Having The ‘What Are We?” Talk: Friends Who Have Sex? Dating? Relationship?

Liking/loving other people has always been tricky; this isn’t specific to modern times, online dating, hookup culture, or texting. Earlier this week I was being interviewed by a woman in her 50s for a book. She asked me about friends with benefits and I relayed a conversation I once had with a certain feminist icon who, years ago, had said to me how silly it was that the media framed friends with benefits as anything new. “We were having sex with our friends in the ‘60s and 70s!”, she said to me. “We just didn’t call it that.” The interviewer left “interviewer mode” for a moment and laughed, telling me just how true that was of her experience, too.

Or, as a biologist friend of mine says when we talk about the commonalities between animal and human mating behaviors, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

But just because there’s nothing new under the sun doesn’t mean we don’t need to talk about what we are or are not when we like someone or want to be sexually involved with them. In fact, one of the more common sex/relationship questions my students ask me is how to figure out what kind of “thing” they are doing with the person they like… and yet the only people who can answer that question are the two people who are in the throes of that thing. The best I can do is help them figure out what they want, how to ask their partner what he or she wants, and how to communicate about it. And it’s important to talk to each other – if you don’t, one or both of you may feel upset, hurt, resentful, confused about what’s happening, or perceive the other person as unkind (at the least) or a total jerk. Every romantic/sexual connection – even the briefest ones – deserve care, respect, and a touch of humanity.

For example, are you friends who have sex? If so, are each of you “allowed” under your rules to have sex with other people too? Is there anyone who’s off limits (for example, a best friend or an ex)? How often are you going to get together for sex? You don’t necessarily need a schedule but if one person wants to have sex once a month and the other person has a higher sex drive and wants sex at least once a week or more often, there may be complications. Matched sexual desire isn’t only relevant to committed relationships; it can matter to friends who have sex, too. If you’re getting involved with someone, it’s fair and common to say something like, “So what are we doing here?” or “What do you want this to look like? Are you seeing other people? Are you having sex with other people? How do you feel about me seeing or having sex with other people?” Or, “I like sex a lot and I want it with some frequency… what about you?”

Are you “dating”? This term also means different things to different people. To me, it’s tended to mean that two people are interested in each other, sexually involved, and seeing where things go. The two people may even agree to only have sex each other, especially if not getting an STI is important to them. Dating is NOT necessarily a boy/girlfriend kind of deal (which, in my world, takes longer) until enough time/feelings have passed and the two people talk again and it becomes something else. That said, “dating” may mean something bigger to other people. It might feel big and scary. Or big and exciting. But at the very least BIG! Whereas to other people “dating” might mean something super casual, like you went on one date with a person but can totally date other people and have sex with other people and do whatever you want. This is why it’s good to talk to your Other Person about what you mean by “dating”. 

Then there are “relationships”. Some people feel like they’re in a relationship even when they’re doing friends who have sex, or “dating”, and if that’s what they and their Other Person decide to call it, then great. Technically it’s true that whenever two people have a way of relating to one another that they are in a relationship. In a romantic/sexual sense, though, saying you’re in “a relationship” tends to have some type of commitment attached to it. One or both partners may feel that they are only, or primarily, romantically tied to each other. There may be a sense of exclusivity. They may use terms like “boyfriend”, “girlfriend”, or “partner”. Some people (like me) tend to use these terms only after they’ve been with someone for a while and are ready to have the world start seeing this person as their significant other. That said, I have friends who use boyfriend/girlfriend terms after only a few weeks of dating – and other friends who take even longer than me to do so.

So, it’s complicated (by the way, Facebook didn’t invent that either) - which is why talking helps. Of course, talking about what you are or what you are not takes (a) an awareness of what you want, (b) respect and care for the person you’re with, (c) comfort talking about sex, and (d) a willingness to be vulnerable and to say what you want and draw boundaries around what you don’t want. It also takes being with someone who’s developmentally mature enough, and brave/kind enough, to have such a conversation.

I wasn’t always able to have this kind of conversation; it took time and practice and several great men who were better at communicating than I was and who I learned from. Even when I became good at it, there was occasionally someone I was involved with who wasn’t so good at it. With time and practice, most of them got better at it, too. So, there’s hope!

These conversations can be difficult but they can also feel incredibly good once they’re done; then at least you know what you are to one another. Plus, talking about what you are or are not is good practice so that if you want to make it more serious, you can eventually say that too. And if you want to stop hanging out with that person, you can use your words to say that, too, rather than doing the cowardly fade away that makes you look unkind or jerk-like. If you two don’t work out romantically/sexually, you’ll have a better chance at keeping the person as a friend.

Talking about sex and liking and relationships: it’s good for you, good for the other person, shows you’re a decent and kind human being, and helps everyone waste as little time as possible in their quest to find a significant other. Humanity! Go get your slice.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.