For all their emotional complications, "friends-with-benefits" relationships may offer one advantage: safer sex.
The results of a new study show that people in friends-with-benefits relationships are more likely to use condoms during oral and vaginal sex compared to those in traditional romantic partnerships.
The findings are based on an online survey of 376 people, most in their mid-20s. About half of the respondents said they were in a friends-with-benefits relationship, and half of said they were in a traditional romantic relationship. Members of both groups said they had known their partners for about four years.
The friends-with-benefits relationships had their drawbacks: people in these relationships were less sexually satisfied, less likely to communicate about sex and less likely to discuss sexual desires and needs than those in traditional relationships.
And the more frequent condom use in friends-with-benefits relationships doesn't necessarily make these liaisons safer, or riskier, the researchers said.
That's because people in friends-with-benefits relationships had more sex partners, were less likely to be monogamous (36 percent versus 93 percent in traditional relationships), and did not use condoms all the time.
"[A] larger numbers of partners, combined with far-from-perfect condom use and limited discussion about sexual health matters suggest that [friends-with-benefits relationships] carry some inherent degree of risk," the researchers write in the Nov. 26 issue of the Journal of Sex Research.
Friends-with-benefits relationships appear to be common, with surveys showing about one-half of college-aged students have some experience with this type of relationship. As a result, sex education "should consider explicitly addressing the unique health implications of involvement in these relationships," the researchers said.
People in traditional romantic relationships may be less likely to use condoms because they are more committed to their partner. As such, they come to trust that their partner will not have sex with other people, thus posing less of a health risk, said study researcher Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist at Harvard University.
Switching to other methods of birth control, such as oral contraceptives, may be another reasoncondom use declines in traditional relationships. But this switch still has to accompany an increase in trust, as these medications do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases, Lehmiller said.
Pass it on: Friends-with-benefits couples are more likely to use condoms than people in traditional romantic relationships.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.