Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Friends with Benefits

If a hook-up goes well, a couple may decide to make a habit of it. Then, they become friends with benefits. By agreement they have occasional sexual congress, for the purpose of pure pleasure. Nothing about the arrangement implies that there is or will be a relationship.

Call it mutually agreed upon exploitation. He uses her for sex; she uses him for sex. They have agreed that sexual pleasure is an end itself. They imagine that because they have decided that their fun has no further meaning, it has no further meaning.

Clearly, friends with benefits is not the same as a man taking a mistress or a woman having a lover. Both of those arrangements are relationships. There is love and affection, even a real commitment, beyond the occasional romp.

Before modern feminism merged with some very peculiar ethical thinking, precious few women would have allowed themselves to be used for sex without receiving something of an emotional commitment.

What do I mean by peculiar ethical thinking? If you believe that two people who have agreed to exploit each other are therefore, by their act of consent, making the arrangement less exploitative, then you are fooling yourself.

If friends with benefits is your pleasure, be my guest. But at least understand the situation for what it is: a trick to engage women in sex without emotion or commitment.

And don't be fooled by the fact that the woman is enjoying the sex. Or that she feels that she is using him. She may very well be using him as a sexual object, but that does not obviate the fact that she is allowing him to use her. Being a sexual object is being a sexual object. You do not become less of a sexual object because you are taking turns at using each other.

How can you tell the difference? Simply, by listening to the testimony of people who are involved in these arrangements.

Take Lizzy, who wrote to Sarah Walsh's site, HookingUpSmart. Link here. If you scroll down the comments you will find some of my own remarks. The topic and the discussion were very engaging, indeed.

Lizzy found herself in a situation that is best called friends with benefits. She and a young man of her acquaintance got together on occasion, mostly for sex, sometimes for a couple of days, and had what must be called a very good time.

Both Lizzy and the man understood that theirs was not a relationship and that it was not going to become a relationship. The man had stated as much, clearly and explicitly.

Yet, Lizzie allowed herself to draw a different conclusion. She observed the quality of their interactions, the quality of their affection for each other, the quality of the sex they were having, the quality of their togetherness... and she allowed herself to entertain the idea that it was going to become something more, a long term relationship.

By her reasoning, if it felt like a relationship, it had to be a relationship.

Her musings lasted until she discovered that her friend had moved on to another woman. Now, Lizzy asked an important, even a crucial question: How could she have so thoroughly misread the situation? When it comes to the male mind: How's a girl to know?

In her post Sarah Walsh begins with the obvious point, a point that is so obvious that we all overlook it: she should have listened to his words, not her heart. The man was doing what he said he would do; no more, no less.

Nothing mysterious there; no need for further exegesis. He meant what he said and said what he meant.

We all say that we are good listeners, but if you think you are, ask yourself whether you take people at their word. Do you try to find hidden meanings, their true feelings, feelings so deeply hidden that they do not even know about them? If so, you are not listening. You are interpreting.

Walsh then offers an intriguing metaphor. For a man some women are an exotic vacation. They stay for a while, enjoy themselves fully, and then pack up and go home.

Her point is well taken. Men do distinguish between women who are more like an exotic vacation and women who feel more like home. And keep in mind that exotic and homey do not, by definition, coexist.

Later in the comments section, Walsh buttresses her point by reporting a conversation she had had with a male college student. He was explaining the difference between women he would hook up with and women he might want to settle down with.

He and his friends were happy to hook up with girls who were full of themselves, and who were in love with their own basic hotness. By his reasoning, hooking up with them was going to be a humbling experience. Almost like therapy for their narcissism.

To him and his friends, girls they respected were not hook-up material. If they saw a girl as a genuinely good person, they would not want to hook up with her. In a way they were saving her for a long term commitment.

Meantime, the lesson I would draw from Lizzy's experience is simple: when it comes to romance men and women do not speak the same language. If a woman judges a man as though he were speaking her language, she will be more likely to misjudge his intentions.

How can she read his language? One of the commenters on Walsh's site pointed in the right direction: by examining his public behavior. She might think that spending a weekend between the sheets is a relationship high, but it might simply mean that he is not comfortable being out with her, or else that he cannot afford to take her out.

And Walsh mentions another important point. Is he ready for a committed relationship?

How can you tell whether a man is ready for a relationship? Simply, by seeing how he is established in his career. Is he on a positive career path? Is he ready to take on the responsibilities entailed in providing for a wife and children?

If he is unemployed or temping or looking for direction the chances are very good that he is not going to involve himself in any attachment that would lead to a long term relationship.

Admittedly, Lizzy might have learned in Women's Studies that the role of male provider is a social construct whose time has come and gone. Still, somewhere in the reptilian depths of the male psyche... it lives!

You discount it at your peril.

Someone will be thinking here that a woman might not really care about the man's career prospects. She loves him and is willing to take him as he is, unemployment and all. Should she tell him?

I vote against it. It sounds like adding insult to injury. No woman has every gotten very far by insulting male pride.

Are there other ways of knowing a man's intentions? She can begin, as one of the commenters on Walsh's site said, by observing the way he treats her in public.

Does she hang out with him and his friends? Has she met his family? Is she invited to family functions? And finally: How well does she get along with his mother?

A man may be in love with a woman, but if his friends do not like her, if he does not enjoy being out with her, and if his family would not accept her as his mate... the chances are better than average that she will remain a friend with benefits.

A relationship involves much more than two people sharing intimate, affectionate moments. It is a social connection; it involves friends and family. Each person has to be a good fit with the other person's world.

No sensible person, given the choice, will sacrifice friends and family for true love. If anyone offers to do it for you, you should run, as quickly as you can, for the exits.


Susan Walsh said...

Thanks for the link love, Stuart! I have to say, I'd never considered the ethics of mutual exploitation before. I really want to think more about that. Two people using each other is just doubling the exploitation, essentially. Consent does not mitigate that. Very interesting stuff here.

alliance one said...

Friends with benefits relationship differ from casual sex, which has little or no emotional element, and from a one-night stand, as the relationship extends beyond a single sexual encounter.

madison wi chiropractor said...

Friends with benefits may be part time, or for a limited time, and may or may not be monogamous.

Anonymous said...

And one must understand that the true romantic partner, the wife-to-be, will have every expectation that this friendship WILL end out of respect for wife, even if there is complete trust that the "benefits" are no longer being called upon.
This is the hazard of turning to friends for sex...