Are Women Cut Out to Be Friends With Benefits?

February 11, 2009

friends with benefits

“You’re the best listener that I’ve ever met

You’re my best friend

Best friend with benefits”

Alanis Morissette, Head Over Feet


As someone who writes about contemporary relationships and the hookup culture, I hear a lot about Friends With Benefits Relationships (FWBR), mostly from women. Mostly they don’t seem to work too well, in that most young women regret having had them once they’re done. When I ask women if they have ever been in a FWBR, the most common answer I hear is “Yes, unfortunately.” One young woman I spoke with recently lamented the end of friendship activities once the sexual activity began:

“We used to hang out all the time, go to movies, grab dinner, stuff like that. But now that we’re hooking up, I hardly ever see him outside of bed. He says that if we were to have sex and still do all the other stuff, that would be a relationship, and he doesn’t want a relationship. But I miss him.”

At the same time, I find that most women still believe casual sexual relationships can work. They can work well if rational behavior prevails and both people are “on the same page.” Meaning that both parties have zero expectations for romance, commitment, or sometimes, even friendship.

There are several commonly accepted characteristics of FWBRs:

  •   Sex occurs in the context of a non-romantic friendship.
  •   There is an absence of desire for a romantic relationship or commitment.
  •   The emphasis is on fulfilling sexual rather than emotional needs.
  •   Recurring sexual encounters are the norm.


Why the dichotomy? Why do women enter FWB arrangements with optimism and confidence, only to exit them as cynics? Were they not being honest with themselves at the start? Or did their feelings change over time, rendering them “ineligible” to play by the rules of emotional detachment? And why are women blaming themselves when these relationships sour? Do they feel deficient in their ability to keep things casual? Or are women the ones breaking hearts? Perhaps I’m just not hearing the success stories?

Reflecting on how things have changed since my own college days twenty-five years ago, I recall that we had plenty of casual sex, but it was mostly of the one-night-stand variety. Close platonic friendships between men and women were not the norm, and those I tried to forge eventually always got complicated by sexual tension one way or another, a la When Harry Met Sally. We straddled the eras of traditional dating and casual sex, and we generally did not attempt to combine the two.

Today’s youth is much better at friendship between genders. Sexual tension becomes an issue for them just as regularly, but they choose to handle it differently. It is common for girls and guys to acknowledge, even discuss, their mutual attraction for each other, and then to decide not to act on it. Usually, they refrain from indulging their feelings so as to preserve the friendship when neither (or just one) wishes to pursue a committed relationship. Of course, often the two go right ahead and have sex, choosing to deal with the complications afterwards. And sometimes they decide in a pragmatic way to introduce sex into the friendship, allowing physical intimacy to grow while keeping emotional intimacy in check.

There are other ways that FWBRs get started. Sometimes a one-night-stand or random hookup evolves into a FWBR if both partners want to repeat the experience, perhaps indefinitely. Conversely, some of these relationships are about having sex with the ex; a romantic relationship ends, but the couple decides to maintain the sexual relationship. FWBRs offer another compelling benefit in an era where STD transmission is rampant: they are less risky than sex with a larger variety of partners.

So what does the data say? Who’s happy, who’s unhappy with the status quo? A survey of the scholarship on FWBR reveals the following:

  • 60% of college students have experienced at least one FWBR.
  • 10% of these relationships evolve into romances.
  • 33% remain friends after halting the sexual part of their friendship.
  • 25% end both the sexual relationship and the friendship over time.
  • 47% of participants in FWBRs believe in “deep love,” while 60% of non-participants do.


Do young women and men experience FWBRs in the same way? The research shows that there are profound differences between women and men in their answers to the following questions:


 Women saying yesMen saying yes
Is your current FWBR an emotional relationship?        63%      38%
Is your partner more emotionally involved than you are?        14%      44%
Are you more friends than lovers?        84%      15%
Do you wish the two of you had sex more often?        14%      44%
Would you like to have more than one FWBR going at the same time?         5%      35%


Clearly, women are more focused on the friends aspect of the relationship, while men are more concerned with the benefits. In addition, researchers have studied how FWBRs differ in their relational dynamics from platonic cross-sex friendships:

  •      There is a prevalent emotional rule in FWBRs stating that both parties must avoid falling in love, and must work to minimize jealousy.
  •      Openness occurs less naturally in FWBRs than in platonic friendships. However, a continuous process of negotiation is required to assure clarity for both parties.
  •      FWBRs include less supportive communication, including giving assurances and advice.
  •      The sexual part of the friendship is often kept secret.
  •      The sex in FWBRs is characterized by less passion than romantic sex.
  •      FWBs often try to spend time with mutual friends to avoid focusing too heavily on sexual activity.
  •      There is more emphasis on the role of equity in the relationship, i.e., who has the “upper hand.”


Clearly, the primary risk for young women is an emotional one. That is not to say that women are always the ones to have unrequited feelings. But they worry they will be, with good reason. One woman admitted that she is tired of hooking up with guys she doesn’t know, but that she doesn’t like being the only one to go home alone. Her f**k buddy provides a good alternative.

“We’ve been good friends for a couple of years, and we recently started hooking up. Neither one of us is looking for anything serious, but he’s really sweet, and he’s kind of cute. I never really saw him that way before. I’m not looking to date anyone right now, so I’ll probably just stick with this for a while and see how it goes.”

Uh oh. She thinks he’s sweet. And cute. She doesn’t focus on his jacked body, or that she wants him outta there in the morning. She’s not looking for anyone else. She wants to “see how it goes.”

I’ve got my fingers crossed, but what I fear is this: Her heart is open. His fly is.




Bisson, Melissa, A., and Levine, Timothy, Negotiating a Friends with Benefits Relationship, Archives of Sexual Behavior, September 13, 2007, pp. 66-73.

Goodboy, Alan K., Bloomsburg University and Myers, Scott A., West Virginia University, Relational Maintenance Behaviors of Friends with Benefits: Investigating Equity and Relational Characteristics, Human Communication, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 71-86.

Knox, David, McGinty, Kristen, and Zusman, Marty E., Friends With Benefits: Women Want Friends, Men Want Benefits,College Student Journal, December, 2007.

Knox, David, Puentes, Jennifer, Zusman, Marty E., Participants in Friends With Benefits Relationships, College Student Journal, 42 (1), 176-180, March, 2008.

  • I’ve never even had the option of a FWBR! Darn it…..

  • Stephanie B.

    I feel the opposite. I am a female and I have had a couple of FWB relationships and naturally, they end messy, however, it is the reverse. I just want the hook up action but the men want to fall in love. It makes me question the vulnerability in them all. It’s sad for the female too, because how many of your guy friends are only your “guy friends” or are they waiting for the day the random hook up action calls (if at all). I hate to think this way, but given the opportunity, how many of your male friends would lay down with you if you let them. Anyways, my experience shows the mans heart is open and the females are the mantis.

    • susanawalsh

      That is interesting, I do hear that sometimes. I wonder if it’s the person who is the most indifferent who gets to call the shots? If you don’t care, you can’t be hurt, etc. Or do you just attract vulnerable guys? Your experience is not the norm, I don’t think, so I’m curious!

    • there are two things i wanted to comment about in your response

      1. “It’s sad for the female too, because how many of your guy friends are only your “guy friends” or are they waiting for the day the random hook up action calls (if at all). I hate to think this way, but given the opportunity, how many of your male friends would lay down with you if you let them.”

      men are made to be this way the hook-up culture just makes it easier and more socially acceptable for us. We are meant to spread out our seed in order to help ensure our species and traits survival. Think about it this way so many years ago a man who had many women he took care of was hoping to spread with all of them no? forward to 2009 and we still want many girls around us, we want to spread our seed. I’m not saying guy friends are not your friends. But, i am saying is that we wouldn’t mind a nice place to plant especially if we’ve already seen the land.

      2.”I feel the opposite. I am a female and I have had a couple of FWB relationships and naturally, they end messy, however, it is the reverse. I just want the hook up action but the men want to fall in love. It makes me question the vulnerability in them all.”

      this has ALWAYS been wrong in my opinion. although i do agree with you that there is a unhealthy rise in bitch-assness amongst today’s males, we are not all so vulnerable. Firstly, in any relationship it is a power play. AKA who calls the shots, wears the pants, you know what i mean. In stable long relationships partners are so comfortable with each other that they are able to switch off who has the power without any repercussions or feelings being manipulated. in FWBR we are faking that comfort. that’s why many times you wake up in the beginning of a FWBR feeling awkward. then after awhile things hit even keel and this is the testing point. Once you hit even keel, someone must fall in the power relationship and someone must rise. The issue is, because you all have been faking comfort and not establishing true mutual comfort, one wields the power to dictate the relationship, while the other longs for the partner. unless a FWBR spends time out of the bedroom establishing true comfort without hooking-up, then a stable FWBR relationship can be established in which power can be switched in comfort or stuck on an even keel.

  • My last ‘relationship” could be characterized as a FWBR, not how I would have described it when we were together, but after it ended and looking back that is exactly what it was. I admit it was me that ended up wanting more, even though I went into it knowing that he didn’t. Yes, I was one of the foolish women that thought if I just held out long enough his feelings would change. WRONG! I can say that I am not cynical now, but I do think there are signs to look for. I am much more watchful these days.

    • susanawalsh

      Beki, I find that many women do get cynical about relationships after they’ve been disappointed, which makes sense. Being watchful, not wary, is a much better attitude to move forward with – it leaves you open to something positive happening in the future.

  • Michael

    I’ve got my fingers crossed, but what I fear is this: Her heart is open. His fly is.

    And that is where too many women go wrong.

    No expectations, no disappointments.

  • Lydia

    I am now caught in the dating world and met someone a few months back… seemed like he wanted a relationship (by his own words), but his actions proved different… had A LOT of texts from random women posting nude photos etc… and actually met someone in Florida (who had a boyfriend), but did not seem to mind him chatting her up… and yes I CHECKED HIS Cell phone… because I felt he was lying whenever I asked if he was a faithful guy…and he said yes, but his phone activity screamed different.. I AM WRONG for what I did and that is what caused the demise of our dating… I broke up with him and now of course I want another chance but he is not having it… says he loves me but is not “in love” and a relationship with me would be disastrous… due to my insecurity… so now we are hanging out as “friends” and I am afraid that I may get hurt…

    How do I not lose him for good?

  • To quote the wise Dan Savage: dump the motherfucker already. You deserve better than a commitmentphobic cheating bastard, especially one who “loves you but is not in love with you.” If being near him gets you too hurt, then tell him you need a couple weeks by yourself. Eat some ice cream, cry, listen to the Smiths, whatever. Then find someone better who actually cares about you and is ready for a relationship.

    Also, don’t check your boyfriend’s phone, that’s not on.

  • the super enigma

    Lydia, you have not exactly sold us on the idea that this guy is really worth holding onto at all! He sounds like one of the stereotypical ‘alphas’ that generate so much fury on the the blogosphere. Find someone better.

  • nirse

    when i was in high school i had my male bestfriend who is always there for me but when were about to graduate high school he is acting strange and i can sense something fishy about him texting and inviting me to have a date with my mutual friends and he knows i was in a relationship at that time i like him so we spend time together with our mutual friends suddenly one day he never texted or mind me when we meet each other at school we never talk for almost a year until we reached 2nd year college we texted and then suddenly we hooked up twice he is so very gentle and treat me so kind everytime we meet but he rarely text me . he hooked up with me even if im in a relaationship

  • sue

    I have been in a few FWB situations and have been on both sides The first one lasted for about a year. He was a co-worker I had a major thing for so ater we “hooked up” a couple times and he said he’s not looking for a girlfiend at the moment, of course I was hurt but let it continue. It wasn’t ideal as it was very one-sided and i’d only see him when I called, and it ended when I didn’t.


    *yawn* here we go again. Making women out to be more emotionally unstable that they can’t handle friends with benefits. What happens in some cases is that when a man sees that a woman is totally fine with a fwbr, he feels uneasy and he needs to create drama. He starts to initiate emotional communication, talking about how he wants her to be his girlfriend, trying to hook her emotionally. Then if she sees there can be some connection there she decides to get emotionally involved and then the drama starts. All because his ego could handle that his fwb girl wasn’t swooning over him. How nice.

  • Kat

    I agree with WBOTB. I had a one night stand last August 2011 on my 39th birthday and all I initially saw it as was a one night hookup. I woke up the next morning and he was still there watching me sleep. I was also dealing with someone else at the same time but nothing serious. The one night stand called me his soulmate etc (enter violin music). Fast forward to one year. After suckering me into a relationship he completely changed. I think it was all an ego boost for him. He has lied about seein others and I suspect he has been. My parents have met him so it is supposed to be an exclusive relationship but he has wrecked my self esteem and got the prize he wanted , me swooning over him. I had a blind date with a guy last night and luckily this man was honest…he dates others and all I want him for is sex! This is all I wanted to begin with. Contrary to popular belief some women like myself do better in FWB scenarios because relationships are too much stress.