Friends With Benefits (Will Gluck, 2011)

Sex Points the Way
A girl can tuck a Trojan in her purse on Saturday night, but there is no such device to protect her heart. – Laura Sessions Stepp

Having friends with benefits is a lot like communism. It works well in theory, but not so well in execution. – Mila Kunis discussing her film, Friends With Benefits.

If you are lost on a mountain, one thing is obvious. One way is up; the other is down. Follow gravity and you will get to the valley. It may be a circuitous route, but you will eventually get there. The same is true of sex. It has its own logic.

If social mores are learned in film, then this summer has brought the hook-up culture out of the college dorm room and onto the big screen. The level of confusion about relationships today is staggering. The church has done little to help—vacillating from studied silence to moralistic finger wagging. Neither addresses the complex relational choices young couples inevitably face. Novelist Tom Wolfe describes contemporary patterns in his 2000 essay, “Hooking Up.”

Back in the twentieth century, American girls had used baseball terminology. “First base” referred to embracing and kissing; “second base” referred to groping and fondling and deep, or “French” kissing, commonly known as “heavy petting”; “third base” referred to fellatio, usually known in polite conversation by the ambiguous term “oral sex”; and “home plate” meant conception-mode intercourse, known familiarly as “going all the way.” In the year 2000, in the era of hooking up, “first base” meant deep kissing (“tonsil hockey”), groping and fondling; “second base” meant oral sex; “third base” meant going all the way; and “home plate” meant learning each other’s names.

Dating is passé. Hooking up is de rigueur. “Hooking up” is an intentionally ambiguous term for a casual sexual encounter—ranging from kissing to intercourse—that has no expectation of future emotional commitment.

This summer the hooking-up culture went mainstream. It was explored in Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher’s No Strings Attached (2011) as well as in Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake’s Friends with Benefits (2011). It even spilled over into marriage relations in the Farrelly brothers’ film Hall Pass (2011). Of course this doesn’t include the coverage hooking up gets on TV with shows such as Sex in the City, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Bachelor Pad, Jersey Shore, Sweet Home Alabama, and perhaps the most explicit hook up reality TV show this year, NBC’s Love in the Wild. Hooking up dominates the culture’s relational imagination.

If film is the main avenue whereby American adolescents and young adults explore, discuss, and imagine social mores, then these films and TV shows deserve close attention. Sex—it would appear—has lost its moorings to a serious relationship, but more importantly it has lost its hold on reality. The practice of hooking up does not work in reality. It worked no better in the 70s when open marriage and key parties were the rage. See the 1997 film, The Ice Storm, which is set in 1973. For in spite of social mores, there is no prophylactic for the heart. Heartache ensues, even by the admission of the actors portrayed in these films. Moreover, the hook-up practice has its dark side, as one in five women in college report being the victim of sexual assault—casual sex easily morphs into coercive rape.

Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, the two stars of Friends with Benefits are popular and compelling role models of a generation. It was striking that at the first showing of Friends with Benefits in Boston on a Friday afternoon, over 80% of the audience was women. Learning to negotiate this ambiguous and complex social pattern is a matter of acute personal interest to modern women. Market research revealed that 60% of the first weekend attendees to Friends with Benefits were women over the age of 25. Women and men go to these movies to figure out what’s allowed and what’s not. They look to the social experiments on screen to define the sexual boundaries in their own lives… but often miss the larger metaphysical truths embedded in their sexuality.

Friends with Benefits is a well-scripted, fast-paced, thoughtful film—far better than the earlier release No Strings Attached, which has a similar plot and theme. Though there is a great deal of sexual content in the film, it is tastefully portrayed and appropriate to the story. The actors actually spent two-months rewriting the script from its original PG-13 rating to an R rating, because they believed a more explicit portrayal would resonate more authentically with their target 20-something audience. The comic banter of Kunis and Timberlake is reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy at their best in films such as Adam’s Rib (1949).

Both Kunis’ and Timberlake’s characters appeal to the loss of a parent as the source of their emotional brokenness. Kunis’ character Jamie, does not know whom her father is and has been mostly abandoned by her overgrown hippy mother played by Patricia Clarkson. Likewise, Timberlake’s character Dylan explains that his mother abandoned him; and we witness his struggle to maintain a caring relationship with his Alzheimer-stricken father played convincingly by Richard Jenkins.

Dylan’s love for his father shows both him and the audience what true love demands—self-giving for the good of another without thought for oneself. To identify unashamedly with his father’s Alzheimer, Dylan joins him by taking off his trousers in a public restaurant. It’s a comic gesture; here it’s pure love. It’s the opposite of lust, self-grasping for the sake of oneself without thought of the other. We know love when we see it and though we long for it in all relationships, some kinds of relationships such as “friends with benefits” make lust normative and love nearly impossible.

The main problem this film explores has little to do with sex and everything to do with friendship. Does having sex with a friend necessarily mess up the friendship? To the modern filmgoer, the expectation of sex is a given, the potential loss of a friend worrisome. The stigma of having friends with benefits is not the sex, but the cheapening of friendship. For most moderns, sex is not relational, but recreational. Friendship, however, remains undeniably relational. This is where problems arise. Because sex is actually more than recreational, it screws up the relationship. When sex is disconnected from reality, reality bites. Reality always asserts its truth in the end.

Nonetheless, one can argue that friends-with-benefits is an improvement over casual hooking up. Establishing the mutual expectations—or lack thereof—requires a special conversation—one in which the boundaries are clarified. In this film, Kunis and Timberlake swear on a Bible app on an iPad, to remain emotionally disconnected—like George Clooney in the film Up in the Air (2009). “I have a Bible app because I’m a good girl,” Kunis remarks. The Bible is a symbol of relational seriousness lacking moral content.

However odd, making a commitment to be emotionally unsupportive appears, it is actually more meaningful when compared to the casual nature of hooking up itself. These modern-day secularists even find it appropriate to get God involved in their decision. At the very least, expectations are verbalized. Friends-with-benefits is a commitment that is supposed to mean something for the sake of the relationship. “We will remain friends no matter what.” This kind of arrangement follows directly from the hook-up culture. If you hang out with friends, it is presumed that sex will happen. The key is to avoid emotional attachment in order to preserve the friendship. But as both films reveal, No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits, sex doesn’t allow it.

The traditional romantic comedy is deconstructed—“Katherine Heigl is a liar,” Kunis exclaims making reference to Heigl’s film The Ugly Truth (2009). Here the nature of the relationship—friend with benefits—plays the role of protagonist. Willing cynicism, feigning cosmopolitan sophistication, lamenting one’s emotional brokenness… none of this changes the embodied fact that sex is always more than sex. Sex creates an emotional bond.

There are scientific studies that appeal to neurological releases of dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin as the source of the bonding sexual intimacy creates between couples. But such chemical reductionism misses the larger cosmic point. Reality has a given pattern, and sex like gravity cannot be rearranged to suit our own predilections without real consequences. Sexuality is not a consumer choice or a lifestyle alternative, but a metaphysical reality. To deny its design is to miss its point—a banquet of self-giving love.

The givenness of our bodily design is not a social creation. Sexuality is an embodied reality. To treat sex like junk food, as does much of Hollywood or a starvation diet as does much of the church is to miss the point of its intended banquet. Sex is meant to point us to the deepest aspects of all reality—the mutual giving of our embodied selves in love for another. Casual sexual relations—hooking up—will inevitably undermine friendship because genuine friendship demands love and sacrifice. This is just as true on the battlefield as it is in the bedroom: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend” (John 15:13). Learning how to become a gift to the other is what fosters true friendship. Sex and love are designed to go hand in hand. Only when one removes love from friendship can the notion of friends with benefits work—but that leaves one with a relationship defined by manipulation, grasping, and self-centeredness. Friendship works no better on these terms than does sex. Relationships demand love or they die. So does sex. Like gravity, that’s the way it is. Few happily deny gravity for long. True freedom comes by living within our created design.

Reality provides each of us a series of personal choices, choices we reaffirm each day and thereby determine what kind of person we become: life or death, love or indifference, community or isolation, flourishing or floundering, giving or grasping, heaven or hell. Every decision serves one or the other end and bears its inevitable fruit.

There is a great deal of confusion about sex because for too long the church has preached only the starvation diet. Instinctively and rightly, Hollywood knows to honor sex as something more than something to be avoided. But not knowing what it is for, Hollywood and many modern couples risk losing more than friendship, they risk losing sight of who they are, who God is, the meaning of love, the ordering of society, and the meaning of the cosmos. We were made for much, much more. Sex irrefutably points the way.

Copyright © 2011 John Seel


1. What difference does it make if sex has an intrinsic design and is not merely a social construct? What would “sexual freedom” be then? 2. Today 20% of all marriages begin from an online dating sight—and the number is growing. Coupled with the popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook, how do these patterns and practices support or hinder hooking up? Are they related in someway? 3. How is the plausibility of hooking up reinforced by movies and television programs? Where do most people learn how to negotiate interpersonal relationships? Why are colleges now offering courses on the subject? 4. How is “hooking up” biased against the best interests of women? 5. In your experience or that of your friends, does hooking up foster healthy friendships or relationships? 6. Tina Turner asks, “What’s love got to do with it?” What is lost when sex and love are separated and sex is seen as a form of exercise? What does love demand that hooking up omits? 7. Jewish television matchmaker Patti Stanger has a rule in her club, no sex without monogamy. Why does Stanger push back against the hook up culture on her Bravo TV show Millionaire Matchmaker? 8. Seel suggests that agreeing to be friends with benefits is an improvement over hooking up. Why is this the case? In the film, Friends with Benefits, did Jamie’s return to hooking up after her break with Dylan seem more or less attractive? 9. How can the church better assist young adults with these complex patterns of social relationships? What works? What does not work? 10. Why is it important to imagine sexuality as a banquet rather than fast food or a starvation diet? Is this how your church has described it, if at all?


Starring: Justin Timberlake (Dylan) Mila Kunis (Jamie) Patricia Clarkson (Lorna) Jenna Elfman (Annie) Bryan Greenberg (Parker) Richard Jenkins (Mr. Harper) Woody Harrelson (Tommy) Nolan Gould (Sam) Andy Samberg (Quincy) Shaun White (Himself) Director: Will Gluck Writers: Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, and Will Gluck Producers: Glenn Gainor and others Cinematography: Michael Grady USA; 109 min; 2011 Rated R (for sexual content and language)