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The growing appeal of sex without commitment

Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in the movie Friends with Benefits.

Emma Franklin doesn't have time for a boyfriend, so her best friend Adam Kurtzman will have to do.

"I'm a doctor," she tells him in her bedroom. "I work 80 hours a week. I need someone who's going to be in my bed at 2 a.m. who I don't have to eat breakfast with."

"I hate breakfast," he responds.

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And it's on.

The couple, played by Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, lead No Strings Attached (due out in January), one of a slew of new films about busy, urban thirtysomethings taking up the friends-with-benefits arrangement.

There is Love and Other Drugs, out next week and featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as a Viagra salesman and Anne Hathaway as his cynical sex buddy; and Friends with Benefits (coming next July), starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis as best friends who alternate sex with chest bumps. A new show by the same name is slated to premiere on NBC next year.

Once the domain of college seniors, the friends-with-benefits sexual arrangement (FWB) is being picked up by middle-class professionals in their 30s who have decided they're too busy for full-blown romantic relationships.

"They're trying to figure it out and make a commitment to what they can commit to, which in many instances might be their work," says Margaret McCraw, author of the recent book The Relationship Code.

The idea of prioritizing career over committed romantic relationships takes hold in university: Undergraduates who ranked financial security as their top value in life were most likely to be in a friends-with-benefits relationship, according to a 2008 survey of 1,000 undergraduates published in the College Student Journal.

People who are at the start of their careers want something "cozy, casual and convenient," says Cynthia Loyst, host of the television show Sex Matters on CP24.

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"We have our friends as an extended family nowadays. They're the closest ones to us and we spend a lot of time with them."

The friends-with-benefits phenomenon has evolved from merely pals who shag to a wide variety of sexual arrangements, including exes who hook up occasionally and bar patrons who stumble home together now and again. More than a one-night stand and less than a monogamous relationship, FWB relieves physical desires without the pretense of emotional or physical commitment.

A 2007 Michigan State University survey of 125 students published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that 60 per cent had dabbled in an FWB arrangement. The relationships had more in common with friendships than romances, and were low on passion and commitment.

Aside from their busy careers, friends with benefits count the marital failings of their parents as one reason not to commit.

"They're a bit gun-shy: There aren't that many great models for marriage out there for most people. They're missing that in their lifetime," says Dr. McCraw, who is also president of the Behavioral Healthcare Consulting & Training Institute in Baltimore.

But is the arrangement also linked to Generation Y's childish commitment phobia? In Friends with Benefits, Ms. Kunis's character Jamie climbs aboard Justin Timberlake and then wonders aloud if they're too old to be having casual sex, which seems "college-y" to her.

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Ms. Loyst echoes Dr. McCraw's point on this one: "I think it's less about perpetual adolescence and more a reflection of cynicism or realism around marriage and monogamy. More people are choosing not to put all their eggs in the marriage basket. Many couples I know are starting to think about and discuss the limitations of sex till death do us part."

Dr. McCraw even hazards that FWBs are more "thoughtful" than their counterparts who went headlong into "starter marriages" in their late 20s.

As for how gender roles play out in the casual-sex pact, a 2010 Colorado State University study revealed some double standards: Men are typically motivated by sex and women by "emotional connection."

Dr. McCraw says women often want "something more from the beginning," with some agreeing to the arrangement simply out of desperation. "They wanted something rather than nothing."

Despite popular assumptions that it's the woman who ends up getting burned in no-strings-attached arrangements with friends, two of the three new films feature female instigators.

"Women [in their 30s]are extraordinarily focused on career and financial independence. It makes sense that they'd seek out other forms of independence, and that includes sexual independence," Ms. Loyst says.

But she admits there are consequences, thanks mostly to the muddled linguistics: "On paper, it's one of those things that sounds really good. You keep it 'casual' and 'simple.' It's just about release and sexual playtime. But obviously human beings are complex and emotional, so a lot can go wrong."

For starters, you can mutilate a friendship, she says. "Even it does work out, it can make for awkward gatherings when you do get involved with more serious partners and still continue to be a part of each other's social orbits."

And unless two people are completely honest with themselves and each other, and maintain candour as the relationship evolves, "it's a huge emotional risk," Dr. McCraw says. "There's a physical risk, too, because if they don't really have a solid foundation with the other partner it's a health risk." (The 2008 study found that FWBs are often sleeping with several partners simultaneously.)

Given all the built-in insecurities, it's somewhat astonishing that thirtysomethings see FWB as a safe emotional alternative to committing to another person. Still, it's a gamble many are willing to take - given the other options.

"It's a generation that's exhausted from dating and this idea of trying to find The One," Ms. Loyst says.

"If you had the choice between going out to bars, trying to navigate the shark-infested waters of the online scene, or picking up the phone and calling a friend or an ex who you already know and trust, which would you choose?"

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