Friends with benefits: women want “friends,” men want “benefits”
One-hundred-and-seventy undergraduates at a large southeastern university completed a confidential anonymous 23 item questionnaire designed to assess the prevalence, attitudes, and sex differences of involvement in a “friends with benefits” (FWB) relationship (non romantic friends who also have a sexual relationship). Almost sixty percent of both women and men reported current involvement in a FWB relationship. Women and men differed significantly in their conception of the FWB relationship. Women tended to view the relationship as more involved and emotional with the emphasis on friends while men tended to view the relationship as more casual with an emphasis on benefits (sexual).
A new trend is emerging in relational/sexual behavior. “Friends with benefits” is a relationship consisting of non-romantic friends who also have a sexual relationship. Previous research on “friends with benefits” (FWB) relationships has focused on the transition from romantic to platonic relationships (Schneider & Kenny, 2000), the perceived costs/benefits of opposite-sex friendships (Bleske & Buss, 2000), and the impact of sexual activity in cross-sex friendships. The current study assessed the prevalence, attitudes, and sex differences of college student involvement in a FWB relationship.
The sample consisted of 170 undergraduates at a large southeastern university who responded to an anonymous 23-item questionnaire designed to assess prevalence, attitudes and sex differences of involvement in a FWB relationship. Seventy-five percent of the respondents were female; twenty-five percent were male. The median age of the respondents was 20 with most (86.5%) reporting that they were white (13.5% nonwhite). The median GPA of the respondents was 3.0. On a political continuum they were about evenly split with 30.5% reporting that they were conservative, 30% liberal and 39.5% selecting “neither.” In regard to church attendance, 6.5% reported that they never attend, 29.6% answered “seldom,” 33.7% responded “sometimes” 23.7 “often” and 6.5% “always.”
In terms of background characteristics associated with involvement in FWB relationships, persons from a large town were significantly (p< .05) more likely to report having been involved in a FWB than persons from a small town (68.5% versus 58.8%). Similarly, persons with infrequent church attendance were significantly (p < .05) more likely to report having been involved in a FWB than persons with high church attendance (42.8% versus 20.4%). Traditionally, rural and religious backgrounds have been associated with conservative sexual values (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann & Kolata, 1994; Udry, Kovenock, Morris and Van den Berg, 1955). The data analysis focused on the differences in how women and men differed in their view of the friends with benefits experience. Significant differences were identified using the Chi-square statistical methodology.
Findings and Discussion
Almost sixty percent of the respondents (57.3%) reported that they were or had been involved in a friends with benefits relationship (defined as a relationship consisting of non romantic friends who also have a sexual relationship). There were no significant differences in the percent of women and men reporting involvement in a FWB relationship. This is a unique finding. Most research on sex differences in sexual behavior find that women, when compared to men, have traditionally reported significantly lower rates of masturbatory, premarital, and extramarital sexual behavior (all lower rates) (Michael et al. 1994). However, the percentage of women and men in our sample were very similar in their reported rates of FWB involvement- 57.1% and 57.9% respectively. Is a new sexual equality in FWB operative?
Continued analysis of the data revealed other significant differences between women and men respondents in regard to various aspects of the FWB relationship.
1. Women more emotionally involved. Women were significantly (p< .005) more likely than men (62.5% vs. 38.1%) to view their current FWB relationship as an emotional relationship. In addition, women were significantly (p<.05) more likely than men to be perceived as being more emotionally involved in the FWB relationship. Over forty percent (43.5%) of the men compared to 13.6% of the women reported that "my partner is more emotionally involved than I am". Previous research has confirmed that women have more close emotional relationships with friends/relatives (Abowitz & Knox, 2003), are more aware of emotional issues (Croyle & Waltz, 2003) and evidence more emotional than sexual interest in relationships (Author, Cooper & Author, 2001). Similarly, men evidence greater fear of intimacy than women (Thelen, Vander-Wal, MuirThomas, & Harmon, 2000).
Biosocial theory emphasizes the interaction of one’s biological/genetic inheritance with one’s social environment to explain and predict human behavior. Borrowing from evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, and psychobiology; biosocial theory uses the concepts of adaptation, fitness, and natural selection and may help to explain different gender views of relationship pairings (Ingoldsby, Smith, & Miller, 2004).
Adaptation is the changing of the individual to fit in and maximize one’s potential. Fitness is the blending in to solidify one’s position. Natural selection emphasizes that it is “natural” for the individual to want to survive by adapting and fitting in. That women seek an emotionally focused (rather than a sexually focused) relationship emphasizes a greater concern for a stable relationship context for the rearing of potential offspring. Hence, women more often seek men who provide such a context and will tend to define a friends with benefits relationship as one of emotion rather than sex.
Social learning theory also points to the nurturing of women for emotional relationships and the fear instilled in them to avoid negative labels from society for their sexuality. The woman in love in a friends with benefits relationship is understood and respected. The sexually hedonistic woman (in contrast to the sexually hedonistic man) in a friends with benefits relationship is victim of the sexual double standard- she is a “slut” but he is a “stud.” In an effort to avoid such labeling, the woman defines the context as emotional and emphasizes this aspect of the relationship when discussing it with her friends.
2. Men more sexually focused. As might be expected from the above finding, men were significantly (p< .05) more likely than women to agree with the statement, "I wish we had sex more often than we do" (43.5% versus 13.6%). Previous research has reported that men are more hedonistic than women and more focused on sexual pleasure (Michael et al., 1994; Author et al., 2001).
3. Men more polyamorous. With polyamorous defined as the desire to be involved in more than one emotional/sexual relationship at the time, men were significantly (p <.000) more likely than women to agree that "I would like to have more than one FWB relationship going on at the same time" (34.8% versus 4.5%). Serial FWB relationships may already be occurring. Over half of the men (52.2%) compared to almost a quarter of the women (24.6%) reported that they had been involved in more than one FWB relationship.
We are not surprised. Previous research has revealed men’s penchant for multiple sexual encounters (Wiederman, 1977). Biosocial and social learning theories may also be used to explain the sexual focus of men and their polyamorous proclivity.
Biosocial theory emphasizes that men are biologically driven to inseminate numerous women to ensure numerous offspring for reproductive survival independent of the emotional relationship with the women. Social learning theory emphasizes that men are socialized by their male peers to relate to women as sexual objects. Men ask their male peers “did you get any?” rather than “do you love her?”
These data clearly reflect that women are socialized to view, enter, maintain and define relationships in terms of their emotional value. Specifically, they regard a “friends with benefits” relationship as emotional with the emphasis on friends while men tend to view the relationship as more casual with an emphasis on benefits (sexual). Indeed, when the women and men who were involved in a friends with benefits relationship were asked if they were more friends than lovers, almost 85 percent (84.4%) of the women compared to less than 15 percent (14.8%) of the men reported that they were more friends than lovers.
The data should be interpreted cautiously. The convenience sample of respondents is hardly representative of the 16.6 million college students throughout the United States (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2006, Table 211). A series of questions on the annual survey of first year college students in over 400 colleges and universities throughout the U.S. (conducted by the American Council on Education and the University of Southern California, 2005) about their “friends with benefits” experience and its meaning would be insightful.
These data are also quantitative with no qualitative interviews to provide insights on the raw statistics. Subsequent research might include interviews with college women (and other women) to elicit revelations about their feelings/perspective in regard to their friends with benefits experience. For example, an interesting focus might be the degree to which partners discuss the meaning and intended future of their “friends with benefits” relationship.
Finally, subsequent research should move beyond the exploratory analysis of these data to multivariate analysis to develop a more complete and accurate set of relationships related to the friends with benefits experience.
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East Carolina University
MARTY E. ZUSMAN
Indiana University Northwest
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