How Long Can An Erection Last?

While there’s no “normal” amount of time a man should stay erect, especially when it comes to sex, you may be wondering what the average amount of time an erection can occur is.

This article will cover an overview of erections and how long they last, alongside factors that can affect an erection and your ability to stay hard. 

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What is an erection?

Oxford languages describe an erection as “an enlarged and rigid state of the penis, typically in sexual excitement.” Let’s dive deeper into the technical terms. 

Erections are necessary to carry out sex and are a natural part of male arousal. The penis has two major muscles.¹ Centrally is the corpus spongiosum, and laterally is the two corpora cavernosa which contain the erectile tissue. This erectile tissue is responsible for increasing the rigidity of a penis.

An erection can be caused by more than just physical touch. Erections can also be driven by emotions and feelings, including sexual or arousing thoughts.

When an erection is caused by physical touch, this is called the reflex response through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).² When emotions cause it, this is the psychogenic response³ through certain pathways in the brain, including the limbic pathway, which is involved in emotional response. 

Types of erections

There are three types of erections that can occur:

Nocturnal erection

As the name suggests, nocturnal erections occur during the night when sleeping. Research⁴ states that men of all ages can experience nocturnal erections during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage. 

While nocturnal erections are normal and are nothing to be ashamed of, prolonged or painful nocturnal erections can lead to disrupted sleep.⁵

Key factors related to frequent nocturnal erections include testosterone and androgens.

It is thought that nocturnal erections occur to increase tissue oxygenation⁶ during sleep with engorgement of the corpora cavernosa.

Psychogenic erection

A psychogenic erection occurs through thoughts, fantasies, and emotions. They usually occur during or after receiving visual, auditory, mental, or emotional stimulation.⁷

Several nerves control the development and maintenance of a psychogenic erection. These include descending nerve pathways from the brain that transmits messages from the brain down the spinal cord.

Once they reach the sacral erection center near the bottom end of the spinal cord, the nerve signals are then transmitted to the pelvic plexus — also known as a collection of nerve fibers. 

Afterward, they travel through the cavernous nerve activating the erectile tissue of the penis. 

Reflexogenic erection

Reflexogenic erections⁸ occur in response to direct touch or physical contact. This can include direct contact with the penis or a surrounding erogenous zone. 

Unlike psychogenic erections, reflexogenic erections don’t involve arousing thoughts or emotions. Rather, they are controlled by the nerves in the lowest part of the spinal cord with the parasympathetic pathway.⁸

A reflexogenic erection occurs when sensory receptors in and around the skin of a penis are activated by touch. When this happens, sensory information is sent through nerves to the sacral erection center in the spinal cord. This is the same center that is activated for all types of erections.

While some of these messages⁹ go to the brain, others are sent via the cavernous nerve within the penis to induce an erection.

How does an erection happen?

As mentioned earlier, an erection can be caused by physical touch or sexual thoughts and emotions. 

When an erection is caused by physical touch, this is called the reflex response through activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). 

When thoughts or emotions cause an erection, this is called the psychogenic response. This happens through certain pathways in the brain, including the limbic pathway.¹⁰ 

One of the two major muscles of the penis — corpora cavernosa — contains erectile tissue. When sexual stimulation occurs, the PNS is activated and releases several molecules¹¹ that help relax the erectile tissues in the corpora cavernosa.

From this, more blood can enter the penis resulting in an erection. To maintain an erection, the sheath surrounding the corpus cavernosum helps stop the blood from leaving the penis. This helps to keep the erection from disappearing too quickly. 

An erection can reduce in size and dissipate once ejaculation occurs or — in the case of a spontaneous erection — once the stimulus is reduced. 

This can happen when the muscles of the penis contract, stopping blood from flowing into the penis and opening the channels for blood to leave the penis. 

How long does an erection last?

There is no “normal” amount for how long a penis should stay erect. This will depend on several factors, including the length of the sexual activity, any medications are taken, and energy levels. 

How long does the average man stay erect?

Without any sexual-enhancing medications like Viagra, the average man will have an erection around the same duration as the length of an average sexual encounter.

The intravaginal ejaculation latency time (IELT) is classified as the time from vaginal penetration to ejaculation inside the vagina. In 2005, a study¹² analyzing the IELT of men across multiple nationalities found that the average IELT was 5.4 minutes with an approximate range of 0.55-44.1 minutes.

However, this study also included men that had premature ejaculation, so this is something to keep in mind.

Of course, how long the average man stays erect will depend on the duration and intensity of the foreplay. 

With such a broad range of sexual desires and drives in the world, it makes sense that there’s no “normal” frequency of erections you should aim to get.

Those with penises can get an average of 3-5 nocturnal erections¹³ and 10–15 during a day of varying durations. 

How long should an erection last during and after sex?

Again, there’s no “right” or “wrong” duration an erection should occur for. As a general rule, erections should be in preparation for sex and masturbation; any deviations from this are worth looking into. 

An example of this is spontaneous erections. These are classified as erections that happen without any sexual stimulation. Random erections can happen to men across all age groups. While they are mainly harmless, if these erections affect the quality of your life, get them checked out by a health professional. 

If you find you’re ejaculating and losing an erection in under a few minutes consistently, you may have premature ejaculation. 

On the other hand, if your penis remains flaccid even with prolonged sexual contact by yourself or a partner, you may have erectile dysfunction.

If your erections start to get uncomfortable or painful and last for hours on end, you may have priapism. 

Either way, a doctor can correctly diagnose what is normal or abnormal about the duration and intensity of your erections. 

Trouble maintaining an erection

Maintaining an erection is an essential part of sex. However, for some people, this can be tricky.

Both sexual arousal and physical touch can cause an increase in blood flow into the penis as well as a decrease in blood flows out of the penis. This change in blood flow increases the pressure in the penile veins, causing them to go rigid and create an erection.

If you are having trouble maintaining an erection, you cannot maintain this pressure buildup. While you may lose an erection halfway during sex or foreplay, this does not necessarily mean you have ED. 

However, in saying that, the inability to maintain an erection can be an early sign¹⁴ of ED, so what you are experiencing may be a mild form of ED. 

If you have been experiencing losing erections frequently during sex or masturbation, then there is a high chance that you have ED. 

If this loss of erection is concerning you in any way or affecting your quality of life, do get in contact with your doctor. They will be able to diagnose potential health conditions. 

The other main symptom of ED is the inability to produce an erection in the first place. If you often lose erections and find it hard to get one, you may have ED.

Other factors that can influence your ability to maintain an erection that has nothing to do with ED include:

  • Something or someone distracting you from the sexual encounter

  • Other medical conditions, like diabetes

  • Smoking

  • “Performance anxiety” or stress and anxiety causing you to overthink

  • An unsafe situation or feeling uncomfortable in the particular setting

  • Low energy or lethargy

  • Prolonged stress from work or trauma

  • High levels of alcohol or drugs in the system

  • Certain medications, like antidepressants

Is it difficult to stay hard?

Generally speaking, the average man will have no problem staying hard during a sexual encounter or while masturbating.

Losing an erection during sex is common after ejaculation occurs or when there’s a loss of stimulation — for example, when taking a break to put on a condom after foreplay. This is due to a reduction in the excitement in the brain.¹⁵ However, once sexual activity resumes, the erection should return. 

While minor fluctuations in the firmness of an erection are normal, if you’re finding that your erections are subsiding more than you’d like, it may be a good idea to check it out with a doctor so you can rule out any health conditions.

If your reduced erections are due to psychological or emotional causes, your doctor may also refer you to a therapist or counselor. Therapy has proven beneficial for many men who suffer from ED due to anxiety or PTSD. 

If erection problems affect your relationship with a romantic partner, you can also bring them along to a counseling session. This may help reduce the stigma surrounding a potential condition and give you the support needed. 

Factors that may affect an erection

Alongside fluctuations in mood, energy levels, and sex drive, some health conditions may affect an erection. 

Erectile dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction (ED) is defined as the failure to obtain or sustain erections during sexual intercourse. This can be caused by the failure of any nervous responses or body processes during the erectile response. 

While ED has been largely linked to older men, it is not uncommon in young adults. In fact, it has been reported that 25% of men under the age of 40 have sought professional and medical advice for ED.

Generally, young men experience ED due to psychological stress or as a side effect of a medication¹⁶ they are on. Other significant factors includeobesity,¹⁷ excess alcohol consumption,¹⁸ and neurogenic disorders.¹⁹ 

ED can result in mental stress and anxiety, which can harm a person’s love life, relationships, and self-esteem. 

Premature ejaculation

Premature ejaculation (PE) is another health condition commonly experienced by men of all ages. In fact, it’s so common that around 20-30% of men²⁰ from all age groups and ethnicities have been affected by premature ejaculation. 

PE is defined by the inability to delay ejaculation with penetration and ejaculation that occurs in about 3 minutes or less. With a sexual partner, PE can lead to frustration and even avoidance of sexual intimacy. 

Treatment options range depending on the severity of the condition. For many, this can include a combination of the following: 

  • Medications

  • Psychological support

  • Behavioral therapy

  • Management of underlying causes 

Priapism

When an erection lasts longer than expected, this can lead to priapism.²¹ Priapism is defined as a medical disorder where the penis maintains a prolonged erection in the absence of physical or mental sexual stimulation. Generally, these erections last for 4 hours or longer. 

Priapism can be caused by multiple factors, including using medications like Viagra for erectile dysfunction. Other reasons include significant trauma to the penis or groin region or a history of underlying disorders like sickle cell disease. 

If left untreated, priapism can be highly uncomfortable and even painful. This can even lead to permanent erectile dysfunction. 

When should you see a doctor?

While bouts of stress at work and in life can result in a decreased sex drive and the ability to get erect from time to time, you should always seek medical advice if erection problems are having a significant impact on your life. 

If left untreated, ED can affect various aspects of your physical, mental, and sexual health. Finding the underlying cause of your ED is possible with a health professional. They’ll also be able to provide the right treatment for your needs. 

There are many treatment options for erectile dysfunction, all with their own side effects and mechanisms. 

On the flip side, if you’re experiencing a significant increase in spontaneous erections or you’ve taken enhancing medication like Viagra and your erection is not subsiding, get help from a doctor. 

Your doctor will help you to manage these conditions and improve your sexual health. 

The lowdown

Numerous factors can influence the duration of an erection and the ability to stay hard. These include erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, and priapism.

If you think you’re suffering from any of the above health conditions, it’s important to seek the advice of a health professional. Many treatment options can help improve sexual function.

  1. Penis anatomy | Medscape

  2. Neural control and physiology of sexual function: Effect of spinal cord injury (2017)

  3. Impaired prefrontal-amygdala pathway, self-reported emotion, and erection in psychogenic erectile dysfunction patients with normal nocturnal erection (2018)

  4. Nocturnal penile erections: A retrospective study of the role of RigiScan in predicting the response to sildenafil in erectile dysfunction patients (2018)

  5. Painful nocturnal erection (1999)

  6. Testosterone and sleep-related erections: An overview (2005)

  7. Diagnostic evaluation of erectile dysfunction (2000)

  8. Physiology of penile erection and pathophysiology of erectile dysfunction (2006)

  9. Physiology of penile erection (2004)

  10. Erectile dysfunction (2016)

  11. Clinical neuroanatomy and neurotransmitter-Mediated regulation of penile erection (2014)

  12. The mathematical formula of the intravaginal ejaculation latency time (IELT) distribution of lifelong premature ejaculation differs from the IELT distribution formula of men in the general male population (2016)

  13. What is the nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) test? | International Society for Sexual Medicine

  14. Erectile dysfunction | Johns Hopkins Medicine

  15. Neuroanatomy and function of human sexual behavior: A neglected or unknown issue? (2019)

  16. Effect of prescription medications on erectile dysfunction (2017)

  17. Prevalence of and risk factors for erectile dysfunction in young nondiabetic obese men: Results from a regional study (2020)

  18. A meta-analysis of erectile dysfunction and alcohol consumption (2021)

  19. Organic causes of erectile dysfunction in men under 40 (2014)

  20. Premature ejaculation: Aetiology and treatment strategies (2019)

  21. Priapism | NIH: National Library of Medicine

Other sources:

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