner was thinking, or if I had left my flat iron on, or what I was going to blog about on Monday, or if I even liked that thing my partner was doing, or if they even liked the thing I was doing, or any of the billions of thoughts that I can never, ever turn off, no matter how desperately I just want some peace and quiet from myself.

In other words, while many of us have been trained to conflate length with quality, good sex means different things for everyone.

And how do you define the beginning and end of sex anyway? “Does it begin when one partner becomes aroused?” she asks. “When genitals are touched? What about those fabled women who can orgasm just with their nipples?”(I offer that the start of human sex commences with the beginning of sexual touching and ends when no one needs to be sexually touched anymore because both are satisfied, however that is defined between the participants.)

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In spite of porn’s looming influence on our perception of epic sex, longer really isn’t better, as any woman who has been jackhammered mercilessly for 15 minutes by an oblivious lover knows. I once had a boyfriend in college who treated sex like performance art—he had to go long and hard at all costs, and it became dreadfully and quickly clear that it was not about the quality of the act unless that quality could be measured in half hours. It was exhausting, and all told, not that satisfying, proving that technically correct technique + go all night-ness does not equal great sex.

The best sex is often (not always) less about the penetration and more about the stuff all around it—how you’re touched, whether you get off, how hot it seems, how urgent, how responsive your lover is and vice versa. Yes, there are moments where you find a sweet spot, a particular penetrative groove that feels so good you think you could live in it for eternity, but I’ll bet if you’re timing it you actually only reside there for a minute or two, tops, and eventually that might wear you out, too.

Good sex is about so many individual factors, least of which is how long it lasts. The brief timing of real-life sex might not be glamorous, but really, neither is anything else about it.

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Image via USA/The 40-Year-Old Virgin.