When I was an insecure 16-year-old, I came out to my female best friend. What followed was just as bold, but it involved both of us: We hooked up.
Our sexual escapade developed into casual encounters that spanned a year-and-a-half. Of course, our friendship inevitably veered into unsettling romantic terrain, like a car creeping into a bike lane. We stopped being physical after concluding that emotional attraction can’t compete with innate sexual desire. Two years later, she had a boyfriend and I had my OkCupid profile set exclusively to men. We began texting. Now, we are tentatively planning on becoming housemates. Platonic housemates.
Our history may read a bit unusual, but it speaks for quite a few modern friends with benefits (or FWBs). With the rise of dating apps, sex is boisterously unromantic; one 2009 study of college students found that two-thirds had been in this type of relationship and a third were still in one. Still, there’s a common perception — in romantic comedies and in the media — that such pairings are unhealthy and ruin friendships.
“I think, in general, there’s a backlash toward casual sex anything,” explains Jesse Owen, the chair of the counseling psychology department at the University of Denver. “Friends with benefits can threaten the traditional relationship. This idea of friends with benefits is like saying: ‘This person is not your true love, and you’re continually in search of something better.’ True love is what sells on TV and in the movies.”
In 2013, Owen conducted a study measuring how many FWBs ultimately remained close after the benefits expired. He took 119 male and 189 female university students and found that 80 percent of FWB pairings continued being friends. And 50 percent of FWBs claimed to feel closer to their former partner after they went back to being platonic.
“People feel closer after intimacy because they feel that they know somebody, and they’d like for that relationship to continue,” Owen explained. “It’s a different sense of intimacy because there’s this idea of actually caring about the person and following their life story. Even when the intimacy stops, the nature of the friends with benefits is a true friendship. They got to experience more intimate moments that most normal friendships actually involve.”
While some friendships can tighten following the benefits, negotiation is necessary. Similar to real romantic relationships, communication provides stability. For example, after my high school friend and I stopped sleeping with each other, we decided to end our friendship as well. If we had noted that the intimacy was drowning our friendship, perhaps we wouldn’t have needed years of distance.
“Friends with benefits is a term for ambiguity; it conveys what Facebook would call ‘It’s Complicated,’ adds Kendra Knight, a communications professor at DePaul University who has studied FWBs. “Success depends on what each person is hoping for out of the relationship. If two friends find themselves sexually involved and they are relatively symmetrical with what they’re hoping for — like, ‘this is fun!’ or ‘let’s just get to know each other better’ — and they mutually negotiate the cessation of the sexual intimacy, there shouldn’t be many drawbacks.”
Another finding from Owen’s work is that there was no difference in FWBs remaining friends post-benefits along gendered lines, or even in terms of mismatched sexual orientations. For instance, if a gay male and his straight female buddy experiment while he sorts out his sexuality, this couple is not more likely than a heterosexual male-female pair to remain friends post-sex.
“It shouldn’t make a difference,” says Owen, admitting many participants in his study could have been closeted college students. “In all cases, communication is key.”
In retrospect, my ongoing foray with my straight female friend helped both of us during those vulnerable, John Hughes years. The result of our intimacy was a determination to seek relationships that are more fulfilling, both inside and out. For us, the “benefits” outweighed the costs.