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When choosing a friends-with-benefits partner, the result clearly indicated the advantages of choosing a close friend. Results from Bisson and Levine (2009) showed that the fact that it was a close friend “justified sex”, something that was also mentioned in this study. According to Grello et al. (2006), it was more common to choose a close friend than an acquaintance or an unknown person as an FWB partner. Aspects such as security, easy access, and knowing the person as someone fun to spend time with were important reasons for choosing a close friend. A recurrent important quality was attraction, in terms of both personality and appearance. Regardless of relation to the person, attraction seemed to be a prerequisite to becoming involved in sexual commitment. Reeder (2000) discovered in her study that different qualities of attraction had an impact on relational development.
Overall, the results of this study indicated that informants, when initiating a relationship, had a desire for intimacy, both psychological and physiological, similar to results from Lehmiller et al. (2011). At the same time, there was a resistance to the type of demanding commitment that might appear in a romantic relationship. Bisson and Levine (2009) also mentioned the possibility of having a sexual relationship without commitments as a reason for entering an FWB relationship. An FWB relationship could be seen as a substitute for a romantic relationship. Someone described it as a “hybrid”, meaning a mixture between independence and commitment. An FWB relationship seemed to be a good substitute with the advantages of finding intimacy, affirmation, and friendship, but at the same time allowing for concurrency. Adolescents appear to be looking for the advantages of a romantic relationship, but are not willing to make the effort. The idea of an FWB relationship as a hybrid of friendship and romantic relationship was tested in Bisson and Levine's (2009) study. Their result indicated that there was a small difference in intimacy, but a more pronounced desire for commitment. Bad experiences from romantic relationships and “distrust of love” were mentioned as possible reasons for entering FWB relationships. One can assume that this implied a fear of commitments. FWB relationships seems to be something that often “just happens” without reflection. Epstein et al. (2009) strengthens that result by describing the phenomenon as a “spur of the moment” happening.
The informants described the relationship as undemanding and without rules; but they still mentioned “unwritten rules”; the invisible contract. Owen and Fincham's (2011) definition of an FWB: “friends with benefits is a relationship in which there are also psychical encounters, but no on-going committed relationship”, seems to be accepted, but the question is whether it is possible in practice or not. Adolescents seemed to seek an agreement to keep the relationship without commitment, though different expectations and demands may arise over time. Different expectations were something studied by Owen and Fincham (2011). Findings revealed that it was common to have unequal expectations, something that could lead to negative emotions. The results indicated an agreement on openness in the relationship, which is contradictory, although the result also revealed the opportunity for privacy especially when it came to concurrency. One can presume that an agreement to keep the relationship off the record might arise, because of the risks of gossiping and to allow for continued polygamy.
As Häggström-Nordin et al. (2005) and Lewin et al. (1998) found, our results also showed that romantic emotions were not required when engaging in sexual encounters. This indicates the change of “the love ideology” as Helmius (1990) examined in her study. However, it was mentioned that sex was better if there were romantic feelings involved and that it actually was quite common that romantic feelings evolved. The question arises as to whether it is possible to keep a sexual relationship apart from romantic emotions.
There was a disagreement among informants about whether romantic feelings where legitimate or not. The majority seemed to have an idea about romantic feelings as something that impaired the FWB relationship and considered it in general as a negative aspect. One can assume that there is a fear of unreturned feelings, which might lead to jealousy and expectations, which thus jeopardize the relationship. The ambivalence about FWB relationships concerned a desire for the advantages of a romantic relationship, while at the same time keeping one's freedom and not being hampered by demands. Bisson and Levine (2009) described the main advantage of FWB relationships as having sex with no commitment, while developing feelings, jealousy, and hurt feelings were seen as disadvantages. This study indicated that informants exposed themselves to sexual risk-taking behavior. To some extent, there was awareness about the risks, but mostly the adolescents seemed to be unaware of indulging in sexual risk-taking behavior. Most of the informants had some idea of responsibility and how to perform safe sex. However, there was a gap between knowledge and practice. Several aspects of sexual risk-taking behavior were mentioned by informants in this study. Alcohol use was common in the initiation of an FWB relationship, similar to findings from Owen and Fincham (2011) and Paul and Hayes (2002). Some adolescents were of the opinion that alcohol use had no significant impact on their judgment, something that could be questioned. Precaution against STIs and unplanned pregnancy is impaired when alcohol is used. Häggström-Nordin et al. (2002) indicated that the use of contraceptives was less common among those who had been drinking alcohol.
Informants had an awareness of and anxiety about STIs and unplanned pregnancy. However, knowledge of STIs was inadequate and attitudes such as “it will not happen to me” were common, which was also noted by Edgardh (2002b).
Contraceptive use seemed to be associated with a fear of pregnancy rather than of an STI. All informants knew about the importance of condom use, especially when being with someone they did not trust. Informants mentioned several factors that had a negative influence on the use of condoms, and the aspect of trust was possibly also an obstacle. Feelings of trust seemed to justify having sex without a condom; the question was how much one could trust an FWB partner. It seemed common to trust an FWB partner, but on the other hand, there was a general acceptance of polygamy. Rosenberg et al. (1999) and Jennings et al. (2004) found that sexual concurrency increased the risk of contracting STIs. The phenomena of trust and legitimacy of sexual concurrency were mentioned as aspects of a “false security”.
The ongoing change of “the love ideology” gives the opportunity for an adolescent to have sexual contacts without commitments or romantic emotions (Helmius, 1990). Later on, this acceptance may lead to an increased legitimization of polygamy. We found that opinions about polygamy were divided. The majority of the informants seemed to accept polygamy in FWB relationships, and sometimes even found it positive, similar to results found by Epstein et al. (2009). Some informants mentioned the possibility of sexual concurrency as one reason for entering an FWB relationship. Paik (2010) found that a nonromantic relationship increased sexual concurrency. Most likely, there seemed to be an understanding that polygamy is acceptable in FWB relationships, although our result shows that there was no consensus on the matter.
Disagreement also arose concerning whether polygamy was a private matter or something to come to an interrelation agreement about. Regardless of whether or not there is openness about concurrency, it appears to be unacceptable to question it. Lenoir et al. (2006) as well as Drumright et al. (2004) found that it was common to underestimate the degree of a partner's sexual concurrency. Probably, not knowing about an FWB partner's sexual concurrency plays a big role in unawareness when taking sexual risks. McGinty, Knox and Zusman (2007) found that women defined the context of FWB as something rather more emotional than sexual to avoid being labeled as a “slut”. These authors also mentioned the “sexual double standard”, meaning that men and women have different sets of principles for similar situations, as a social learning theory, where women in FWB relationships were at greater risk of negative labeling, whereas men gained a favorable reputation. Aubrary (2004) investigated the portrayal of the sexual double standard and found that negative consequences were more common among women who initiated sexual activities as opposed to men. The same phenomenon appeared in our study, and informants had no explanation, but found it wrong and unfair. Presumably, it is rooted in the traditional gender order, were women are not supposed to be hedonistic, whereas it is legitimate for men to have sex “just for fun”. Overall, although there seems to be awareness of the phenomenon, it still continues. Other aspects revealed in this study, such as unequal expectations, unreturned and hurt feelings, should also be counted as sexual risk-taking behavior. Maybe, the greatest risk in an FWB relationship concerns the emotional aspect. The results clearly indicated ambivalence as regards FWB relationships and assumable adolescents are not always aware of the implications of the relationship. Even though informants have the idea of FWB relationships as something positive, many of them will probably end up with hurt feelings.
Informants emphasized the importance of adequate sexual education in school, and of support in sexuality, something that seemed to be missing. Some informants mentioned they would have probably acted differently if their knowledge had been broader. There is consensus on the request for more knowledge about sexuality, which was also found by Makenzius et al. (2009). It would be of great importance for adolescent's sexual behavior if issues of feelings, relationships, self-esteem, and identity were developed beyond basic sexual education. Schools and youth centers have a responsibility for, and great influence on, adolescent sexual behavior through their sex and relationship education programs.
Other sources of information such as friends, siblings, parents, media, internet, and porn could immerse or impair adolescent's sexual health. There is a risk of getting the wrong idea about sexuality and even increase sexual risk-taking behavior, as reported by Häggström-Nordin et al. (2005). Satisfactory sexual education may increase adolescent's awareness of their responsibility to limit sexual risk-taking behavior.
In-depth interviews were used to collect data for this study. The advantages of in-depth interviews are that they make it possible to study the perception of life in a profound perspective as experienced by the informants. According to Kvale (1997), the informant gains an insight into the meaning of what she experiences during the interview. New connections are revealed in the world of ideas and thus, new spontaneous descriptions appear.
Before the study proper took place, a pilot interview was conducted to examine the dependability of the questions as related to the aim of the study, and also to practice the interview procedure (Polit & Beck, 2008). After this preparatory exercise, the authors felt a greater confidence prior to the main interviews. The interviews were conducted using an interview guide, with the same questions used for all informants to enhance dependability (Graneheim & Lundman, 2004). Questions were geared to illuminate the phenomenon of FWB from different perspectives to examine transferability. The selection comprised adolescents, aged 16–18, two boys, and six girls. One limitation of the study might have been the unequal gender numbers among informants. This may have impacted the outcome of the results, but overall results did not indicate a difference from a gender perspective.
The analysis of data followed the approach of Graneheim and Lundman (2004). To achieve trustworthiness, the analysis was conducted by four involved researchers, two of whom were experienced and the other two less experienced. The researchers discussed issues until consensus was reached. The same codes and categories were recurrent in the interviews, which increased the credibility.
Suggestions for future research
The majority of previous studies have defined FWB relationships and its prevalence in different contexts. This study gave the participating adolescents’ an opportunity to speak open mindedly, describe their thoughts, attitudes, and experiences about the phenomenon.
FWB relationships were often initiated to attain physical and psychological intimacy without expectations and demands. Advantages such as sexual concurrency and a lack of demands were central. Overall, the adolescents experienced FWB as positive. Sexual risk-taking behavior was considered common in FWB relationships. The informants were not usually aware of this disadvantage. An aim of future investigation could be to explore possible gender differences within the phenomenon of FWB relationships among adolescents.
Implications for public health nursing
The rising trend of adolescent risk-taking sexual behaviors, such as concurrent sex partners, alcohol consumption, and unprotected coital experience might have a relation with rising numbers of STIs and unplanned pregnancies. In order for school nurses and personnel working with young people's sexual health to be successful, a deeper knowledge and understanding about adolescents’ sexual behavior and relationships is crucial.