#askthesexpert: friends with benefits
"can being fwb damage me psychologically?"
It is likely that you've heard somewhere in the world - be it from entertainment media, the news, your parents, teachers, etc. - that casual dating or "hook up culture" is more prevalent among today's young adult population than it was for past generations. There has been a surge of research about this phenomenon, which has resulted in numerous books, journal articles, and magazine covers. Most numbers from this research do demonstrate an increase in young adults engaging in sex with their friends, as well as more favorable attitudes toward sex outside of a romantic relationship. (I won't go too far off the ledge right here and talk about all the contextual circumstances that may have contributed to these numbers, such as the increase in young adults going to college, which also leads to a longer period of time before people are getting married, the decreased stigma of causal sex, etc. etc. etc. - we ALWAYS have to look at CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT before believing straight statistics!) That being said, research has also been conducted on how having sex with friends outside of a "romantic relationship" can impact the friendship.
If you haven't noticed yet, I have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder about this topic. Here's why:
IMO, when the "hookup culture" started making waves, I found the surrounding commentary to be extremely judgmental. Here are a bunch of old folks telling a bunch of young folks that their way of navigating relationships was wrong - simply because they were different. The people who conducted this research (aka the old folks) - at least at first - used their research to demonstrate how terrible and awful and detrimental this whole "casual sex" thing was! It was ruining the traditional courting process! Killing romance! Emotionally harming poor, innocent, young girls! ANARCHY!
But you guys, just because things are different, doesn't make them bad, right? And to be honest, there are a lot of factors that determine whether or not a friends with benefits situation can be beneficial, harmful, or somewhere in between. Here are, according to the research, three important things to consider..
- Alcohol: regret is more associated with casual sex where alcohol was involved than when it wasn't. So if every time you're getting it on with your pal it's in a drunken haze, it might not be the best idea.
- Expectations: are you fucking your friend because you're feeling sexually empowered and enjoy the occasional orgasm with someone with whom you trust and feel safe and comfortable? Or are you hoping it will lead to dating? Neither of those is wrong, but if you are on one side of the fence and your friend is on the other, it's an recipe for disappointment in one way or another. Communication is (per usual) of the utmost importance.
- Biological Sex: I don't usually like to generalize, but biologial women physiologically react differently than biological men to casual sex. Why? The hormone oxytocin is released more in biological women than men after sex. Oxytocin increases feelings of closeness and intimacy, so biological women are more likely to have feelings of attachment to someone after having sex with them.
So, according to the research, those who are biologically female, have incongruent expectations from their friend and are drunk during sex are at the highest risk of experiencing negative outcomes from a friends with benefits relationship. To the contrary, those who are biologically male, have compatible expectations and engage in sober sex have the least risk of experiencing negative outcomes from a friends with benefits situation.
As someone admittedly with a lot of experience with this type of relationship, I can personally speak to both the advantages and downfalls of a FWB situation.
During college, I feel like I would have gotten myself into all types of icky situations if it wasn't for implementing highly effective friends with benefits arrangements. If I were leaving the bar or a party at the end of the night, and feeling a little frisky, I was able to go home with someone who was trustworthy, who respected me, who wouldn't take advantage of me, and was caring and kind. I wasn't worried about the awkwardness the next morning, felt comfortable in their space or having them in mine, and knew they had my best interest in mind (also they were nice enough to let me borrow a pair of sweatpants in the morn, avoiding the "walk of shame," haha). These are benefits often not associated with a one-night stand.
On the other hand, I have also spent time (years, in fact! yikes) in a FWB relationship where we had incongruent expectations, and it was NOT good for me. There was almost a constant feeling of disappointment, significant impact to my self-esteem (why am I not good enough? what's wrong with me? etc.), and what I would describe as heartbreak on more than one occasion. YUCK! (shout out to all my homies who supported me through the tears and drama during that roller coaster - you know who you are!)
So, I don't think that FWB is inherently good or inherently bad. There are ways to navigate the relationship without psychological damage, but there are also ways that risk exists. Hopefully this gives you some guidance on how to reduce your risk for negative outcomes from a friends with benefits situation. Good luck, reader! Thanks for asking a GREAT question!
PS. What experience have you all had with FWB? Are there any other guidelines you would add?