If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say that being friends with benefits is a recipe for disaster, I’d be able to buy everything on my sex toy wish list. And maybe a few years’ worth of lube to go with it. Sex ruins friendships, some people insist. It complicates everything. There’s always an imbalance in expectations. It will get weird. Someone 1 will end up getting romantically attached and having their heart broken. It can’t possibly work. And even if you manage to make it work for a little while, it can’t end well.
Except I know that it can.
Sure, I’ve seen friends with benefits arrangements turn out badly. I’ve seen people get hurt. But it wasn’t sex that was to blame. Those messes stemmed from communication problems, people not being honest with themselves and/or each other about what they really wanted. One person leading another to believe that the situation could lead to more when they know damn well it won’t. One person valiantly insisting that they’re not romantically interested while secretly pining for a declaration of undying love. Any relationship founded on dishonesty is bound to fall apart, and to do a lot of emotional damage when it does.
But what if both parties know what they’re getting into? What if no one is looking for happily ever after? What if it’s a decision by rational people who want to remain friends while fucking each other silly? In my experience, that’s a very different story. I’ve had a number of those partners over the years, and I remain friends with all of them to this day.
The Root of the Myth
The first time I heard that sex outside of a long-term, monogamous, romantic relationship was a Bad Thing was from my mother. She cautioned me at thirteen (and repeatedly thereafter) that sex without true love invariably leaves a woman feeling used, ashamed, unfulfilled. That sharing my body with someone was a precious gift not to be given lightly. I nodded and said I understood, because I knew that was what I was expected to do. Anything else would have prolonged an awkward conversation that I was desperate to be done with.
Questions formed in my head though, some immediately, some over time. If I really want to have sex with someone, why should I feel bad about it afterward? Why can boys have sex with multiple partners without sustaining life-altering emotional damage while I allegedly can’t? How would my mother, a virgin until her wedding night, have any understanding of what sex outside of marriage is like? But I knew that asking those kinds of questions would probably get me a lecture rather than the answers I wanted.
The idea that one “bad” (translation: socially unacceptable) sexual choice could scar me for life surrounded me during my teen years. If a young female character in a novel or movie had sex, there was a high likelihood that she would suffer some sort of terrible consequence. It seemed like every sitcom had a Very Special Episode dedicated to driving that point home. But as my friends and I began experimenting, I noticed that reality looked somewhat different. Sometimes people 2 regretted the decision to have sex once the relationship ended, but life went on.
It was in college that I became personally acquainted with the concept of “friends with benefits”, courtesy of my friend Pete. There was definitely a spark between us. We flirted regularly and joked about getting together, but it was pretty clear we’d be a terrible romantic match. Then one night, we were walking back toward our dorm after a party. We’d had a couple of beers, and were both feeling giggly and uninhibited. As we walked, it occurred to me that I didn’t feel much like going to my own bed. When we got into the elevator, he pressed 3 to go to his room. I also pressed 3.
“Silly girl…did you forget you live on the fourth floor?” he asked.
“I didn’t forget. I just don’t want to go there right now.” I replied.
He told me, in no uncertain terms, that if I crashed in his room I shouldn’t expect to be getting much sleep. I assured him that sleep wasn’t what I needed. He told me he wasn’t in the market for a girlfriend. I disavowed any interest in commitment and pointed out that he’d make a lousy boyfriend anyway. We both had a good laugh, and spent the remainder of the night in his bed, gleefully not sleeping.
The next morning, we parted ways with a hug and a somewhat sheepish apology to his roommate for not actually being as quiet as we thought we had been. Walking back up to my room, I didn’t feel the sense of shame I’d been led to expect. I felt satisfied and happy. That wasn’t bad, it was fun. He hadn’t taken advantage of me, we’d given each other exactly what we wanted. Seeing him in classes or around campus wasn’t weird or strange, we still hung out as we always had.
The Myth Resurfaces…
Being an adult, and having seen for myself that commitment-free sex did not leave me an empty shell of a woman, I considered the matter settled. I would never again have to worry about anyone trying to tell me when it is acceptable for me to exchange sexual favors with another human being. Except that I did, and the new source of that commentary surprised me. On more than one occasion, the object of my lust himself expressed concern that women can’t have sex with no strings attached, that they didn’t want to “hurt me”. Guys who, in other circumstances, saw me as intelligent, capable and strong questioned my ability to make this one decision.
These men believed that their genitals possessed superpowers. Subscribers to the Magical Penis Theory believed that once they penetrated me, I would immediately be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of irresistible romantic feelings. Their cocks would fill me with such desperate need that I could never again be content with anything less than complete, eternal and 100% monogamous devotion. If I couldn’t have their hearts along with their dicks, I would be doomed to pine away in misery and regret for months, years, or even the rest of my life. Noble gents that they are, they wanted to spare me from such a cruel fate.
In case anyone missed the sarcasm there, that’s not how things work. Dicks are great and all, but they do not have the power to make me fall in love. I don’t care how good a guy is in bed (or on the living room floor, or in the back of a van at a highway rest stop, or whatever), I’m not going to fall head over heels in love with someone because we’ve gotten naked together. I know my own mind. When I say I’m capable of enjoying a sexual relationship without romance or commitment, I mean it. I appreciate and encourage conversation to clarify expectations (see the Pete story above), but for fuck’s sake don’t try to tell me how I feel. If you aren’t comfortable with the situation, say that and skip the bullshit about protecting me from my own desires. I’m not looking for a knight in shining armor, I want to get laid. And yes, I am absolutely, 100%, beyond a shadow of a doubt sure about that.
My words were sometimes ineffective at vanquishing these silly ideas about potent penises and the frailties of my feminine heart. There were times when I walked away in frustration. But then, with a particularly noble and deluded soul, I tried a new tactic. As he sat on my bed explaining why he really should go, I stripped off my shirt, tossed my bra across the room and sat down on his lap. His objections ceased rather abruptly, and the rest of our clothing disappeared in short order. Because apparently, I have Magical Boobs.
But Where Does It End?
The other worry I frequently hear about FWB situations is the potential aftermath. Won’t it be messy? Won’t it be odd? You can’t just go back to being friends, can you? In my experience, you definitely can.
Pete and I fell into each other’s beds after a few more random parties from freshman year through graduation, always informal and spontaneous. Other arrangements have lasted anywhere from weeks to years. Things sometimes ended when one or the other of us found someone that gave us heart feelings as well as pants feelings. Instead of being bitter that the “benefits” portion of the friendship was ending, we were happy that our friend found someone special. Sometimes it ended because one or both of us got too busy with school or work or whatever. And sometimes it ended because once we’d satisfied our initial curiosity, the sexual chemistry evaporated. Sometimes the end was The End, and sometimes it turned out to be more of a pause button. Sometimes we’d reminisce about our past hookups with a wink and a giggle, sometimes we didn’t talk about them afterward. Whatever the case, the friendship went on because we trusted and respected each other. We were friends first. The “benefits” were incidental.
Epilogue and Disclaimers
Of course, I can’t promise that every FWB situation will end well. Sometimes even the best laid plans go wrong. Nor am I saying that absolutely everyone should hook up with a friend. You might not be into that, and that is 100% cool. What I am here to say is that you shouldn’t make assumptions about people’s sexual/romantic needs based on gender stereotypes. I’m here to say that it’s good to question the things you were taught (or not taught) about how sex works. And if you decide there’s a friendship in your life that might be better with benefits, I’m here to support you and wish you luck.