Friends with benefits

The romcom is going in a new direction: two new movies feature single pals hooking up. What really goes on under the sheets? Jean Hannah Edelstein studies relationships with no strings attached

Two decades ago, Harry, of meeting-Sally fame, told us that “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way”, these days, filmmakers are focusing on making the sex part of the friendship. Two new comedies about friends who have sex-sansromance tell us that it’s not just all right to hang out with opposite-sex pals: it’s also normal to shag them, without expecting that the afterglow will involve any greater display of emotion than a high-five.

Friends with benefits (FWBs): so hot right now. No Strings Attached, starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, and autumn’s Friends With Benefits, starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, share a point of departure: sexy twentysomethings are reluctant to commit to real relationships – too busy, too scarred by breakups, too cool. But they desire the pleasures (and consistency) of a bed partner who they don’t mind having a conversation with. It’s the job for what Portman and Kutcher’s characters call “sex friends” – the erotic counterparts to the chums you do Pilates with and the mates you go for a drink with after work. Pals with shared interests.

These films aren’t the first time filmmakers have dabbled in the subject recently – see also Love and Other Drugs and the jolly on-the-road chummy sex in Up In The Air. Why the upsurge in interest in these liaisons? Perhaps it’s because beneficial friendships have long been a preoccupation (and occupation) of the children of the 80s who are making these films. We reached sexual maturity in an era when it had never been more accepted that we should be friends with members of the opposite sex, but that commitment (hello, 1990s divorce rates!) was less cool. The earliest instance of the phrase may have come from Alanis Morrisette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. In “Head Over Feet”, Alanis sings: “You’re my best friend / best friend with benefits” and we wondered, “does that mean if I pull my best friend Alex at the school disco he won’t be my boyfriend?”

Dispiritingly, the answer was often affirmative, though our mums did not understand. Sitcoms furthered our understanding: Seinfeld (Jerry and Elaine) and Friends (Monica and Chandler, initially) and, of course, Sex and the City. We learned the two possible outcomes of the beneficial friendship. Either the friends become a couple because – ha! – they’ve always been in love and are in denial. Or, as happened with Carrie Bradshaw and her FWB, it becomes clear that the reason that they aren’t a couple is also the reason that they shouldn’t be sleeping together at all (ultimately, a certain degree of dislike).

The acid test: what do you do together when you’re not in bed? If your activities are similar to the ones you do with your best friend who you don’t sleep with, but don’t extend to public affection, family meetings, or discussions about the future, you’ve got an FWB. (If the answer is “we only see each other for sex” then you’ve got yourself a f*** buddy: by comparison, refreshingly unambiguous). Friendly sex tales are common, but not always cheerful. When they lead to something more permanent, history is often revised: “we got together because we were friends who humped each other but pretended for a long time that it was nothing more” doesn’t play well in a wedding speech.

Sam, 31, describes how he started sleeping with a neighbour in his group of friends. “One night when we were alone something just happened and we ended up having sex... we decided to keep it from [our mutual friends], and she would scurry over to my house late at night,” he says. Next: a conversation, a competition to see who is more convincing in their declaration that they have no feelings. The more convincing person is usually the one who will break down and confess his or her desire for something more, only to be accused of breaking the rules – a much worse transgression than, say, sleeping with someone else.

Both leading men in No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits (witty gender role reversal – surely it’s the woman’s job!) fall for their non-romantic partners in sex and japes, despite assurances. And, as it’s Hollywood, the chances that this will turn out well seem good. In life, not so much. Sam slept with his FWB for three months, until “[my friend] started being really short with me and took exception to me ‘kicking her out’ every night. Looking back I probably did behave like an asshole.” That women are the victims here is a common assumption – that they settle for FWBs because they are convinced that expressing their hopes or expectations of something more will make the men they care about retreat.

Kate, 30, admits that was the case. “He maintained that he just wanted us to be friends who had sex,” she says, “and I was totally crazy about him and didn’t want to drive him away by asking for more. So I went along with it for six months. Eventually he admitted we were together, but it ended soon after that – I never stopped feeling that I had worn him down.” But for 28-year-old Elizabeth, the situation was reversed: she was the one who realised that her FWB, a flatmate, was “a bit of a crutch, rather than someone I wanted to be going out with.”

Elizabeth concluded that “... this sort of thing is often the preserve of people who are emotionally immature, if not always young in years... if you’re not into a relationship enough to do it publicly, you probably shouldn’t mess about.” Because is someone who sleeps with you on a regular basis but is too ashamed to admit it really a friend? Or just kind of a sexy jerk you hang out with? Sam has sworn to never do it again; to only have casual sex with strangers. “Go to a bar!” he says, “There are lots of [people] there!” Which, oddly enough, may just be the more salubrious choice. ‘No Strings Attached’ is released on 25 February

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