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“Friends with benefits” is supposed to be the newer, safer casual sex—but benefits can turn into costs

by Lauren Servideo on February 9, 2012

Growing up on sitcoms deceived me into believing that a simple dichotomy exists in sex: You enjoy it with someone you love, or else you prefer “I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but we’re both super horny” hookups. For many of us, there just isn’t time for colorless intercourse in our overworked and underpaid lives.

But is there a place in between for occasional physical encounters between good friends who demand no commitment with their sexual recreation? Some people seem to think so.

The notion of “friends with benefits” is nothing new, but lately it’s been marketed as such. Last year, two movies came out trying to tackle the subject and came to the same conclusion: FWB just doesn’t work. Sex exists on a spectrum, and FWB blankets the awkward, strange purgatory in the middle.

FWB is wrapped up in a fancy, emotionless package, offering the merits of sleeping with someone you know isn’t harboring a legion of STDs in his or her nether regions, and who also won’t force you into some kind of commitment. And, if you’re lucky, it’s someone who you can still bond with—platonically, that is.

There are some people in the universe who can successfully spend a long time teetering on this weird sexual seesaw; one “couple” that comes to mind is Elaine and Jerry. It wasn’t always that way, though.

In Season 2 of Seinfeld, in an episode called “The Deal,” Elaine and Jerry discuss whether sex with friends can actually work. They devise a list of rules that they believe will facilitate them from falling into the pitfalls of a romantic relationship. Some of the rules include “no calls the next day” and “spending the night—optional.”

“We’ve tried to arrange a situation where we’ll be able to do this once in a while but still be friends,” Jerry says to George over a sandwich the day after he and Elaine consummated their friendship.

George guffaws to the point where he needs to stand up.

“Where are you living?!” he howls. “Are you here? Are you on this planet? It’s impossible! It can’t be done!”

By the episode’s end, they’re dating. If you watched beyond this episode, you know they inevitably break up and proceed to sleep with each other at least four more times.

The possibilities of a successful friends-with-benefits relationship resonate with a lot of people, especially young, uncommitted people exploring their sexuality. In theory, FWB gives friends with a bit more chemistry a hand at putting their spark to the test. Sometimes, it gives ex-flames a chance to reunite without the amorous restrictions.

“We knew each other’s bodies, but without a relationship, we were able to explore each other in new ways,” says “Hannah,” 20, of her FWB experience with a former boyfriend and current acquaintance who swore up and down that their relationship would never be more than physical.

The term “friends with benefits” is relatively new; it has been in common usage only in the last decade. Before that there was “casual sex,” which was less specifically defined than friends with benefits: Casual sex could mean sex within a casual relationship (the closest definition to FWB), or extramarital sex, or promiscuous or otherwise emotionally uninvolved sex. Going back to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, there was plenty of talk of “free love,” which then referred to an unrestrained sexuality that rejected establishment norms and could mean anything from orgies to drug-enabled sex with total strangers. (This should not be confused with the free-love movement that dates to the 18th century, which held that love relations should be freely entered into and not regulated by law; which has roots in both anarchism and feminism; and which was later embraced by artists and bohemians.)

If the 1960s version of free love eventually left a dirty aftertaste, and the term “casual sex” had too many negative connotations, perhaps “friends with benefits” was a new generation’s way of trying to make uncommitted sex sound safer, more trusting, more acceptable. But does it work?

In a 2011 Michigan State University survey, 26 percent of FWB ended with a ruined friendship. While that statistic isn’t particularly harrowing, Dr. Timothy Levine, the professor at Michigan State who conducted the survey, discovered that the passion levels in FWB relationships were incredible low, suggesting that FWB sleep with each other because there’s no one else.

“After the sex, we fell into old patterns: holding each other, talking, sometimes sleeping over,” Hannah admits. “That is what made it messy—because we were emotionally involved again. We were in a specific relation to each other, whether we intended to be or not.”

While the notion that FWB is a desperate and blinding cry for intimacy might seem obvious to some folks, it might not be to the individuals who walk into a FWB situation hoping that something more might come out of it.

“As long as we were in each other’s lives like that, neither of us would be able to move on,” Hannah says.  “There was always a part of us—a part of me, at least—holding back, waiting for the other to be ready.”

Many—if not most—FWB relationships end with a preemptive move to prevent any lasting feelings from blossoming. In this “break-up,” nonsexual feelings are hurt.

Levine’s research showed that the lackluster nature of FWB means that we have made room for colorless intercourse in our overworked and underpaid lives! In the movies and on television, everyone is a grade-A badass who thinks love is for schmucks.

In reality, every relationship, platonic or otherwise, is multidimensional; it can be a considerable risk to sexually pursue a friend with the intention of staying only friends. It may be that the only workable FWB circumstances are long-thought-out and take more than just sex into consideration.

For now, many will shove FWB into a restricting corner of “things that will never work.” Maybe one day a nonfiction couple will be able to salvage its reputation, but at the moment, most friends and ex-friends alike stay reluctant.

“They’re a disaster made in rom-com heaven,” says Alyssa, a begrudger of FWB. “Or hell, depending on how you look at it.”