We met outside the Queen Anne post office. Bob (as I’ll call him) was a thirtysomething personal trainer, new in town, recently divorced, and inspired by the day’s crisp sunshine. After a few minutes of pleasant chitchat, he handed me his card; not wanting to be found guilty of the infamous Seattle slap-down, I quickly reciprocated. Two hours later, Bob called.
“I really enjoyed talking to you,” he said. “You seem bright and funny and friendly. I was wondering if you’d like to get together sometime for … ” A drink, a movie, dinner, my mind skipped ahead.
“For, um, I guess most people call it friends with benefits,” he said.
My mind tripped over an assumption and fell flat on its face.
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “We’ve known each other all of five minutes and you’re calling to ask if I’ll have sex with you?”
“Well, we’d have coffee first,” he told me cheerfully.
Today’s dating scene is about as easy to pigeonhole as the color of paint. Sure, there are plenty of traditionalists out there, but there are many others who don’t date so much as hang out or hook up (AXE, which makes male grooming products, even named Seattle “the best city in America for hooking up”).
Some rely on what I’ll politely call “bed buddies” to get them through the lonely times. Others turn to their friends or neighbors for that occasional cup of sugar. But Bob’s proposition seemed curious even for these bi-curious times. When, I wondered, had friends with benefits turned into strangers with benefits? What exactly was going on Out There?
That was fun … next!
Alan, a 44-year-old SGG — single guy with goatee — who described himself on his Craig’s List ad as “thoughtful, funny, creative and articulate,” seemed a good place to start. Recently out of a seven-year marriage, Alan was looking to enjoy all the benefits of dating (including safe sex), but with a variety of women at once.
“I guess I’d call this open dating,” says Alan, who, like others for this story, asked that we not use his last name. He has corresponded with about 20 women in the past two months, many of whom have passed on his commitment-free philosophy. “The natural expectation seems to be that you date as a first step to being in a relationship. What I’m referring to is endless dating. We can have a relationship as friends, but I don’t want to be tied down.”
The irony, of course, is that as a poet, chef, musician and artist, Alan appears to be the perfect candidate for romance. Even his first Craig’s List date reads like out a page out of the hipster’s handbook of love: They met at a coffeehouse on Broadway, went to “The Dukes of Hazzard” at a local drive-in to neck, then watched the sun come up over breakfast.
But instead of coming home and penning a sonnet to his new lady friend, Alan came home and started e-mailing other women. Some of whom he’s now seeing — on the nights he’s not seeing his drive-in date. And they all know about each other.
“Right now, I’m only dating three women,” he says. “Well, kind of four.”
The new rules?
Confusion seems understandable. After all, dating — along with matching tote bags, sex and commitment — has changed dramatically over the decades. Fifty years ago, a single woman would sooner hide out in a darkened apartment than let her neighbors know she didn’t have a Saturday night steady. These days, she’ll post her picture on AdultFriendFinder or Lavalife’s “Intimate Encounters” section to find a no-strings sex partner for the night.
“A lot of my friends will do hookups or casual sex,” says Emily, a 25-year-old educator who recently became single again. “But that’s not for me. I guess I have a little bit more respect for sex. I think that you should be in love instead of sleeping with someone you don’t care about.”
Alan, of course, claims he does care about the various women he’s sleeping with — he just doesn’t care about them that way. And both he and Bob (whose candor still has me wondering whether I should shake his hand or slap his face), are completely up-front about their lack of romantic interest. But do we really want that kind of honesty when it comes to our so-called love life?
“If somebody has no intention of looking for someone special in their life and just wants sex for fun and pleasure, isn’t it better that they tell you up front?” says Pepper Schwartz, University of Washington sociology professor and author of “Finding Your Perfect Match.”
“The honesty may be a little difficult to take, but it might hurt less in the long run.”
Buddies and booty calls
Ah yes, the long run — that thing so many singles are thinking about when they head out into the dating trenches. But today, there are lots of short-runners out there, too, whether by choice or by circumstance.
“Sometimes you realize you just can’t be in a relationship with someone,” says Marie, a 34-year-old bachelor girl who works in the beauty business. “A guy could be totally hot and then he opens his mouth and immediately you know he’s not a good fit.”
Selfishness, poor self-esteem, a refusal to settle — there are dozens of reasons we end up in the bedroom with someone we don’t necessarily want to take home to Mom. Some people simply don’t have a capacity for true intimacy. Others just can’t turn down an easy opportunity.
“A few years ago, I met a guy and we went out on a couple of dates, but we just didn’t click,” says Mary, a 36-year-old technical writer. “But I knew he was available to sleep with. And I have to admit there were some lonely cold winter nights when he would call and I’d drop a hint and 20 minutes later, he’d show up at my door.”
Mary acknowledges the buddy system may have worked better for her than for her buddy, who eventually began to grouse about the inequities in their relationship. But in the caveat emptor world of casual sex, is it our responsibility to look after our lovers’ hearts along with our own? Or is it enough to just “be honest?”
“He knew I didn’t want anything more — I was clear about that — but I was the one who should have refrained,” she says. “In retrospect, I was playing with fire.”
Neither Mary nor her buddy were seriously burned, and both have since moved on to respective long-term relationships. But Daniel, a 35-year-old Seattle sales associate, didn’t fare as well. After six months in a friends-with-benefits arrangement (the pair did everything together, from working out to waking up), he broke the cardinal rule of the casual relationship and fell in love.
Shortly thereafter, his friend started dating someone else. Not only was Daniel left without a buddy or any benefits, he didn’t even have the satisfaction of a decent breakup.
“I’m moving away from the friends-with-benefits arrangement,” he says today. “There’s always one person that ends up getting hurt. And I don’t want to be that person or be the person doing that to someone else.”
Rules of un-engagement
Herein lies one of the flaws of the buddy system. Spend one too many nights with your beneficent friend and you may develop feelings for them, a huge no-no in the upside-down world of buddydom.
How do people get around this? On Seinfeld, Jerry and Elaine had a set of rules: no sleepovers and no next-day phone calls. Others have found it helpful to limit their bed buddies to people they could never date — someone too young, too old, or too unsophisticated for public consumption. Still others simply hook up (safely, one hopes) with a new buddy every time they need some company.
Whatever the case, most singles agree these arrangements are short-term.
“You can’t have friends with benefits forever,” says 25-year-old Emily. “It’s based on sex instead of a deeper connection.”
That missing connection may be the real downside to the buddy zone. After all, no one can exist on a diet of devil’s food cake forever; after awhile, you fail to appreciate what a sweet treat it truly is. And so it goes with our sexual appetites. Stay in the zone too long and you may become jaded, then contemptuous, and soon, your lovers become nothing more than disposable sex partners, or “DSPs,” as one of Marie’s friends calls them.
Pepper Schwartz refers to this as “the subtle danger” of the buddy system. By adopting a strictly utilitarian attitude, “you can become more cynical and less romantic about sex,” she says. “It becomes a question of whether you’ll be able to have a transcending experience with the person you love, or if sex will be mechanical and utilitarian even then.”