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A Different Take on Intimacy: Friends with Benefits Common Among College Students

Description: 

This article on the phenomenon of “friends with benefits” relationships (FWB) sought to understand the prevalence of these relationships, and motivations behind this behavior, among college students.

FWB relationships involve trust and comfort levels comparable with traditional friendships, while also incorporating the physical intimacy found in romantic encounters. These relationships come with their own set of rewards and challenges, though there is little research on this topic. Researchers have also noted that FWB can be distinguished not only from romantic relationships and traditional friendships, but also from other forms of sexual intimacy, such as “one-night stands” or “random hook-ups.”

Researchers conducted two different studies with students at a large mid-western university. The first sought to examine the perceived advantages and disadvantages of these relationships. Researchers questioned 125 undergraduate participants (65 men, 60 women) about their opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of FWB. Questions were open-ended, and participants who said they had been in FWB relationship were asked a series of follow-up questions to establish prevalence.

In the second study, researchers gave 90 undergraduate students (43 men, 47 women) a self-report survey in order to examine levels of intimacy, passion, and commitment (as defined by Sternberg’s Triangle Theory of Love) in FWB relationships. They also assessed strategies for negotiation and communication within the relationship. Participants in the second study had all engaged in FWB on at least one occasion.

Source:

Melissa A. Bisson and Timothy Levine, “Negotiating a Friends with Benefits Relationship,” Arch Sex Behav, 10.1007 (2007)

Key Findings:

Study 1: Prevalence of FWB Relationships

    • 60% of participants (in Study 1) reported having engaged in a FWB relationship at some point in their life.
    • 36% of participants were currently engaging in sex with “just a friend.” No gender differences in prevalence (lifetime or current) were observed.
    • The belief that one can be “just friends” after having sex was more common among men (compared to women) and among those who had engaged in FWB (compared to those who had not).

Study 1: Characteristics of FWB Relationships

Of those participants who reported having a FWB relationship:

    • The majority did so occasionally (52.1%) or frequently (29.3%).
    • 78.7% of participants engaged in penetrative intercourse. 22.7% of participants engaged in intercourse only, and 56.0% engaged in all types of sex.
    • 98.7% of FWB relationships were with someone of the opposite gender.
    • Outcomes of FWB varied significantly; 28.3% of participants reported that the relationship remained a FBW; 35.8% reported that the friendship continued, without sex; and 25.9% ended the relationship completely. A minority (9.8%) converted an FWB into a romantic relationship.

Study 1: Advantages and Disadvantages of FWB Relationships

    • The most consistently identified advantage of FWB was “having sex with a known and trusted other while avoiding expectations of commitment and exclusivity.”
    • Other commonly stated advantages included that FWB was “convenient” and a relationship “of opportunity.”
    • The theme for disadvantages was that “sex might complicate the friendship,” with the most common disadvantage as “one person might develop feelings for the other and this might not be reciprocated.”
    • Other common disadvantages were “potential loss of friendship” or the “generation of negative feelings such as jealousy or hurt feelings.”
    • 16.7% of participants listed religion or morality as a reason to avoid FWB. Though some participants found FWB morally repulsive, they constituted a minority in opinion.

Study 2: Levels of Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment in FWB

    • On the Sternberg scale, the average intimacy score was moderate, average passion score was low, and average commitment score was low.
    • This data was compared to scores for individuals in established romantic relationships; scores indicated similar moderate levels of intimacy but greater differences in passion and commitment (which were both moderate in romantic relationships.)

 Study 2: Relationship Negotiation in FWB

    • 48.9% of participants (in Study 2) reported that as a consequence of becoming sexually involved with a friend, questions about the nature of the relationship arose. (The remainder of participants indicated that this did not happen.)
    • The most common areas of uncertainty were: “how to label the relationship, how to maintain the relationship, the future trajectory of the relationship, how they felt about the relationship, and if they could stay friends.”
    • A majority of participants (84.4%) indicated that conversation about these issues was not initiated. Of those participants who had this discussion, 8.9% used humor to start the conversation, and 3.3% indicated having it at the time of the first sexual activity.
    • Topics discussed as part of this conversation included “relationship expectations, how sex would affect the relationship, justifying the sex, verifying that the friend was agreeable to having sex.”
    • When explicitly asked about negotiating ground rules, 73.3% of participants indicated there was no negotiation. Of the remainder, 11.1% used mutual agreement to set rules, while others simply talked or had one party set the rules.

 

SIECUS Analysis:
Though “friends with benefits,” is a new term that has received a lot of attention in popular cultura recently, it is likely not a “new” phenomenon.  Nonetheless, this paper reveals that FWB relationships occur with regularity among college students and therefore has implications for sexuality educators who work with this population.

The findings suggest that college students see FWB relationships as an opportunity for sexual intimacy with someone who is familiar without the expectations present in romantic relationships. Despite the familiarity, however, the majority of participants engaging in FWB did not communicate their concerns about this new relationship, even though nearly half of this group had questions about the nature of involvement.

Sexuality educators working with this group should acknowledge the existence of FWB relationships and focus on encouraging communication in these and all relationships. In addition, more research should be done to learn about this phenomenon outside of the college student population.

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