Reckless Entanglement

The Dead-End Nature of "Friends with Benefits"

“Two people should be able to have sex like they're playing tennis," Dylan blurts out. "Yeah!" says Jamie. "Yeah!" echoes Dylan, his volume rising.

Thus begins the relationship escapade at the center of the 2011 film, Friends with Benefits. Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) have been hanging out together since Dylan moved to town, and on this lazy afternoon, they are watching a cheesy romantic movie.

Jamie really wants the fairy tale ending—the one where her Prince Charming pursues her, sweeps her off her feet, and they live happily ever after. But she doesn't tell Dylan that. What she says instead is, "God, I miss sex! . . . I mean, sometimes you just need it." Like a visit to the chiropractor. "It's like . . . uh, it's like cracking your neck."

Dylan is all over that, except that he compares it to tennis. "You shake hands, you get on with your sh—."

"Yeah!" they both agree. And stare at each other for an expectant moment. Then, after swearing not to make any demands on one another whatsoever ("No relationship, no emotions, just sex," Jamie insists), the young twenty-somethings, who had heretofore been breezily passing some free time together, decide to take their friendship to the next level. The "benefit" level. Five minutes later, they are in Jamie's bedroom.

The same plot played out earlier this year in No Strings Attached, when Emma (Natalie Portman) proposed to Adam (Ashton Kutcher) that they "use each other for sex, at all hours of the day and night. Nothing else." No relationship allowed. "If we were in a relationship, I'd become a weird, scary version of myself, and my throat starts constricting, the walls start throbbing, it's like a peanut allergy. It's like an emotional peanut allergy," Emma says.

Voluntary Sex Trade

To avoid the emotional allergic reactions of relationships, just have sex like tennis and shake hands when you're done. Brilliant, right? Of course not. Even before the deals get "sealed," you can see the awkwardness with which the participants negotiate the ­arrangement, as if they must summon the willpower necessary to overcome some primal reluctance to it.

Even more telling, you can see in the main characters of both films a personal aversion to other people engaging in similarly cavalier sex. Jamie's mother, for example, has flitted from man to man all her adult life, sometimes playing "Who's Your Daddy?" games with Jamie. Jamie takes it in stride, but clearly does not find "Who's Your Daddy?" amusing. And Adam doesn't look with favor on his father when the latter takes up with Adam's ditzy, glitzy ex-girlfriend.

Nevertheless, despite misgivings, Dylan and Jamie, and Adam and Emma, disengage their hearts, minds, and emotions—their very souls—and resolutely forge ahead into what amount to voluntary sex-trade agreements.

"Friends with benefits." It's the cutting-edge manifestation of what Dale Kuehne calls iSex: relationships of choice, as opposed to relationships of obligation, where individual freedom is the supreme non-negotiable and sex is not valued for its role in procreation or building a marriage, but is pursued for personal pleasure and as a necessary component of a good life. will help you get started and follow through. According to "How to Start a Friends with Benefits Relationship," the final step, after making the decision, choosing a partner, and planting the idea in a joking manner (so you can pass it off as "just kidding" if you get rejected), is to add alcohol to make it easier.

When inhibitions get in the way, suppress with alcohol? College professor J. Budziszewski notes that this same coping mechanism is at work in the hookup scene: "Many young women drink before meeting new men, just so that, if sexual intercourse follows, they will be able to go through with it."

Clearly, friends-with-benefits sex is qualitatively different from cracking your neck or playing tennis. Because something is terribly amiss when people have to overcome inner misgivings, joke deceitfully about their intentions at the outset, and get drunk, just to follow through with an activity.

A Faustian Bargain

And something is wickedly insidious about these Hollywood promotions of reckless entanglement as a means to the fairy-tale ending. Predictably, Dylan and Jamie, and Adam and Emma, run headlong into the powerful emotions and overwhelming fears and vulnerabilities they were trying to avoid. Also predictably, but unfortunately, both films, which start out as kinds of anti-romantic comedies, turn out to be (what else?) romantic comedies in which the guy pursues the girl, sweeps her off her feet, and the two live happily ever after. To the extent that the stories work, it's because the characters get the love they want in the end. But iSex simply doesn't work out that way.

iSex is a Faustian bargain that not only disappoints, but also hinders the attainment of that love for which the soul really longs. Kuehne explains:

The problem is not that sex is bad but that it alone cannot deliver the fulfillment for which we yearn. Worse, the pursuit of sex can distract us and even rob us of the intimacy and love for which we yearn. Frankly, until we comprehend the nature of true intimacy and love we will never really understand the proper place of sex in our lives.

We humans are, at heart, relational beings. We crave intimacy, connection, and love. The Irish poet William Butler Yates pursued a woman for nineteen years before bedding her. When the relationship subsequently went sour, he remarked bitterly, "The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul." The sex may have been pleasurable for a moment, but he wanted more than sex. He wanted a relationship of love between two souls. So do the characters in these films, and so do the writers who created them. But they got the means and the ends mixed up.

Relationships for Life

Somebody in Hollywood still knows the best way to pursue intimacy, love, and relationship, and the proper place of sex in engendering them, though the message gets out in a back-door kind of way. Consider The Bucket List. Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) and Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) are both terminally ill. An otherwise unlikely pair, the two hospital roommates become friends and set out to check off the items on their combined "Bucket List."

In some ways, the men have the time of their lives: driving racecars, climbing the pyramids, and visiting the Taj Mahal. In other ways, they examine the measure of one another's lives. Edward has been married four times. "Problem is, I love being single, too," he smirks. "Hard to do them both at the same time." A business tycoon, he can and apparently does get sex anytime he wants.

Carter has been married to Virginia for 45 years. "I've never been with another woman," he mentions in passing.

"Whoa!" says Edward. "That's gotta be on the list!" And he hires a drop-dead gorgeous femme fatale to proposition him.

But Carter, the faithful husband, gently turns her down. And then he returns home to Virginia, where she and their children and grandchildren gratefully welcome him home. Home is where he belongs. It's where his people are, and it's where he wants to be. Meanwhile, Edward disintegrates into tears in his chic, but cold and empty, condominium.

The contrast could not be starker. Edward Cole has had plenty of iSex, but he is alone, estranged even from the one child his liaisons have produced. Carter's sex life has been fruitful. There have been obligations, but he has no regrets. The rewards far outweigh the costs. Moreover, the benefits will live on long after he is gone. •

From Salvo 19 (Winter 2011)
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 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #19, Winter 2011 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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