Friends With Benefits: The Ideal, The Reality

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Aliza Saraco-Polner talks to relationship researcher Justin Garcia to discover the knotted reality among 'No-Strings-Attached' relationships

Kama Sutra at Mardi Gras

Photo: Aliza Saraco-Polner

Carnaval possibilities

Defining Your Non-Relationship

Hooking up, Friends with Benefits, Booty Calls, No Strings Attached, Casual Sex… all are some form of ‘non-relational sex.’  Everyone seems to be talking about a “new” cultural phenomenon that has emerged, especially on college campuses – hooking up.  As a senior in college, I can safely say it seems like the dating scene is almost dead; a relationship happens (if at all) after the physical occurs. Indeed, not every casual sexual encounter eventually manifests into a relationship, some are for physical pleasure and fun. But recent research on hooking up points towards this end result being more possible than we think.  According to Justin Garcia, the newest researcher at the Kinsey Institute, “when asked to identify the factors that motivate a hook-up, 51% of university students, both men and women, indicated a desire to initiate a traditional romantic relationship.[i] This may seem counterintuitive that people are looking to develop romances and relationships from these casual encounters, but perhaps it isn’t as strange as we think. Garcia points out, this could simply be because your partner already desired you enough to hook-up with you.

Friends with Benefits: The Middle Ground

So if people’s intentions when hooking up are leaning towards wanting a relationship, what’s happening with the concept of Friends with Benefits (FWB)? Although still considered a form of casual, non-relational sex, FWB are a little different. Two friends are making the conscious decision to hook-up casually for fun, with no strings attached. Instead of having a one-night stand with someone you may not necessarily know, FWB offers the comfort of a relationship without defining it as such, partly because you already trust your partner. With FWB, a middle ground exists between a platonic friendship and a romantic relationship: you can maintain your emotional closeness as friends but also receive sexual satisfaction from it. In other words, you are “super friends”—the best of both worlds. In theory, this can be an ideal situation, especially for college students who already have trouble balancing all other aspects of their lives. But FWB isn’t as stress-free as it can appear.

No Strings Attached (NSA) Sex HAS Strings

If you are continuously hooking up with someone, whether it’s with a friend or not, it’s easy to develop feelings for that person as you become more intimate; with FWB, that fear is always lingering. Your non-relationship is caught in the gray area of being “more than friends” yet are too scared to define your relationship based on the original and ideal “no strings attached” plan. Then, you are both forced to make a decision: You can initiate a traditional, romantic relationship, you can “break-up” (even though a benefit of the FWB decision was never having to go through that because you were never in a relationship to begin with), or you can go back to being just friends. The first two explicitly prove that NSA sex is more complicated than it originally seems. According to an ongoing study conducted by Garcia, approximately one-third of adults have experienced a hook-up turn into a romantic relationship.[ii] It seems the former situations are the more common end results to this type of a “non-relationship.” There is no easy way to avoid this; most people choose to ignore what the impact of “casual sex” could have on a friendship. On the other hand, if one decides to set up rules for a non-relationship when first hooking up, doesn’t that contradict the purpose of hooking up altogether?

It’s true that some people can go back to being just friends after their fling, but how plausible is that? Often, we think it will be fine, since it was never in a real, traditional relationship. But when you see your friend with someone new, will it elicit feelings of jealousy, betrayal, and contempt that you didn’t expect to occur?

Studies on hook up behavior prove that NSA sex is often not as simple as it may seem. After all, we aren’t robots.

Aliza Saraco-Polner is a senior at Indiana University with a major in Mathematics and minors in Gender Studies and Studio Art.  She is also the undergraduate liaison for the Kinsey Institute, where she has volunteered for the past year, and volunteers for the Center for Sexual Health Promotion.

[i] JR Garcia & C Reiber. (2008). Hook-up Behavior: A Biopsychosocial Perspective. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2, 192-208.

[ii] Information was relayed via email with Garcia on ongoing study

Jennifer Bass (M.P.H.)

is Director of Communications at The Kinsey Institute and founder of Kinsey Institute Sexuality Information Service for Students, now Kinsey Confidential.
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  • Kbaby

    “Instead of having a one-night stand with someone you may
    not necessarily know, FWB…” I believe it is possible to have a one night stand
    with a friend as well, as you will “drunken mistakes” that doesn’t mean it
    would happen again, and in that moment that person was a FWB. It may not have
    even been considered a benefit though if the sex was not satisfying for both.

    “It’s true that some people can go back to being just
    friends after their fling, but how plausible is that? Often, we think it will
    be fine, since it was never in a real, traditional relationship. But when you
    see your friend with someone new, will it elicit feelings of jealousy,
    betrayal, and contempt that you didn’t expect to occur?”
                    Yes, this is true.
    Traditional or not it was a relationship and a friendship in itself is a
    relationship. How many people can say they are friends with their exes? Surprisingly,
    many can depending on the age at which it occurred, emotional investment, and
    how the relationship ultimately ended. To answer the last question, you can’t
    go back to friends if those feelings occur. Clearly, one became attached and
    the other moved on. I feel that this article really hit home to the
    writer.  To assume that once students
    enter college dating becomes dead is completely wrong. Each school has their
    fair share of people who get around and people who don’t. Many people are still
    virgins entering college and some are still virgins leaving.

    To say that college means that dating is dead is wrong. We
    are now brought up in a sex filled society and are taught to learn what we like
    and what we don’t like. I.e. masturbation and Cosmo’s repetitive self. People
    just now incorporate sex as a factor into dating as well. We are taught that
    sex is an important factor in a relationship and that its good to have healthy
    sex. So, why can’t we have FWB that evolves? The foundation of marriage is
    friendship. The foundation to all relationships is that trust and friendship.
    To have all that and find out that you two can have amazing sex as well can develop
    into something more.

    This isn’t to say that’s the case all the time because some
    people are just meant to be friends but how can you ultimately have great sex
    anyways if there is no emotional attraction. At that point its meaningless sex
    and it will never be the best. The situation gets sticky when one develops
    feelings and the other one doesn’t and that’s when you must end the sex
    immediately and possibly a friendship. Those are the risks people must be
    willing to take when they choose to go down this path. Sometimes ending and
    cutting ties all together is the only way for one friend to be able to let go.

    Lastly, a relationship cannot be grounded by sex. Yes, sex
    is fun and great but there has to be that friendship, trust, love, and bond.
    This can happen between friends and this can be the result of a NSA or
    FWB.  I also believe that a NSA and FWB
    can work! FWB can’t last as just friends and sex but NSA has the possibility of
    being a great fling. Ask the men who find a “regular.” I have so much more to
    say but I will stop myself now.