Experiences With BDSM And Group Sex Among Friends With Benefits And Romantic Partners

Do people engaged in casual, “no strings attached” sexual relationships engage in similar sexual activities compared to people in committed romantic relationships? There is some research to suggest that the answer is yes, at least when looking at relatively conventional sexual practices. For instance, in a 2014 study I published on this subject, I found no differences in experiences with kissing, mutual masturbation, oral sex, vaginal intercourse, and anal intercourse when comparing people who had a friend with benefits (FWBs) to those who had a romantic partner [1].

However, we didn’t inquire about participation in less conventional sexual activities, such as BDSM and group sex. It’s possible that we might see different engagement in these activities based on relationship type, given the fact that these relationships--romances and FWBs--tend to differ in terms of both sexual exclusivity and sexual communication [1].

For example, given that there’s less pressure to maintain a sexually exclusive relationship with a casual partner, might friends with benefits be more inclined to participate in group sex activities? Also, given that romantic partners tend to have higher levels of sexual communication, something that is required in order for people to share their fantasies and practice them safely, might they be more inclined to participate in BDSM?

I sought to answer these questions in a study I presented last month at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality meeting [2]. In this study, I surveyed approximately 1,100 adults who either had a current friend with benefits (26%) or a current romantic partner (74%). Participants were 29 years old on average and most identified as female (73%) and heterosexual (74%).

Everyone was asked to indicate whether or not they had engaged in a variety of specific sexual practices with their current partner, including the more conventional activities I inquired about in my earlier study, as well as various forms of BDSM and group sex.

What I found was that, consistent with previous research, both relationship types were pretty similar and reported high rates of experience with the more conventional sex acts. Romantic partners were statistically more likely to have engaged in a few of these activities, though, like kissing; however, the differences were fairly small (e.g., 96% of friends with benefits had kissed their partner, compared to 99% of romantic partners). As a result, these differences may not be particularly meaningful, especially in light of the large size of the sample. The fact of the matter is that large samples simply have more power to detect small effects.

When it came to the other activities on the survey, I found that—as expected—romantic partners were more experienced with some forms of BDSM (namely, bondage; 33% of romantic partners had done this compared to 22% of FWBs). By contrast, friends with benefits were more experienced with multi-partner sex (namely, threesomes; 17% of FWBs had done this, compared to 9% of romantic partners).

As you can see, the differences here were reasonably large: FWBs were about twice as likely to have had a threesome, while romantic partners were 50% more likely to have tried bondage. These findings are consistent with the reasoning that BDSM desires are more likely to be shared and acted upon in relationships characterized by high levels of sexual communication, whereas desires for multi-partner sex are more likely to be acted upon in relationships in which there is less pressure to maintain sexual exclusivity with one partner.

One other set of findings worth mentioning is that when I looked specifically at friends with benefits and romantic partners who reported having an explicit monogamy agreement (30% of FWBs vs. 88% of romantic partners), the same difference in BDSM participation emerged, whereas the difference in threesome experience disappeared. What this suggests is that when friends with benefits agree to be exclusive (and, to be clear, most FWBs don’t agree to do this), they aren’t any more likely to practice group sex than anyone else.

Overall, what these findings suggest is that while the sex lives of people in casual and committed relationships are fairly similar with respect to participation in conventional sexual activities, there appear to be important differences when it comes to less common activities like group sex and BDSM—differences that may very well be a function of whether the partners agree to be monogamous and how comfortable they are communicating their sexual desires to each other. 

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[1] Lehmiller, J. J., VanderDrift, L. E., & Kelly, J. R. (2014). Sexual communication, satisfaction, and condom use behavior in friends with benefits and romantic partners. Journal of Sex Research, 51, 74-85.

[2] Lehmiller, J.J. (2017, November). Experiences with kink and group sex among friends with benefits and romantic partners. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, Atlanta, GA.

Image Credit: 123RF/Mahmoud Victor Moussa

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