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Friends with Benefits: How Friendly? How Sexual?

Few FWB become romantically coupled.

Friends with benefits (FWB) describes couples who are more than friends but less than committed lovers. They're friends who, now and then, also have sex. They're not deeply involved and remain free to date others. But they value the friendship, feel mutual affection, and sometimes make love.

FWB relationships are not new. I imagine they've been around in some form forever. But the term "FWB" is fairly recent. I began hearing it about 10 years ago. (If anyone knows more about the history of this term, please comment.)

FWB is most common among young adults. As they grow older, will this this new relationship wrinkle extend into mature adulthood? Time will tell.

In the meantime, FWB relationships raise some questions: How friendly are FWB? How much sex do they have? And what becomes of these liaisons? Researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit and Michigan State in East Lansing surveyed 125 undergraduates (65 women, 60 men). [Bisson, MA and TR Levine, "Negotiating a Friends with Benefits Relationship," Archives of Sexual Behavior (2009) 38:66.]

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Sixty percent (40 men, 35 women) said they'd been involved in an FWB relationship, and about one-third were in one when surveyed.

Of the total sample, almost two-thirds (62 percent) said men and women can remain "just friends" while being FWB. The rest said it was impossible, that FWB must soon decide to be friends without sex, or become official lovers. FWB veterans felt more optimistic: 81 percent (34 men, 26 women) said it was quite possible to be happily FWB.

Before they became sexual, FWB couples were friends for an average of 14 months. Some remained long-term FWB (28 percent). But most FWB relationships changed after about six months. Many remained friends but stopped having sex (36 percent). Relatively few became romantically coupled (10 percent). And for some, both the friendship and the sex ended (26 percent).

FWB couples reported various sexual frequencies: only once (19 percent), occasionally (52 percent), and frequently (29 percent).

FWB veterans cited these advantages: sex without commitment (74 percent), having an available sex partner (69 percent), having sex with someone you know, like, and trust as opposed to a one-night hook-up (26 percent), and having some semblance of a relationship while remaining officially single (13 percent).

Disadvantages included: developing romantic feelings (81 percent), risking the friendship (35 percent), lack of commitment (16 percent), and feeling badly about the sex (12 percent).

FWB relationships occupy ambiguous ground between "just friends" and "involved." But they allow participants to experiment. I think that's why they're most common among young adults, folks who are still new to the world of relationships, and looking to find their way.

FWB couples are more likely to remain friends without sex than to become committed lovers. In the long run, that may be FWB's greatest advantage. Couples can explore a sex with someone they like and trust, then stop, ideally without recriminations and heartbreak. I think that's why these relationships are called friends with benefits, and not casual sex. What do you think?

San Francisco journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., has written about sexuality for 36 years. more...

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