Identifying and Explicating Variation among Friends with Benefits Relationships

By Mongeau, Paul A.; Knight, Kendra et al. | The Journal of Sex Research, January 2013 | Go to article overview
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Identifying and Explicating Variation among Friends with Benefits Relationships


Mongeau, Paul A., Knight, Kendra, Williams, Jade, Eden, Jennifer, Shaw, Christina, The Journal of Sex Research


One of the few constants surrounding heterosexual courtship in the United States is change, as each generation alters premarital romantic and sexual norms and practices (Bailey, 1988; Wells & Twenge, 2005). Whether the result of a sexual revolution or a series of more gradual evolutions (Bailey, 1999), the past half-century witnessed drastic shifts in premarital sexual attitudes and behaviors (Wells & Twenge, 2005). For example, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the predominant sexual standard was abstinence, where intercourse was reserved for marriage (Perlman & Sprecher, in press). A sexually charged campus tradition of the day was the "panty raid," where men would storm female dormitories, rifle through dresser drawers, steal coeds' lingerie, and proudly display the loot (Bailey, 1999). In the 1970s, the predominant sexual standard was "permissiveness with affection," where sexual interaction was acceptable if and only when partners were firmly committed to one another (Perlman & Sprecher, in press; Sprecher, 1989).

Campus sexual standards in the 21st century's first decade are quite permissive (Bogle, 2008; Perlman & Sprecher, in press) and center on "hookups," which are typically defined as strangers or acquaintances who engage in sexual interaction without expecting future interaction (e.g., Bogle, 2008; Paul & Hayes, 2002). This investigation focuses on identifying and explicating the nature of "friends with benefits relationships" (FWBRs), a permissive sexual practice closely related to hookups. In FWBRs, friends, who are not in a romantic relationship, engage in multiple sexual interactions without the expectation that those interactions reflect romantic intents or motivations (Epstein, Calzo, Smiler, & Ward, 2009). Given our definition, FWBRs differ from hookups in two ways: First, FWBRs are more likely than hookups to occur between friends. Thus, FWBRs likely create expectations of more nonsexual interaction than do hookups. Second, sexual interaction in FWBRs, more than in hookups, is likely to be repeated.

College students understand the sexual scripts surrounding both hookups and FWBRs (Epstein et al., 2009). According to script theory, "sexuality is learned from culturally available 'sexual scripts' that define what counts as sex, how to recognize sexual situations, and what to do in relational and sexual encounters" (Kim et al., 2007, p. 146; see also Gagnon & Simon, 1973). Epstein et al. demonstrated substantial variation in how hookups occur, but provided no data on FWBRs. Our reading of the literature suggests similar variation among FWBRs (e.g., Bisson & Levine, 2009; Epstein et al., 2009; Hughes, Morrison, & Asada, 2005: Lehmiller, VanderDrift, & Kelly, 2010; Mongeau, Ramirez, & Vorell, 2003). As the FWBR label likely covers (and obscures) a variety of relational types, the extant FWBR literature lacks depth. Therefore, the primary goals of this investigation were to review the literature with a specific focus on how FWBRs vary, to identify types of FWBRs in students' descriptions and definitions (Study 1), and to validate those types by demonstrating that they differ systematically (Study 2).

Variety among Friends with Benefits Relationships (FWBRs)

The extant literature assumes that FWBRs are a singular relationship type. At the same time, however, it provides evidence of variation in both the presence of romantic motivations and nature of the friendship (e.g., Bisson & Levine, 2009; Hughes et al., 2005: Lehmiller et al., 2010; Mongeau et al., 2003). We consider each characteristic in turn.

The Nature of "Strings"

Ideally, FWBRs are simple: Friends have sex repeatedly with "no strings attached" (e.g., Bisson & Levine, 2009; Epstein et al., 2009; Hughes et al., 2005; Levine & Mongeau, 2010). The absence of strings suggests a lack of romantic ties, motivations, or expectations that restrict extra-dyadic behavior (Hughes et al.

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