Updated: Sep 22, 2021
I’ll start by stating my overall point first: good quality friends with benefits relationships are highly underrated and unfortunately stigmatized. Sex with friends can be a valuable, fun experience where folks can explore sex and intimacy with someone who they already know, trust and feel safe with, sexually and otherwise.
I remember during college when friends with benefits dynamics were becoming more common, especially among busy people like myself. It almost felt like there was this collective realization among queer folks at my university that sex wasn’t restricted to romantic relationships and that friends can be pleasurable, (sometimes) low-stakes sexual partners. One of my friends who often had platonic sexual relationships with close friends joked that they’re the best kind of friend to have because what friend doesn’t love an orgasm when they want it? Meaning, by bringing their friend consensual pleasure, they’re bringing their friend joy, which made them a great friend!
I want to be clear, this is not for everyone or every friendship, and that’s okay! There are some friends I have had multi-year friends with benefits relationships with, while others I would never even consider being sexually intimate within any context. While there are things one can do to make expectations clear and minimize emotional risk, a FWB relationship, like most sexual relationships, is not without possible complications.
Friends with benefits: What does it mean?
Friends with benefits, abbreviated as FWB, is defined simply as another relationship structure. This means it is one of many ways to have sexual and/or intimate relationships with people, at a different level of commitment than a romantic partnership. Here I am using the word relationship in the expansive sense, encompassing more than just romantic relationships and including anyone who you are connected with relationally beyond an acquaintance. Essentially, anyone who you’d refer to as “friend” or more.
There is no preset-specific roadmap or distinct recipe to being successful at a FWB dynamic. It's all about finding out what works for you in your situation. FWB usually start as "just friends" and one way or another either discuss being attracted to each other sexuality or might end up having sex spontaneously when things fall into place as they sometimes do.
After this initial shift, friends then choose to maintain a casual sexual relationship alongside their friendship. Hopefully, this choice is accompanied by a discussion about wants, needs, and relationship agreements that come with this new exciting sexual territory, but we’ll get into that later on in this article. In my experience and from what I’ve heard, a FWB relationship is explicit in its lack of intention towards any sort of romantic partnership. Specifics of what this might look like are totally up to the partners engaging in the relationship and vary on a case-by-case basis.
Are friends with benefits romantic?
Or just sexual?
It’s hard to make overarching generalizations about relationship models as they look different for everyone. It becomes especially hard when the line between friendship and romance is blurred or stretched. Some friendships, even those that are explicitly nonsexual often have elements of romance intertwined. What sets the friends with benefits model apart is the lack of commitment and expectations of a romantic relationship while holding onto the trust and commitments from the existing friendship.
In an ideal world, before engaging in sex it would be great to discuss sex and your friendship, but I know that’s not always the reality. If you can, it’s better to get these discussions out of the way before you’re between the sheets so everyone can be on the same page regarding if this is “just sex” or something more. It’s important to be clear about this from the get go so no one ends up thinking that a FWB relationship is progressing towards a romantic relationship and holding expectations that might not be met.
By being clear about expectations and agreements regarding what kind of sexual relationship you’re hoping to have and the boundaries associated, friends can opt-in with a full understanding of what they’re participating in, and if it’s “going anywhere” or not! If your goal is FWB where the only thing that changes about your relationship is that you have sex sometimes, that’s fine but make it compassionately clear!
Agreements and boundaries; why and how?
Agreements and boundaries can shift and change over time in any sort of relationship - casual, sexual, platonic, or otherwise. Boundaries are a tool for the maintenance of yourself and the relationships that matter to you. The first step to set a boundary is to identify it within yourself and then once clear communicate it to the other party. Boundaries should be focused on yourself and what you need, not controlling the behavior of others. Once everyone has had the space to share their boundaries, agreements can be made that work for everyone. This is great because everyone has a consensually agreed-upon framework for having emotionally safe sexual experiences while hopefully preserving a meaningful friendship!
If romantic feelings do begin to perk their head, do not ghost your friend! This has far more potential to hurt people than romantic feelings. It is totally fine to take space, but just do not disappear without explanation. A text as simple as "I'm working through some feelings and would like a break from ____" is more than enough to set your boundary and work through those feelings until you're ready to communicate them!
Times when friends with benefits can be
In a pandemic, especially with lockdowns still occurring all over the world, friends with benefits can be a useful option for folks looking to meet their sexual needs within their quarantine bubble.
When you’re too busy, stressed, or generally don’t want to date but still want to have sex.
You’re healing, or growing by being intentionally single but would still like to have sex.
If you’re in a long-distance, non-monogamous relationship (as in your agreements say it’s okay to engage with others sexually) and don’t want another romantic relationship.
You want to explore that sexual tension you’ve been experiencing with a friend for a while now, and you're hoping it's mutual.
You want to deepen your friendship in ways outside of the boundaries of traditional friendship structures.
Situations (I’ve seen) that can be a bit more challenging for FWB
Roommates can pose a challenge to a healthy FWB relationship. Why you might ask? Well, you live together meaning there is less space apart generally speaking and there are more moving parts of your relationship to manage. It can work with healthy boundaries, agreements, and good communication, but generally speaking the more “moving parts," the more complicated things can get which is something to consider, especially if this dynamic is new to you!
Co-workers. Similarly to the above challenge, it’s a good idea to make sure you can take healthy space when you need it, especially if feelings begin to shift so maybe the office friend isn't the easiest choice. But like I said, with communication, boundaries, and good agreements anything is possible.
A FWB relationship is not for everyone and that is okay! If it is for you, or you’re curious I’d encourage you to push past any fear you might have over it and explore what it might look like to engage in a low-stakes sexual relationship with a consenting equally enthusiastic friend. Not to get too personal but, I’ve been very happily surprised at the reaction of my friends and it's led to some great experiences. So my advice is to communicate!
Without talking about it, there's no way to know what's possible.
About the Author
Aly (they/them) is a pleasure-based sexuality educator, researcher, and activist based in Amsterdam. Co-founder and co-director of the queer-focused online sexuality and relationship education website Queer Sex Ed Community Curriculum (@queersexedcc // queersexedcc.com), Aly holds a Master of Science in Sociology: Gender, Sexuality, and Society, and a B.A. focused on sexuality education, gender and identity studies, and sexual health. They have worked at several international nongovernmental organizations as a researcher on pleasure-focused sexual and reproductive health and rights initiatives. Their work focuses on intersections of power, health, knowledge, identity, pleasure, and educational pedagogy. Personally, Aly is a major pleasure enthusiast who loves talking and writing about all things sex, identity, politics, and pleasure!