After the holidays, Valentine’s Day is next on the horizon. You’re single, lonely, sexually frustrated, and generally blue. The whole world seems to be celebrating love’s special day with chocolate and roses and you’re looking forward to an evening with your cat. A friend sympathizes. (Of course, she’s engaged, so what does she know?) Somehow the conversation turns to the idea of “friends with benefits” otherwise known as having sex with someone you aren't emotionally entangled with and the idea doesn't seem as far-fetched as it once did. After all, we are now as free as men to explore their sexuality without encumbrances.
Why shouldn’t you spice up your life with a regular, no-strings-attached booty call? Maybe that guy you’ve known since high school, who’s held your hand through breakups and who has turned to you for advice about what women want could be the answer to at least some of your problems. Why not give it a try?
Proceed with caution. Although the idea of a no-strings-attached sexual romp with a good buddy when you’re feeling lonely sounds like a great idea, there isn’t much in the way of data to show that most women can pull it off. The truth is that while some women can manage a FWB arrangement, others simply can’t. FWB requires a separation between love and sex that can be very hard for many women to sustain over time. There are good reasons why these arrangements often don’t last. There are reasons why the price of a few sexual encounters can be the loss of a very long friendship.
Why Can’t We Just Have Sex Without Emotions?
Part of the reason is grounded in classic behavioral psychology. Remember reinforcers? Give a pigeon a treat every time he pecks a bar and he really wants to peck that bar. You and your FWB hung out as friends because of shared interests in politics, Proust, and baseball, not because you saw him as date material. You know he cheated on every woman he ever dated. You know that he has major hangups about commitment. You know there’s a trail of emotional wreckage in his wake. Before you started sleeping with him, you ignored his flaws as a romantic partner. But now – now the powerful, positive feelings of orgasm may make all that seem like small stuff. Orgasm is a powerful reinforcer of behavior for both sexes. It’s fun. It feels great. When paired with a particular person over time, it can make a casual sexual partner look good, very, very good.
Looking good can start to look like love, whether the person is really appropriate or not. You might start convincing yourself that with you, he’ll be different; that a couple of people who share such a powerful connection are meant for each other. Mention this to the guy, and he’s likely to be surprised and upset. He figured you knew what you were getting into. Why would you think he was going to change?
Another reason is biological: Both men and women release oxytocin, the hormone and neurotransmitter, during orgasm. Oxytocin calms us down, soothes our anxieties, and mellows us out. It’s also a key biological factor that bonds people to each other. Some research shows that it is associated with the ability to maintain healthy relationships. This is the hormone that is released during childbirth. It also surges when women nurse their babies. Sometimes called the “cuddle hormone,” it’s what helps parents bond with their babies and women bond with their mates. It’s often what makes a woman start to see a FWB arrangement as meaning more. She bonds. He doesn’t. One day she whispers, “Maybe I love you.” He’s outraged. He’s bummed. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This wasn’t the deal! Tell that to your hormones.
Some of it seems to be evolutionarily hardwired. Where men seem to be engineered to sow their “wild oats,” women have, at least historically, been focused on finding a stable mate and settling down to the business of making a family. The tension between those two forces is at the core of romantic love. When the male singles out a particular woman as the object of his emotional and sexual attraction, it’s powerful stuff. When a woman sees that man as the person who can partner with her to make a family and a life, she reciprocates with equal ardor. (There’s that oxytocin again!) However antiquated those tendencies may seem, they’ve guaranteed the survival of the species and are unlikely to die easily. If he’s still “sowing” but your more basic self is into nesting, there’s going to be a big problem with your FWB arrangement.
Some of it is about how you were raised. Times may be changing but they haven’t changed evenly or universally. The double standard still exists for the majority of the world. Only a few generations ago in America, women who had sex before marriage were seen as “loose” and immoral. Men who had sex before marriage were seen as “scoring.” Then came the ’60s, birth control, and sexual liberation. Yes? Well – sometimes and for some. There are still many families that promote sexual abstinence and churches and organizations that celebrate chastity pledges for young girls. There are many places and cultures in the world that place high value on female virginity.
If you were raised with such values, they may well argue with the part of you that wants to explore your sexuality freely and with no strings attached. Often, the resolution is to fall in love with the FWB as a way to justify your actions. After all, you persuade yourself, if you are going to marry the guy, it’s okay to have had sex. The solution falls apart if he’s not there with you.
We live in a time when TV dramas (even comedies) and movies tout sex among unmarried couples and friends as a norm and FWB arrangements as a solution to sexual frustration. But as with most things, what’s a good story may not play out so well in life. Can women engage in a FWB relationship without becoming yet another romantic casualty statistic? Yes. Some can. But it’s important to recognize that even in the 2000s it is generally more challenging for women to keep it up than it is for men. Cruise the Internet for advice on FWB and you’ll find multiple “rules” for keeping a relationship merely sexual:
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