By Ken Howard, LCSW
Recently, some clients in my psychotherapy practice, which for 22 years has focused on the mental health and well-being of adult gay men, have been discussing the role and value of a “fuck buddy” in their lives. While all sexual topics (even in our “modern” age) seem to come fraught with controversy these days (and we’ll see what y’all have to say about this one), the topic of the “fuck buddy” (sometimes, but not always, used interchangeably with “friend with benefits”), is especially controversial, with one camp saying it’s a great idea and others being appalled at the concept.
Always one to listen and learn from the thoughts, philosophies, and feelings of my clients, I heard some interesting things from one particular client recently, who gave me permission to share his arguments publicly (though the details are changed for confidentiality reasons).
“Cody” is a Southern Boy in his early 30’s who has been in a relationship for 6 years and lives in North Carolina (we work via Skype, and it’s really a life-coaching relationship, since I’m only licensed in California to practice psychotherapy). His partner, “Matt”, also early 30’s, got accepted and now attends a very prestigious law school program in New England, the chance of a lifetime. Cody co-runs a small business which is rapidly growing into a larger one, and moving with Matt to his new city would have been a very difficult proposition; he did not want to leave a very good job, especially not temporarily when Matt could end up in a law firm anywhere in the country. Cody and Matt plan to get married immediately after Matt’s law school graduation, and they’ve already planned much of what they want in their wedding.
Cody can afford to visit Matt at regular intervals throughout the year, and they communicate (even “sexy talk”) via Skype almost nightly. But their relationship still feels the sting of “long distance”, leaving both guys frequently horny and lonely.
To solve this, they agreed to have an open relationship, and some of the terms and ground rules of handling that were worked out in joint sessions with me on Skype (as I always recommend gay couples do; it’s too complex and full of pitfalls to handle it all without support). I’ve coached both Matt and Cody separately as well, as each has had a need for support for very specific occupational and personal goals. One of what I call the “external resources” that this situation needed, as both guys agreed, is that each wanted a “fuck buddy” who would stand in for their partner at certain times (mostly sexual, but for some social companionship locally, too). Matt is still looking for his, but he’s meeting new guys at school and in his college city, especially via Grindr, Scruff, and Meetup.com groups. The first guy he met didn’t work out well for Cody, but he found a second one that he likes.
Cody is a smart guy and spoke clearly about how his fuck buddy, “Chris”, has been ideal. They get along and have fun, including sex, but Chris has recently gotten out of a 3-year relationship and is not looking for anything serious – the perfect candidate for Cody.
What Cody related about Chris includes some in the following list, and others I’ve added based on other conversations with clients and personal friends. Here are some of the special advantages about the role and value of a fuck buddy:
- It is not an avoidance of relationships – Contrary to some critics, having a fuck buddy is not the indulgence of some intimacy-avoidant, emotionally-stunted, horn-dog selfish clod. It is a different type of sexual and emotional relationship, perhaps based more on fondness than on love, or perhaps a “love” that is more fraternal.
- It can be the combination of sexuality and camaraderie without the components of long-term romance and domesticity – For some people, such as those with long-distance partners, having a fuck buddy means having some in-person companionship for local outings and recreation, and even sexual expression, but without the commitment and domestic component of a partner/spouse relationship. It’s “relationship lite”.
- Can be a coping strategy for long-distance relationships – Long-distance relationships can be a result of work projects (even overseas), which I see in my practice in Los Angeles for people away on TV or film set locations, or the result of school/training programs, health care treatment, caring for a distant relative’s health or settling their estate, or military deployment. Open negotiation of the ground rules during the absence is better than unilaterally violating a monogamy agreement without discussion, or abstaining and resenting the physical/emotional harm that can come with deprivation.
- Can be a bridge between class or cultural issues that really might get in the way of a primary relationship – For some fuck buddies, there can be issues of class or culture that might make having a long-term relationship untenable or very difficult (think Sybil and Tom on “Downton Abbey”).
- Is a collaborative way to get needs met that have inherent limitations; is an exchange of favors – So many human interactions involve a negotiated exchange of favors based on mutual needs, and each fuck buddy relationship has unique parameters that make it work.
- Is not for everyone, but it CAN BE for some people; it’s ok to embrace it as much as it is to reject it soundly – Sexual self-empowerment means saying yes when you want to say yes, and no when you want to say no. If you want to say yes to a fuck buddy relationship with another consenting adult, as an autonomous adult with control and dominion over your own body, you get to make that choice (although if you have a primary partner, this must be a very frank discussion in order to avoid a ton of hurt, resentment, misunderstanding, abandonment, and even rage).
- Supports a global benevolent idea of brotherhood – As a child of the 60’s, I grew up with “make love, not war”. The Dalai Lama recently said something about if every child grew up meditating for 20 minutes a day, war could be eliminated in a generation. With so many – countless – examples of how men kill each other in gang violence, war, violent crime, and so on, in such adversarial relationships, having a fuck buddy can be an example of benevolence, non-violence, and camaraderie in the Brotherhood of Man. This is all part of the solution, not the problem.
- It’s practice later on for a “real” commitment, in incremental gain/baby steps – I still maintain that I prepared for my long-term relationship with my husband (who is wonderful, by the way; I never miss a chance to say that) by previously living alone with my cat for a number of years after college first. After years of living with roommates or alone, having a pet really was dress rehearsal for attending to, caring for, and sharing with a human adult partner (now spouse) in a domestic setting. Having a fuck buddy might not be a “deep” commitment in romance and domesticity, but it can be a way of exploring relating to another person that is somewhere between being single and being partnered. For some people, these incremental steps help build their confidence to tolerate a commitment and equip them for a long-term relationship with mutual responsibility.
- Self-empowering sexually, trying different things without feeling “embarrassed” with a partner; exploring one’s own body and likes/dislikes of sensation – While communicating with a primary partner is essential to a good sex life, having a fuck buddy can be an opportunity to explore your sexual interests and fantasies in a lower-stakes situation. Some people who are shy about telling their partner their sexual fantasies, especially the kinkier ones, might be more uninhibited with a lower-stakes fuck buddy. It really “shouldn’t” work that way, but it does, and we have to deal in reality. By being free to explore in a certain “sexual laboratory” situation, you can identify your likes and dislikes and not have to switch to “who’s-cooking-dinner” mode right after.
- Can bridge differences in sexual orientations – While I don’t really respect closeted men as much as those brave gay men who have the courage to come out regardless of the circumstances (living in the Bible Belt, for example), having a fuck buddy can be a way for a man who is “straight” publicly or bisexual to get the “other half” of his sexual and even social needs met. This is particularly controversial, but all gay men have some idea about this. Many men can be ambivalent or conflicted about how they identify sexually. Some might feel a pressure to conform to heterosexual norms, others might quite selfishly want to ride the coat-tails of heterosexual privilege and have their, uh, “cake”, too (albeit at the risk of exploiting or using the gay buddy, but this is better if it’s an honest discussion of what the deal is). The fuck buddy relationship can also help a conflicted guy move closer down the spectrum to living as an “out” gay man, but in a gentle and gradual process that feels right for him.
- Can help other specific situations – The fuck buddy relationship can be a resource for a gay man in early recovery from crystal meth, who is used to the “party-and-play” (PNP) scene, to practice having sober sex with a no-judgment, experimental, low-stakes, fail-safe atmosphere. I have worked with many guys in my practice who need this kind of opportunity, because learning to have sober sex again is really a skill in recovery that you (usually) can’t get in a CMA meeting! The fuck buddy relationship can also help someone with a disability or injury to be sexual again in their own way, even if they don’t have a primary relationship yet. This can a certain “rehabilitation” that a licensed Physical Therapist certainly can’t provide. This can be for guys who have been injured in a vehicle, sports, or industrial accident, or as a combat veteran who uses prosthetics.
- Can allow for specific sexual interests (BDSM, fetishes) to be fulfilled — There are times when everything else in a relationship is great – the emotional, the sexual, and the domestic – but certain sexual interests go unfulfilled. Having a fuck buddy who provides a certain “outsourced” activity, such as BDSM or other kink play, can be a way for that partner to be fulfilled without burdening his partner to do something he really doesn’t like. I’ve seen that in my practice several times, and it can be a “win-win” solution to the dilemma; everybody’s happy.
- Can be a way to manage sexual incompatibilities – The fuck buddy relationship can also “outsource” situations where the couple gets along fine in most ways, but perhaps a strict top is partnered to a versatile bottom. For the versatile bottom to be able to top once in a while might require a fuck buddy who is happy to oblige. This can also be the case when a partner is fulfilled in every way in the relationship except perhaps wanting to fulfill his “size queen” interests. Outsourcing this to a well-endowed fuck buddy occasionally can fulfil the desire and then get back to regular domestic/sexual life. This prevents frustrations from building and can resolve tension or even unspoken resentments in a relationship.
- Last, Cody says that having experiences with outside buddies, rather than undermining his relationship with Matt, actually strengthens it because he “sees what’s out there” and learns to appreciate the relief when he’s finally back to see Matt because “everyone else is just not Matt”. When they are together again after an absence, it’s all the sweeter to revisit the familiarity and intimacy they have built for years, and they never take each other for granted.
There are disadvantages, too, of cavorting with fuck buddies which have been discussed elsewhere. Sexual conservatives (which can include plenty of therapists, even gay ones) would deplore the very concept of the fuck buddy as “deviating” too far from socially-expected relationship norms, particularly heterocentric ones. But like most controversial topics, listening to both sides of a debate can entice you to clarify your feelings on the subject. You have a right to your own feelings, even if they differ from your peers. Only you have dominion over your own body and what is, and is not, done with it/to it. Sexual self-empowerment means taking all these questions about sex and relationships, and deciding what works – and what doesn’t – specifically for you, based on your values and your own rather hard-wired preferences and proclivities.
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