Emotions a factor when it comes to friends with benefits


October 20, 2007|By MARYANN JAMES

Sometimes what seems to be the most simple solution is actually the most complicated.

A prime example: friends with benefits.

On the surface, it appears to be a very modern, no-frills, uncomplicated arrangement. Single friends turn to each other for a little loving from time to time. But any smart cookie knows better. Sex complicates everything.

Look at the science. Two researchers at Michigan State University -- former grad student Melissa A. Bisson and Tim Levine, a professor of communications -- surveyed 125 undergrads about friends with benefits. Not only did they find that 60 percent of students had been in or were in such a relationship, but these dalliances were often marked by anxiety, uncertainty, little passion, only some intimacy and a low success rate.

I wasn't surprised. I've had plenty of friends who have tried (and mostly failed at) friends with benefits.

"I know my friends do it," says 18-year-old Linda Osodi, a first-year student at the University of Baltimore. But she doesn't cross that line. Osodi says her friends stay friends.

"I can't do that," she says. "It's a barrier."

So why do it?

"It's convenience, maybe," says Michael Vogt, 23, of Mount Vernon.

Some law school students I talked to backed that up. They're too busy for a relationship, they said. A friend with benefits seems like an uncomplicated, no-strings-attached solution.

Others break it down to gender roles.

"Guys will get in a relationship with someone they're not really about," says Danielle Daniels, 18, another University of Baltimore freshman.

And because of that, some think women are trying to get in on the game.

As an adviser at the University of Wisconsin, Becky Ryan is in a prime position to observe student behavior and she sees women flipping the script.

"I think sometimes it's the girls trying to be like the guys," says Ryan, 41, of Madison, Wis., who was visiting Baltimore for a conference.

And some guys agree.

Addison Pomphrey, 21, of Towson says the friends-with-benefits situation is "a guy's dream." And when I asked him and Vogt if they thought some girls got into it to try to get in with a guy, they said it's possible. But it never works.

"The girl's like, `I'm cool with you going out with another girl,'" he says. "But when you do, it's over." Ryan also says she believes younger generations are taking what seems a practical choice: (presumably) clean friends means an easy and safe experience.

Why take a gamble on some random person at a bar? Why not just pick someone you already know?

Levine, the researcher, agrees.

"Today's generation has grown up with the idea that sex can kill you," Levine says. "I think one of the things that friends with benefits offers is the illusion of safety."

But that's just what it is. An illusion.

"It may be safer in some ways, but not in others," Levine says. It may defend against sexual predators, "but on a disease standpoint, not so much."

And let's not forget about emotions, too.

When asked if he thought friends with benefits was a good idea, Vogt balks.

"No, no way," he says. "Someone's gonna get hurt."

And after sloughing through all of the justifications and explanations, I can't help but return to the main question: Why do it?

Out of the many people who said that they knew people who engaged in friends-with-benefits behavior, a suspiciously low number of people admitted doing it themselves. And by low, I mean nobody.

Perhaps that's reflective of the friends-with-benefits relationship. Bisson and Levine's study showed trust as one of the top three reasons to enter in the relationship. But conversely, talk about the relationship was one of the taboo subjects.

I think it's funny that, even though everyone is supposedly more liberated nowadays, many people are afraid to admit that they do it. Even with each other.

So perhaps, that's the biggest reason not to -- if you can't even talk about it, perhaps it's better to simply leave well enough alone.


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