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Friends with benefits: just the perks without the ties

982363_friendshipby Karen Kreps

A pal, well into mid-life and divorced for many years, bragged to me about how easy it is these days for him to get laid. “When women reach a certain age, they aren’t looking for a husband anymore. They’ve been there, done that. Most women I know lead busy, independent lives,” says Steve. “They have neither time nor bandwidth for a full-time relationship, but they still want sex and they are direct about their desires.”

At first, I assumed Steve was making this up, but I asked around and a number of people told me what he said rang true to their experiences. I heard about women and men friends who have a spoken or an unspoken agreement to have sex occasionally, without ever pursuing a romantic relationship.

A “bed buddy” can get you through lonely times, even if that person has no intention of being your life partner. I confess that, before I was married, I have enjoyed what I’ll call “convenient” relationships with men whom I knew weren’t appropriate partners for me in the long term, but they came in handy when I needed a little help going to sleep.

The term, FWB or “friends with benefits” was popularized in the mid-1990s The sexual liberation, feminism and high incidence of divorce have caused women to believe less and less in the possibility of one mate for life. Women have switched their priorities to focus more on attainable individual success, as opposed to family building. While society tends to frown on people who have sex outside of a monogamous, committed relationship, there is a time and a place in the lives of many for relationships that generally focus on fulfilling sexual rather than romantic or emotional needs.

There’s a big difference between the casual sex of a one-night stand, with a clean break following a night with a stranger and untold risk of sexually transmitted disease or personal harm, and sex with a dear friend whom you may trust but with whom you have no expectations beyond the bedroom.

It’s the relationship of choice for some mid-life women, like Anna. She says, “Most women my age have raised their kids or gotten rid of the deadbeat husbands or boy friends. They don’t want or need a man their age who wants someone who will take care of him and pick up his underwear and socks. They don’t want to fall into the trap of doing all the housework, bill paying and yard work and deal with the grown kids.”

But it’s not only older women who prefer casual relationships. Denise told me, “My daughter is going to college in Seattle, and we all want her to come back to Texas. So she’s not looking for the love of her life, but she has friends with whom she is sexually active and, for now, that’s all she needs. When she’s ready to find a husband she will, but she’s in no rush and she doesn’t really want to get too involved right now. She’s got a career to grow before raising a family.”

A study of one hundred twenty-five college-aged students conducted by the University of Michigan found that sixty percent had participated in non-committed sexual relationships and that a common concern was that sex might complicate friendships by bringing forth unreciprocated desires for romance. The limits of the relationship may get blurred. And having a FWB may sate the sexual appetite and thus inhibit the development of a more meaningful love life.

Steve has no complaints about finding women fast and easy, but other men have shared with me that they do. At least three men who come to talk about relationships at the “Intimacies” discussion group that I host at BookPeople each month tell me that they would like to first feel some emotional connection with a woman before they go to bed with her. The women are the opposite.

My friend Leanne says, “I don’t want to spend months becoming a guy’s best friend before I find out whether or not we’re sexually compatible. If we aren’t, then I have to break up with my best friend!”

“I’ve got girlfriends and religious guides who support me emotionally and spiritually,” says Elaine. “I’m not looking for that in a man. But I have physical desires that they can’t satisfy, so I get that from what I call a ‘relationship of convenience. ‘ My current f*ck buddy is a garden landscaper and all around handyman, kind of like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. [She laughs.] He’s not my intellectual match. He doesn’t share my spiritual interests and doesn’t want a wife, but we have a strong attraction to each other and are very compatible.We’ll call each other on the spur of the moment, spend an hour or two together and then go back to our respective lives.  We’re consenting adults, and no one gets hurt.”

Of course, reaching such intimacy with casual friends doesn’t come easily for everyone. A programmer who requested anonymity says, “I wouldn’t mind finding one of these “easy” women for casual sex. But how do you find them, other than by getting to know them and it somehow comes up in conversation? I’ve never been approached or known anyone who has been approached by a woman who, out of the blue, comes up and asks, ‘Would you like to have sex with me?’ I don’t think of myself as unattractive, but I just don’t get hit on or flirted with. Maybe I’m just too naive or stupid to figure this out.”