Dating & Relationships, Sex Ed

What Is Sex Like With A “Friend With Benefits?”

December 5, 2012 by Justin Lehmiller

“Friends with benefits” (FWBs) are a popular type of sexual relationship these days, with several studies of college students reporting that about half of the students surveyed have had one or more previous FWBs [1]. Of course, FWBs are by no means limited to college campuses—for instance, Internet research has found men and women in their 50s and 60s reporting these relationships too [2]. As a result of their popularity, one of the questions people often have about FWBs concerns the quality and nature of the sex. Specifically, how does it stack up to the sex one might have in a traditional romantic relationship? A new study published in the Journal of Sex Research provides some answers.

This study compared a sample of 190 people who had a current FWB to 186 people who had a “traditional” romantic relationship [3]. The age range went from 18-67 and the majority of participants came from North America. All participants completed an online survey inquiring about their sexual behaviors, satisfaction, and safe-sex habits.

Results revealed that the nature of the sexual activities pursued did not differ across relationship type. That is, FWBs and romantic partners were equally likely to engage in activities ranging from kissing, to touching, to oral, anal, and vaginal sex. However, the quantity and quality of the sex differed. Specifically, romantic partners reported having sex more often than FWBs and, furthermore, romantic partners reported being more sexually satisfied. One possible explanation for these findings is the fact that higher levels of sexual communication were observed among people in romances. Specifically, compared to FWBs, people in romances were more likely to talk about sex in general, to discuss their sexual needs and desires, and to establish sexual boundaries.

Now, it is important to note that FWBs were not inherently dissatisfied with the sex they were having. In fact, both FWBs and romantic partners reported average levels of satisfaction that were above the midpoint of the response scale, indicating that everyone was satisfied on balance—it was just that romantic partners were somewhat more satisfied overall.

Also, one place where FWBs have romantic partners beat is in the safe-sex department. FWBs reported using condoms more frequently during both oral sex and intercourse. You might be saying, “but people in monogamous romances don’t need to use condoms,” and my response to that is that people who have monogamy agreements often violate them, and when those people cheat, they often fail to use condoms with their outside partner, which brings risk into the primary relationship. In addition, people often transition rapidly between monogamous relationships, and when they do, they transfer risk between partners because they usually don’t stop and get tested and (if necessary) treated for infections in between. Thus, while monogamy in theory is safe, how it if practiced in reality often is not, which means that stopping condom use with a romantic partner is a decision that should not be taken lightly.

In short, while FWBs may have somewhat less satisfying sex and lower levels of sexual communication than romantic partners, it appears that people still find the casual nature of the FWB relationship satisfying and they take more precautions to avert potential sexual health risks.

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[1] Bisson, M. A., & Levine, T. R. (2009). Negotiating a friends with benefits relationship. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 66-73.

[2] Lehmiller, J. J., VanderDrift, L. E., & Kelly J. R. (2011). Sex differences in approaching friends with benefits relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 48, 275-284

[3] Lehmiller, J. J., VanderDrift, L. E., & Kelly, J. R. (in press). Sexual communication, satisfaction, and condom use behavior in friends with benefits and romantic partners. The Journal of Sex Research.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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