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The truth behind 'Friends with Benefits'

Published on: October 01, 2009

An idea for parents: The next time you're in a comfortable situation with a group of high schoolers -- driving a carpool, for example -- ask them what they think about dating. Don't be surprised when negatives start tripping off their tongues. There's too much drama. You get stuck with one person. You lose your freedom. There's too much responsibility. You get hurt when you break up. Dating someone draws a lot of attention to you in school.

Most high schoolers would like to be in a relationship some day, but not now. They're way too busy.

Some parents are pleased when their teens air views like these, believing that if their son or daughter isn't dating, he or she isn't having sex. Not dating means they're not on the phone for hours every night, draining time from homework and those resume-building extracurricular activities. Likewise, parents feel safer about group dating because they think sex won't happen under these circumstances. In actuality, none of this should be greeted as good news. Good old-fashioned dating -- the means by which young people practice the psychosocial skills that make intimate relationships work -- is sometimes being replaced by a far more disturbing trend: Friends with Benefits.

Friends with Benefits (FWB) is an agreement to have sex with no strings attached. Whether it's arranged online, through another friend, with an existing acquaintance or even with an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, the defining feature is that it tends to be pre-meditated. Terms are discussed and agreed upon in advance, with romance strictly off limits. Friends With Benefits may limit themselves to just heavy making out, or may include oral sex or intercourse.

Although distinctions can be blurred, Friends With Benefits differs from hooking up. Both involve sex with no expectations for a relationship, but hooking up tends to be more spontaneous. It's who you end up with at the end of an evening, often when everyone is drunk together.

The troubling trend

As with many new phenomena, Friends With Benefits started off among college students -- as busy and relationship-averse as they are -- and has pushed down to the high school level. Most college kids don't bat an eye at the trend, and it is becoming increasingly more acceptable in high school. Like premarital sex in the 1950s, Friends With Benefits may be an example of a behavior that was relatively taboo in one generation becoming more conventional in another. As parents, we sure hope not, but having a "cute word" as a description provides a certain cache and helps lower the sanction among young people.

It is true that statistically, the proportion of high school students who are sexually active has decreased from 54 percent in 1991 to 47 percent in 2003. Nonetheless, long before Monica Lewinsky, there was a long-held perception among teens that oral sex isn't sex. Teens who have engaged in oral sex but not intercourse may see themselves as technically virginal. According to a 2004 National Institute of Child and Human Health study, 40 percent of sexually active 12th graders have had sex outside of a relationship.

Many teenagers see Friends With Benefits as a perfect solution to the downsides of dating. Given the flaunting of sex in every aspect of media and the desires that accompany sexual maturation, Friends With Benefits is perceived by young people as an easy way to explore their sexuality without the "baggage" of a relationship. Internet sites like facilitate connecting with someone outside school, making it all the more anonymous.

Young people perceive less "cost" in a Friends With Benefits relationship because it eliminates the chance of heartbreak when it's over. As it turns out, such a relationship often involves way more emotional vulnerability, confusion and distress than imagined. Even if the agreement was "no feelings attached," teens do have them, and the emotional fallout can be as devastating as any romantic relationship gone awry.

Talk about it

Parents should know that Friends With Benefits is happening among high schoolers. Before we celebrate that our teens are so busy with their activities that they don't have time to date, consider what they might be tempted to do in lieu of a romantic relationship. Because most of their peers see little harm in Friends With Benefits, it's up to parents to let their values be known. It becomes one more topic to address in mini-conversations about various aspects of sexuality and healthy relationships. Like discussions about drugs or anything that could be harmful to them, refrain from the moralizing and lecturing that will only turn them off. Keep the conversation thoughtful and impersonal, using neutral questions to help them think deeper.

Ask teens what they think about Friends With Benefits -- when they've seen it work or not work. Talk about dating versus Friends With Benefits. If they keep their eyes open, they're likely to observe many disadvantages involved in it, as well as many advantages to learning relationship skills. As with many racy trends of high allure in teen culture (drag racing, beer bongs, chat rooms), parents may be the only ones having these conversations with teens. Just do it!

Clinical psychologist Laura Kastner, Ph.D., and writer Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D., are co-authors of The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life (Three Rivers Press, 2002) and The Seven-Year Stretch: How Families Work Together to Grow Through Adolescence (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), and are currently writing a third book on adolescence.

Originally published in the October, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.

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