I've never been one for "friends with benefits." I know the concept works for a lot of women, but to me it suggests resignation: getting it on with a dude who's only around because you both lack better alternatives. I don't envy the girlfriend whose neighbor coaxes her over for a lackluster couch fumble with a beer and the director's cut of Blade Runner, or the one who texts the cute barista from her local coffee shop while watching New Girl in her yoga pants, just to see if he'll stop by for an ego boost. Friends-with-benefits hookups are the frozen pizza of sex, and aren't any sexier than their name, even when portrayed in a Justin Timberlake movie. but everyone's doing it, and online dating sucks, and there aren't any other options, are there?
There are. Before FWbs took our culture by storm, women took "lovers." The difference between the two might just be semantics—sure, the word lover is anachronistic and a turnoff for some—but for me, it's more than a vocabulary switch: It's an attitude adjustment, like changing from flats to heels. "Taking a lover" feels sophisticated and daring, womanly and seductive, the opposite of being taken for granted. When I started thinking about my affairs this way, it felt like I was turning sex without commitment into an exhilarating experience that tapped into my sensuality and power.
During my late 20s, as a music journalist in Boston, I took a lover. And then another. I sought out both men, even though neither were potential boyfriends due to factors of temperament, circumstance, and geography. They gave as good as they got, providing hot, enthralling distractions while I wrote, healed a nasty broken heart, and flailed around trying to grow into the woman I wanted to be.
When I met the lanky local musician with chestnut eyes, tangled black curls, and a reputation as wicked as his grin, my desire for him blacked out all common sense. I'd heard the rumors that he was trouble. Well, maybe we could start a rumor, too. He was looking for a place to live, so I hooked him up with some friends of mine, securing his gratitude.
Having just weathered a painful breakup from a guy I'd thought would be my forever man, I wanted solace and took the initiative. I put myself in the musician's path—going to see his band and hitting up BBQs at his house—wearing a little extra red lipstick and a clingy tank top with pink guitars. The anticipation added to the heat.
When he took me upstairs to show me his new room, it was as if I had planned it all along (which I had). This was no end-of-the-night compromise. The first time he made me come, it was hard and fast, the way I had seen it be for boys, my jeans tugged down, my shoes still on.
We never planned our trysts, which made me crazy, but it also added to the excitement. I knew I might run into him amid the city's small music scene, which gave every night out the feeling of foreplay. When I spotted him at a rock club or party, everything came alive. At night's end, our eyes hardly seeming to meet, we would slip away together, magnetized by a common desire.
Unlike those friends with benefits who share little beyond proximity and sex, we often stayed up talking and listening to music until dawn. We didn't have any role in each other's daily lives or future plans, and we could be totally honest about how deeply our creative pursuits drove us. I walked home in the morning amped up to write, feeling like I was growing into the independent, successful artist I longed to be. While I had a few borderline-needy moments of wanting a greater role in his life, most of the time he felt at a remove: He was in the midst of an extended breakup and often away on tour, and I was inspired by how completely he put his music above all else, including women. I wanted to feel that entitled about my own writing.
Marguerite Duras had lovers. Patti Smith had lovers. I had a lover. I started to see a life for myself beyond my ex-boyfriend. At the same time, I started dating men who were more likely to be potential boyfriends—but none of them thrilled me as much as my musician, and I didn't want to give up my fun. I wasn't ready for my next serious relationship, even if I wanted to be.
A few months into the affair, I interviewed another musician, one I'd had a crush on since I was 16. Barely holding onto professional decorum, I flirted shamelessly. Not long after, I called him while in Los Angeles, his hometown. We spent a long, sexy day together at his place. He was soon embarking on tour and took along my red satin underwear, which figured prominently in the dirty e-mails I sent him, still riding the gauzy high from our time together.
As soon as he returned, he called. "What are you wearing?" he asked by way of greeting. "Nothing," I said, catching on quickly. "What's all that noise?"
"I'm at a Lakers game at the staples Center," he said. "It's halftime, and I'm outside smoking a cigarette while my friends are inside." We laughed. He got me off over the phone, then watched the second half.
Having both men in my life made me feel like I didn't have to adhere to either one's schedule. I was taking what I wanted, filling my nights with all of the talk and sex I could desire. In between trysts with my Boston guitarist, I fielded regular calls from L.A.: What was I writing? What fantasy did I want to enact over the phone? He wanted to know everything.
Sometimes I wanted more time and attention from my L.A. musician, but I never wanted a commitment. Just like my Boston lover, he didn't have serious-partner potential. But he acted as my mentor in many ways: 11 years older than me, he was a successful musician and businessman who had traveled the world. He encouraged me to figure out what I wanted, and to say no to things I didn't want, making me more self-assured in ways that went far beyond the bedroom. Our affair helped me grow—the opposite of the laziness and inertia of friends with benefits.
What I really wanted, and what these men gave me, was experience—the self-knowledge that comes with pushing your boundaries by first figuring out where they are, and then testing those assumptions. The affairs stopped and started many times, over many years. When I last saw both men, long after our original interludes, there was a fondness and sparkle between us, along with the sweet, salty ease of old lovers—everything that ever passed between us still there.
I think all of us want love, and for most of us, a committed relationship is the eventual goal. But not all encounters need to be about romantic love. And not all casual hookups need to lack intimacy. When approached with daring and passion, unsustainability can have its own benefits, too.
Sarah Tomlinson is a Los Angeles– and Brooklyn-based writer. Her writing has appeared in publications including Marie Claire, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Salon.com, and Vol1Brooklyn.com. She has ghostwritten nine books, including two uncredited New York Times bestsellers. Visit her online at SarahTomlinson.com and follow her alter ego, Duchess of Rock (@DuchessofRock), on Twitter.
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