“Is a Relationship Just Friendship With Sex?”

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I recently published a piece called “There *Are* Asexual Polyamorous People, You Know.” That article attracted a lot of attention and resulted in many comments and private messages. For the most part, its reception was very positive. I heard from a bunch of folks who were happy to see some ace representation, either for their own sake or on behalf of other people. This was by far the most common response.

However, there was a runner-up, another frequently said thing that took a different approach and seemed to come from a different place.

Multiple people asked the following question in response to the piece: Aren’t polyamorous asexual relationships just friendships? Why call them relationships if there’s no sex?

Having been in relationships in the past myself where there was no sex, I found it an incredibly odd question. But it wasn’t brand new to me. I’d heard it before. At the time I was being interviewed about one of my books, and the host asked me about my love life. I talked about all of my partners at the time. How long we’d been together. Our basic situation. And I don’t remember how exactly it came up, but I mentioned that I didn’t have a sexual relationship with one of my partners. That we stuck to kink stuff, which to them was basically as fulfilling as sex anyway. In fact, they considered it sex (even though I didn’t, a difference of opinion that posed no practical problems).

The host asked me if I was serious, and when I agreed, they asked me a followup, “Then why do you consider it a relationship? Why aren’t they just a friend or a play partner?”

At the time it was a question I wasn’t expecting, and it threw me completely off guard. I know I answered it somehow, despite feeling a little flustered and surprised I was even being asked that. I believe I talked about how much my partner meant to me, how much time we spent together, how we were always going on dates and doing romantic stuff together, how we had shared secrets, and how to them kink functioned pretty much like sex anyway.

The host was polite enough in response, but I got the distinct impression that they thought my answer was weird and unsatisfying.

The Math Doesn’t Add Up

It’s one of those realities that’s plainly obvious when you’re the one having the relationship but can be a tough question to answer in a world that takes a lot for granted about love and romance. Where we’re expected to follow a certain model for relationships, where we move from one predictable stage to another, riding the relationship escalator.

A lot of those expectations stay invisible to us the vast majority of the time until we encounter something that doesn’t fit the models that we’ve been inculcated to follow.

And that seems to be why people ask that question; a sexless polyamorous relationship violates the norms of the relationship escalator on a few different levels.

It seemed at first glance to be just that simple. But I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something, especially as most of the people who asked this particular question were in fact polyamorous themselves and violating the norms of the relationship escalator in some fashion.

So I took some time to honor the question, to stop and ask myself: “IS a relationship just friendship with sex?”

This was the underlying premise of those questions. One that frankly didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Because essentially when a person was asking if there’s no sex in a relationship, isn’t it friendship, they’re expressing it like this:

Relationship – sex = friendship

Looks harmless enough, right? Well, there’s a big problem with it. Because logically speaking, if we were to accept that premise, the following should also be true:

Friendship + sex = relationship

If this is true, then what, pray tell, is a friendship with benefits? Friendship plus sex looks a lot like friends with benefits.

If this formula were the be-all and end-all of what makes a relationship a capital-R-Relationship, then there wouldn’t be so many people getting upset when they’re asked if they can be friends with benefits instead of dating-dating.

But there sure are. I see that sort of angst all the time. Along with folks bemoaning “almost relationships,” situations where they’re having sex with someone and doing a lot of the stuff that constitutes a relationship but for some reason aren’t “official.”

So clearly, there’s something missing from this equation — and likely multiple somethings.

Missing Elements

I alluded briefly to some of these at the end of the piece about my asexual friend:

  • Companionship
  • Romance
  • Commitment
  • Emotional intimacy
  • Attachment
  • Social signalling/recognition (presenting to others as being in a relationship, being “official”)

All of these elements can and do exist in polyamorous relationships (yes, even commitment; because commitment isn’t solely about exclusivity, it’s also about followthrough).

There Are Other Forms of Physical Affection Besides Sex

And there is of course the reality that just because a person isn’t having sex with their partner, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t physically affectionate with them in a way that most folks aren’t with their friends.†

I’m a very sexual person and find it incredibly gratifying to connect with another person in that way (when compatibility is high, sex can practically be a religious experience), but I was just fine with the sexless relationship I mentioned above staying where it did.  It worked for us. There was a strong kink-based connection. Cuddles. And we made out often with a passion that seemed to herald the world might be ending.

Now, I’m pretty close to my friends, but that particular relationship really didn’t feel like “just” a friendship. Or “just” anything, really. It was a force in its own right.

The Further Odd Implications of “If You Didn’t Have Sex, It Wasn’t a Relationship”

Honestly, it’s a curious idea, that something isn’t a Relationship unless you’re having sex. If that were true, all sorts of odd notions would also have to be true. When someone announced their breakup, you might find people asking them, “Are you sure you really broke up? Did you guys actually have sex? If you didn’t have sex, it wasn’t a relationship. So I’m not sure what you’re even sad about.”

And all of those waiting-til-marriage types would be about to marry someone who is basically a friend. The idea that they could feel anything approaching romantic love for someone they’d never had sex with would be laughable.

Now, I’m personally not the biggest fan of waiting til marriage to have sex (I didn’t; I figured it was more prudent to test drive the car first rather than buying it right away), but I’m not about to say that people who do choose to do that aren’t even dating. That those aren’t valid relationships.

That’s just too far. It’s silly.

And these implications illustrate that while sex can be a vital part of romantic relationships and attachment for many folks, it’s not like it’s the only thing that could possibly differentiate it from a friendship.

The Other Problem with Talking About “Just” Friendship

Amatonormativity: (noun) the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types

*

There is of course another problem with the question. It frames friendship as something lesser, incomplete, and always less desirable than having a romantic relationship.

It’s a commonly pedaled cultural inequality, one that’s taken for granted. We say that people are “just friends,” or we might say, “I want to be more than friends.” These kinds of expressions imply the following:

Romantic relationship > friendship

and/or

Sexual relationship > friendship

We are exposed to these ideas so much it’s easy to just accept them automatically. But whenever I take just a few seconds and think them over, I quickly realize that I have friendships that mean the world to me. People who are essentially chosen family, who have been there through thick and thin.

And besides that, while my closest romantic partners have also been great friends, not all of them have been. Some of them frankly weren’t very good friends at all.

In reality, friendship, romance, and sex are all separate concepts that sometimes co-exist but don’t always. You can have sex with someone without it being romantic, and you can have romance without sex. (Sometimes it’s both.) Friendship is a separate concept, too, one that can also be a part of a sexual, romantic, or a sexual-romantic relationship, but not necessarily.

Just because you’re in a sexual and/or romantic relationship with someone, it doesn’t mean you’re friends.

If that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be so many tropes about spouses who hate each other’s guts. Nor groups devoted to spotting them online (for example, the Facebook group Why Get Married If You Hate Your Spouse?).

Is a Relationship Just Friendship With Sex?

My answer is no.

While it could be true for certain people, it’s not necessarily true for everyone. And applying that to everyone is a way of viewing things that falls far short of capturing the entire range of possible human romantic connection.

***

†I also have it on good authority that there are orientations in the asexual spectrum that include folks who do actually have sex but maybe infrequently (graysexuals) or when certain conditions are met (demisexuals, who require a strong emotional connection) as well.

And I’m told that even folks who don’t enjoy the sex or experience sexual attraction themselves will sometimes have sex with their partners as a way of bonding with them, although not getting any personal pleasure out of the act.

Of course, this is an extra confusing concept to people who are already puzzled by asexuality, so it’s not as often discussed.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article! This topic is something I’m currently thinking about a lot. I’m polyamorous and at the moment have a deep romantic-ish friendship plus cuddling and very occasional practially non-existing benefits only we live together & sleep in the same bed and it really looks like a Relationship but I don’t see it that way for reasons and also he has another partner… well, you get the idea. It’s complicated 😉 And I get asked a lot whether or not we are in a Relationship (TM), often by people who have barely been able to wrap their head around polyamory. When I then don’t get a clear yes/no answer (or start waffling in an attempt to give an in-depth explanation) I inevitably get the “Are you having sex?” question and don’t know how to answer it because whatever I say will have them mentally slot us into either box A or box B when we are really C. Long story short, your take on relationship vs friendship will be very helpful to me the next time I have to explain things to people. You just have a way of putting complex things into something concise & simple!

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