Friends with benefits — yay or yuck?

Friends with BenefitsOne positive feature of aging is the long-range perspective that it offers. You can see the birth of good ideas, and then watch their fate as society grabs it. With enough time, you can witness ideas pass in and out of social favor. Sometimes that time period isn’t very long.

Friends with benefits is one of these ideas. In my world, it began as something of a fun, optimistic, and cheery entity. Even the word usage felt zip-a-dee-doo-dah happy. Friends with benefits. How fun — like winning an unexpected bonus prize.

It meant that the bonds of friendship could open wide to embrace sharing sensual or sexual affection. You could give each other pleasure as a pure act of friendship. It was a variation on that mythological goddess called free love. Friendship seemed like a good enough reason to give each other some joy.

Traditionally, relationship commitments involve practical matters such as career concerns, finances, family ties, and so on. You based giving the green light for sex on your negotiations about creating a life as a couple. While dressed up in romantic imagery, it was, in essence, a business deal.

Friends with benefits, often written as FWB, stood in stark contrast to “just friends.” The latter was often heard as the sterile kiss of death for someone aspiring to break through the curse of an unrequited love. “Let’s just be friends” meant that an iron gate of rejection had been clanked shut against any possibility of romantic or erotic love. Forget about it. Ain’t happening.

To me, friends with benefits was comforting. It was mutually beneficial. In the most optimistic flavor of free love, it often led me to feeling good about humanity. When the joy of sex still meant something, it allowed me to feel joy.

Little did I realize then how pathetic it was going to get as time marched on.

FRIENDS WITH MEANINGLESS SEX

It wasn’t very long before the term friends with benefits was also being uttered for all of its negative implications. For many people it became synonymous with meaningless sex. It became more about benefits than friendship. The glimmer of warmth and fun from the original idea had worn away from its chafing with dumbed-down, pornographic versions of what sex was.  It morphed from a term of endearment into a term of shame.

There was a loud gong of implication that anyone who considered FWB as a positive lifestyle choice, even temporarily, was of less than stellar character. Males seeking FWB relationships were cast as sexual predators or immature playboys. Females were cast as sluts. Just as happened with the term swinger, FWB came to stand for “having a sexual relationship without being emotionally involved.” It also came to mean that people who didn’t have the balls to commit to a relationship would sit on the fence for awhile.

Originally for me, friends with benefits was something like a vitamin pill or medicine intended to bring comfort and joy. I loved my friends. I wanted the best for them. Friendship was the power concept and benefits was an add-on extra for an already thriving emotional connection. It was not sex without friendship, sex without caring, or even sex without love. For me it always felt like a gift in the power of now.

WORD HABITS

In heated discussions, words and phrases are often tossed about habitually without much thought given to the richness of their meaning. Sex is one of those words. Friends is one of those words. Sex with friends can be a double whammy.

Sex can mean anything from a loveless physical activity among strangers to a deeply fulfilling sacred encounter. Friends can mean anything from barely known casual acquaintance to  cherished soul mate. Sex with friends can mean anything from an act of desperation with an acquaintance (no time limit on friendship required) to a spiritually transformative encounter with a lifelong friend.

People who use FWB as a term to judge or insult are clearly defining their terms in the most negative way. Cheap sex, shallow friendships. People who have a happy relationship with FWB (and possibly with sex itself) define their terms in more complimentary ways.

Much of the terminology here is confusing. You have the previously mentioned “just friends” which is a red light to sex, red-light districts excepted. Then there is “more than friends,” which is supposed to imply green lights for sex but in a way that is beyond friends with benefits. More than friends implies lovers. Lovers implies an emotional bond.

I have noted that sex frequently does not get its due as something magnificent, a treasure for humanity. As an institution, marriage legitimizes sexual relationships, and yet it seems more like establishing property rights than holding sex as sacred. I don’t hear many people conceiving of marriage as entering the temple of exquisite beauty to share the ecstasy of God’s gifts to humanity.

With sex routinely trashed as a brainless activity, something for dickheads, predators, whores, and losers, it’s much more difficult to envision friends with benefits as sweetness and light. As the term comes more to imply loveless sex among relationship wimps, I often wonder exactly what the benefit of FWB is supposed to be.

Empty, vapid, mechanical sex? Oh, boy, where do I sign up?

FWB Scenarios

In my world, friends with benefits emphasized friendship. Sometimes circumstances made a marital commitment or a declared committed relationship unwise or impractical, but the desire to share pleasure was still very strong.

I was raised in a time and place where “free love” was idealized as joyous. I was around for the Summer of Love in San Francisco and the Northern California counter-culture of the 60s and 70s. Alternative lifestyles were common in my circle of friends in my neck of the woods. I grew up prizing intimacy, harmony, and creativity. I conceived of sexual sharing as a way for two people to connect more emotionally. A deeply felt sexual connection would inspire my desire for relationship-building.

In my case, I was a struggling artist for much of my life. As such, I was not a good bet for a woman seeking financial security in a mate. However, I made a loyal friend and was a sensitive lover. Swinging never appealed to me. I liked emotional involvement even when it did not include living together. I was a go-to person when someone wanted a good listener who gave honest feedback on hard-to-talk-about subjects.

In the world around me, I saw different FWB arrangements. Some situations created too much mobility for stabilizing a relationship. Students might attend different universities, often beyond commuting range. People in the military or those whose jobs involved extensive travel often had relationship difficulties because of it. Sometimes people were reluctant to “settle down” because their life was inherently unsettled.

After a brutal break-up or a lengthy period of loneliness, a FWB relationship could be a true blessing. I’ve had times where they were hugely healing, a positive morale boost for climbing out of the pit. If both people are on the same page that this is a gift of mutual affection and not a commitment to build a new relationship, they can help ease the pain of a troubled heart. (If they are not on the same page, it can be the beginning of bad day.)

Friends with benefits seemed to particularly benefit those of us who were not A-list specimens in looks, wealth, power, or other mainstream status markers. A-listers are more accustomed to getting what they want, and you could say they have more bargaining power in the competition for mates. As a B-lister, I was grateful for the intimate encounters I had with friends. We may not have had it all, but what we had felt special. I think B-listers excel at appreciation and innovation just because we have always had to find ways to feel loved in a world keen on sorting, ranking, and rejecting.

Aging also presents plenty of obstacles not encountered as much in youth. For example, singles in their later years often have to deal with where to live. Whose residence becomes the chosen one? Does that mean that one of them sells a house? Are there extended family issues with that, such as adult children of seniors who strongly object to Mom or Dad’s choice of a new partner? Or maybe after a couple of serious betrayals, someone does not want to immediately put a new love partner on-board as a co-owner or beneficiary. Friends with benefits is good enough, at least for now.

Sometimes medical conditions and other recovery scenarios make friends with benefits an attractive option. Life throws us many curves. Sometimes we find ourselves very alone in dealing with these curves, and it is a great blessing to find any semblance of love and support during these ordeals. FWB is not just about wild sex. It is also about more sedated forms of compassion and caring. Cuddling, hugging, empathizing, laughter, free speech, and energy exchanges are also benefits friends can share.

Alternative lifestyle scenarios also figure in here. While this is (fortunately) changing, GLBT people were legally forbidden from marrying, often creating the situation where what amounted to FWB relationships became the most practical choice. Then there are people who simply and unapologetically like being sex friendly and don’t buy the premise that making love with a friend is not emotionally meaningful.

People sometimes say that FWB relationships happen because people can’t make up their minds about committing. It’s also noted that sometimes people start off as casual bunkies and then unexpectedly fall in love. This could be a problem if one one of them wants a deeper involvement. The friendship portion could shatter if rejection or jealousy feelings rear their ugly heads.

A MORE INCLUSIVE WORLD

Having had some morale-saving FWB relationships over the years, I find it most irritating how the idea has been corrupted from when I first encountered it. I think that anything we can do to make life nicer for people, especially those needing a lift, is a good thing. I also hate to see the beauty of sex dragged down into the morass of shame, ridicule, and mainstream trivialization.

I have great empathy and also sorrow for people who suffer loneliness and rejection, feeling excluded from the good life. It’s not that they necessarily are excluded, but they feel that way, and that’s just as bad. Although it is definitely not a surefire answer, a sex-friendly friendship can be a blessing.  It has saved me on occasion.

I was and still am a sex-positive idealist. I thought that lovemaking was healthy for the body, mind, heart, and spirit. I thought that if we humans moved more toward loving intimacy regardless of the form relationships took, we would be better off as a species. For me, intimacy always inspired caring about the welfare of the person I was intimate with. I thought others would feel that way, too.  At least a few did.

Friends with benefits — yay or yuck? I still say yay, but I would ask more questions.

How true is the news?

How true is the news?In the wake of the Brian Williams controversy, I decided that even if he got caught cheating with the facts of his true proximity to danger, this event creates an opportunity for us to consider what a pack of lies the average, ordinary news broadcast is.

I am not trying to emulate Michael Moore here with scrappy rhetoric. I surely would not say that everything on the news is deliberate falsifying. I believe there are fine reporters out there doing their best to bring us the news in the most objective fashion—the way many of us were brought up to believe was the backbone of objective reporting.

However, I have some long-standing concerns about broadcast journalism. The focus of coverage about Williams seems to be about shaming the guy. The implication is that we need to replace him to ensure that our news is reliable. However, that smokescreen just hides how subjective, manipulated, and selective normal, everyday news is.

IT’S ALL ABOUT COMMERCIALS

To know where I am coming from, first consider the main objective of a news broadcast: it is to deliver viewers to advertisers. Commercials on TV are little propaganda pieces. They may not be outright lies, but they fudge. They are designed to prompt you to take action and buy something.

The purpose of a newscast is to attract and then keep viewers glued to the tube. They do this to deliver viewers to advertisers for profit. So, for example, they might tease us with a short preview clip of a disaster and promise to deliver exciting video after the commercial break. If we want to watch exclusive video of the 35-car pile-up on the Interstate that killed 7 people, we watch (or otherwise deal with) the commercials, too.

A newscast must borrow strategies from entertainment not much different from the serials I saw as a kid at Saturday matinees. They’d show the cliff-hanger and hope you came back next week to see what happens. The bottom line of news is the same—stay tuned so that the medium delivers audience for profit.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Viewers often become blind to the process of how something gets on film or digital media. We see the news through the selective vision of the camera. There is no big picture.

Consider for a moment how visuals are selected for news stories. When filming a natural disaster, for example, the film crew will search for the most dramatic shots, which usually means where the most visually compelling damage is. We see that over and over. Scary. We don’t see what did not get damaged. Not so scary. The quake may have collapsed a few buildings and even killed some people, but the area as a whole is nothing that bad.

In several instances, Williams is accused of not being exactly in the heat of battle but pretending or inferring that he was. Maybe so. Still, I am not so sure that any high profile news anchor has not been the beneficiary of some of the normal, everyday fudging that goes on to produce a good-looking, even thrilling show. If they endured the kind of scrutiny Williams endured, would they pass muster?

My favorite example of fudging is not news-specific, but it is appropriate. Think of documentaries you’ve seen about people exploring a wilderness with survival at risk. The narrative of the story is ooh, ain’t this dangerous? Will I make it? I remember once chuckling at a shot of a guy in peril nearing a mountain top. The shot was taken from above as he climbed toward the camera. What we so often don’t see or have acknowledged to us is that a film crew is also on the scene! We become oblivious to that reality.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED

Mainstream news is frequently criticized for how it refuses to cover certain phenomena. This is especially true in metaphysical circles. Is there ever serious consideration given on the mainstream news about UFOs, God, the afterlife, reincarnation, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, spiritual ecstasy?

Conspiracy theorists are also very vocal about what’s not shown on TV, and this is often cited in their own documentaries. The charge is often made that mainstream news is beholden to certain government or commercial interests, slamming the door on objective reporting. There is a whole new industry which uses the phrase “this is what X doesn’t want you to know!” The X factor could be big government, big oil, big pharma, big finance, big healthcare, big insurance, big food, and plenty of other bigs.

So if the news doesn’t report what kind of crap is contained in the food its sponsors sell, is that lying? If the news doesn’t argue for alternative fuels because that would interfere with the profits of big oil, is that lying? If the news takes and airs a government-issued press release and doesn’t question it, is that lying? If the news doesn’t address issues that conspiracy theories bring to light, such as the many questions about 9/11 that are ignored, is that lying?

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

A news show is a highly timed and edited product. The opportunity for exploring anything in depth usually amounts to a catastrophic disaster like 9/11, massive tsunamis, a televised war, or an assassination. That’s when a news show stays with a story for hours if not days.

A newscast may attempt to cover a major everyday development in a two-minute story. To do that, details need to be prioritized, and by necessity much needs to be cut from the discussion. Compelling visuals need to be added. Catchy sound bytes need to be featured, which often means a sentence or two that from the speaker’s point of view could easily be taken out of context.

This is not supposed to come across as lying, and perhaps a good case could be made for how things are done to preserve the integrity of the truth. However, editing is still selective perception, a form of cherry picking of what works best for the broadcast.

BAD DOG

The news is generally not solution-oriented. I have often joked that a news broadcast should be entitled World Shit Tonight or Nightly Shit because that’s what it mostly consists of.

Is this lying? In some ways it’s like being with a friend or relative who constantly complains about the evils of the world. It’s draining. It’s exhausting. Isn’t it more rewarding to be around people who seek solutions and who have a positive vision for the future?

I would love to see a major paradigm shift where the news evolves into something more about creating win-win solutions. This might be an update for the idea of what’s newsworthy, which is defined as interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting. I think solutions are interesting enough. Who knows what would happen to our world if solutions dominated the news?

I include myself among viewers abandoning the news because it is more soap opera and freak show than helpful and informative. It may be peddled as non-fiction, but if it just focuses on conflict without the perspective of solution, is it really true?

And then there are all those commercials! Ugh.

SILENCE IS NOT GOLDEN

So this story about Brian Williams, while clearly a serious matter, is almost like a diversion from the deterioration of news quality in general. The whole of news broadcasts could use a status check and overhaul.

This still leaves Williams being shamed at the public stockade, deserved or not. NBC has created a situation where Williams cannot defend himself, at least publicly. Under the terms of his suspension, he is not allowed to talk to the press. When negative stories about him are floated in world media, he cannot respond.

So, um, the news organization that wants us to believe its reporting is top-drawer doesn’t want Williams to talk, eh? They want to manage his mouth. News stories from other outfits keep saying that NBC executives are not talking behind the corporate iron curtain.

The silence that Williams endures and the mum of the execs in charge seems much more like what I used to hear communist regimes would do to freedom of the press. What is the power elite afraid of?

FOR FURTHER READING

My previous post was on shaming in our culture from cyber-bullying to documentaries about dealing with mega doses of humiliation.

 

 

 

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