Tag Archives: Friends with Benefits

How And Why “No Strings Attached” Became My Favorite Romance Movie

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A few years back, I cited “Crazy/Beautiful,” an underrated cinematic gem from 2001, as my favorite romance movie. That movie, which I feel has aged better than similar movies from previous decades, has a special place in my heart and it always will. It was the first romance movie that I genuinely enjoyed as both a movie and a love story.

However, I’m here to announce that my ranking has recently changed. I still love “Crazy/Beautiful,” but it is no longer my favorite romance movie. That rank now belongs to “No Strings Attached,” the sexy romantic comedy from 2011 starring Ashton Kutcher and future Thor, Natalie Portman. As of this moment, it’s a rank that will be very difficult for any future movie to top.

The premise of “No Strings Attached” and how it became my favorite romance movie is a remarkable story, in and of itself. This is one of those movies I didn’t expect to be so impactful. I ignored it when it initially came out in theaters. The premise sounded generic and it didn’t help that a similar (and inferior) movie called “Friends With Benefits” came out at the same time.

This is even less romantic than it looks.

It’s a common romance trope. Two people decide to eschew traditional dating methods and just stick to sex. They don’t want anything serious. They just want steady, enjoyable sex, minus the complications that relationships bring. It starts off fun and sexy. Then, things get serious when emotion and jealousy enter the picture. Eventually, both characters realize they love each other and that’s the end of that.

It’s not an overly elaborate premise for a love story. I’ve written more than my share of those as an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It can be a great love story when done right. The problem is it’s rarely done right. It’s also painfully predictable. It’s next to impossible to evoke decent drama when the conflicts and resolutions are so obvious. That was what made “Friends With Benefits.”

That was also why it I didn’t bother seeing “No Strings Attached” for years. I thought it seemed too generic. Then, on a whim, I decided to check it out on Hulu. I fully expected to turn it off halfway through once the plot settled into familiar patterns. I freely admit I was dead wrong. I pre-judged this movie and that was a mistake on my part.

By the time the credits rolled, I was smiling from ear-to-ear and shaking my head in disbelief. This movie did something I didn’t expect it to do. I didn’t even think it was possible, given the sheer volume of romance I’ve written and consumed. It struck all the emotional chords it needed to and then some. Most romance movies these days are lucky if they can strike just a few.

To appreciate this, you can’t just look at the movie through its general plot summary. At its core, “No Strings Attached” follows the basic script of two people agreeing to casual sex in lieu of a formal relationship. However, what makes this movie stand out is how it navigates this premise through its two main characters, Emma Kurtzman and Adam Franklin.

Before these two characters ever start having sex, the movie takes time to establish who they are and why they decide to seek such an arrangement. Adam and Emma aren’t just a couple of attractive strangers who cross paths and decide they like casual sex. They’ve actually known each other for years, albeit informally.

The first 10 minutes of the movie are dedicated to showing that they both end up in such a frustrating place in their personal lives. Adam just broke up with his girlfriend, Vanessa. Then, his father, a former TV star, decides to start dating her. Naturally, that leaves him pretty messed up.

Emma’s situation is not much better. Before they reconnect, her father dies and she doesn’t demonstrate the greatest coping skills. Later on, her sister, Katie, is getting married and her coping skills still haven’t improved. Neither she nor Adam are complete wrecks, but they’re trying to navigate difficult personal matters and failing miserably.

These issues have nothing to do with romance, sex, or loneliness. They’re legitimate, relatable issues that real people deal with, even if they’re not as attractive as Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. That makes their problems and their need for comfort feel genuine. It also makes their pursuit of a more casual, less complicated relationship more understandable.

This is where both the story and the romantic chemistry in “No Strings Attached” gains its endearing appeal. It helps that it’s a very sexy appeal, as well, but that’s only ever secondary, at most. As Adam and Emma pursue their new arrangement, we see that it’s not just fun and sexy. It’s genuinely good for them.

Being together in this unique arrangement helps them in many ways. They’re better able to navigate the other issues in their lives. Some of those issues have to do with work. Adam is trying to make it as a writer on a TV show while Emma is trying to further her career as a doctor. Others are on a more personal front with Adam’s dad being a heavy source of drama.

Whatever the issues, the relationship helps Emma and Adam in ways that are subtle, but noticeable. Being together, even if it isn’t romantic, is genuinely good for them. Even when new stresses enter the picture, they help each other get through it. They get to a point where you can’t help but root for them, both as individuals and as a couple.

That journey to something more serious than casual lovers does happen, but it’s chaotic. Considering how predictable stories about casual lovers tend to be, this is one of the most refreshing parts of “No Strings Attached.” It doesn’t happen all at once. There are even some major setbacks along the way. However, there’s a clear and logical progression with Adam and Emma’s romantic journey.

They start out as casual acquaintances.

Then, they start enjoying each other’s company.

Then, they become friends.

Then, they become lovers.

Then, they start to legitimately care about one another.

Then, they start to develop deeper feelings for one another.

Then, they confront those feelings together.

Finally, they fall in love.

Again, it’s not a smooth transition. There are moments in which the extent of their romantic connection is unclear. What Adam and Emma want from one another seems to fluctuate, which makes them feel very human. While it never comes off as entirely one-sided, it never feels like a bland love story in the mold of a fairy tale.

In addition, “No Strings Attached” also avoids the common trap of making sex seem like this huge complication for real romance. In many other love stories of this nature, sex is often framed as this make-or-break act for a couple. Either having sex destroys the romance or it makes the romance inevitable. It gives the impression that you can’t have sex without falling in love.

Beyond reinforcing harmful notions espoused by repressive purity culture, it undercuts the substance of the romance. It implies that it’s contingent on sex in order to blossom. The romance and the sex in “No Strings Attached” is portrayed with more complexity. One never depends on the other, but they do plenty to complement each other.

Ultimately, great sex isn’t the reason Emma and Adam start to fall in love with one another. It acts more as a catalyst. By being together, they’re not just happier and more sexually satisfied. They become better at navigating the various quirks of their respective lives. That’s basically the epitome of a healthy romance.

More than anything else, the end of the movie clearly establishes that these two people want to be together. Their love is not something they can’t avoid or escape. It’s not bound by destiny and ordained by higher forces. Emma and Adam get together because they choose to.

The love they find is not some burden that provokes jealousy or loneliness. They end up together because they want to be together. Their love works because it’s real, sincere, and genuine. This is what makes the final few minutes of the movie the most cathartic I’ve ever experienced in a romance movie. It was those final minutes that sealed “No Strings Attached” as my new favorite romance movie.

There are many other elements of this movie that I could praise for hours on end. I could probably write an entire book on why this movie worked so much better than “Friends With Benefits.” I’ll save that discussion for another time. For now, I encourage anyone out there with a taste for romance to check this movie out. Give it a chance, like I did. Let me know if it had a similar impact.

I don’t doubt more romance movies will come along and challenge “No Strings Attached” for the title of my favorite. I watch more romance movies than most straight men and it may only be a matter of time before another movie comes along that exceeds both this and “Crazy/Beautiful.” I honestly look forward to that day, but “No Strings Attached” sets the bar pretty damn high.

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Polygamy Vs. Consensual Non-Monogamy: Is There A Difference?

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When it came to dissecting the absurdities of language, nobody did it better than George Carlin. Beyond being one of the funniest comedians of all time, Carlin could break down certain concepts in a way that was as insightful as it was hilarious. His brilliant analysis of what he called “soft language” is more relevant now than it was when he was still performing.

Given the rise of outrage culture, I often wish George were still alive today so that he could tear the absurdities down, as only he could. We can only imagine how he would’ve tackled issues like fake news, alternative facts, and toxic masculinity. At the very least, his legacy of attacking soft language lives on.

In his book, “Parental Advisory,” Carlin defined soft language as terminology people use to help them avoid unpleasant truths. It helps fat people feel better about being “morbidly obese.” It helps poor people feel better about being “economically disadvantaged.” It helps drug addicts feel better about being “substances abusers.”

The face of a man who didn’t buy such bullshit.

Whatever the case, no matter how many colorful words people utilize, the underlying theme is the same. There are certain aspects of reality that bother some people, so they decide to re-frame it in a way that feels less serious and more palatable. It’s rarely overt. There’s rarely an official announcement or anything. Most of the time, it’s just a trend that people forget is absurd.

This leads me to the emerging concept of “consensual non-monogamy.” It’s kind of what it sounds like. It’s a form of a non-monogamous relationship in which both partners grant one another permission to seek sexual or romantic entanglements with others. Sometimes it involves certain rules and boundaries that are openly negotiated. The key is that there is consent and understanding at all levels.

This is not a new idea. If it sounds a lot like polyamory, an idea I’ve touched on before, that’s because it is for the most part. It’s a non-monogamous relationship that people pursue for any number of reasons. It’s actually one of humanity’s oldest forms of relationships and some even argue that it’s more natural than monogamy.

I’m not going to argue how natural or unnatural such practices are, but I think this latest manifestation of soft language requires scrutiny. Like every other kind of soft language, these sorts of linguistic quirks don’t evolve randomly. There’s often a method behind the absurdity and while I’m not as brilliant as Carlin, I have a pretty good idea of why it’s happening.

In terms of definitions, there isn’t that much difference between polyamory and consensual non-monogamy. Logistically, though, there are a few complexities that differentiate the two practices. They’re minor, but relevant to the extent that inspired soft language.

While there hasn’t been much research into consensual non-monogamous couples, the little we do have paints a fairly comprehensive narrative. In these relationships, there is a “primary” partner who holds the role of spouse/lover. This is the partner with which they love and seek to share their lives with. They’re the ones whose names are on emergency contact forms, loan applications, and wills.

Beyond the primary partner are all the girlfriends/boyfriends with which the sexy stuff occurs. The extent and motives behind these encounters are communicated and understood with the primary partner. Every couple is different so the boundaries vary. Some couples have to be together when they’re getting sexy with others. Some are okay with it happening more randomly.

If that sounds a lot like polyamory, then congratulations. You’re starting to understand how George Carlin thought. While polyamory has its own dictionary definition, it’s connotations are not the same as consensual non-monogamy. What people think of when they hear the word “polyamory” conjures different mental images than a term like consensual non-monogamy.

Polyamory, for better or for worse, is one of those terms that has a certain level of linguistic baggage. It’s less associated with the free-spirited couples who get their own reality show and more with outdated traditions associated with polygamous marriages. Think “Big Love” rather than “Friends With Benefits.”

Now, I know I’ll upset those in the polyamorous community for just hinting at that association. For that, I apologize. I know most who identify as polyamorous or consensual non-monogamous don’t like being associated with the kinds of practices that are often associated with horrific crimes. That gets to the heart of where this soft language comes from.

Even if the principles are the same, those sexy free-spirited couples have a valid incentive to set themselves apart from polyamory. It doesn’t matter the disturbing practices of extreme religious cults are only a small subset of polyamorous relationships. They’re distressing enough for most reasonable people.

I dare you to find something more creepy.

As a result, a less broad term emerges. Consensual non-monogamy may have a few extra syllables, but it feels more technical and official. It’s harder to apply to the more distressing aspects of polyamory because it emphasizes consent, a concept that has only become more heated in recent years.

You can’t have child marriages or even arranged marriages of any kind under consensual non-monogamy. It would undermine the whole “consensual” part of the term. In that context, it’s understandable that this kind of term would emerge. There’s nothing in the definition of polyamory that weeds out those negative associations. Rather than actually confront it, soft language acts as a filter.

Given the frequency with which the negative aspects of polygamy still occur, it’s hard to blame those who practice consensual non-monogamy for wanting to set themselves apart. As those relationships become increasingly acceptable, there will be an increasing desire to frame it in a particular way and “consensual non-monogamy” checks all the right boxes.

It emphasizes consent.

It implies choice and personal freedom.

It’s technical, but doesn’t completely undercut the sex appeal.

Even if the definitions aren’t that different, consensual non-monogamy still does just enough to set itself apart from polyamory. In terms of soft language, it adds some critical, but necessary complications to something that is still subject to plenty of taboos. In a perfect world, such a differentiation wouldn’t be necessary. Sadly, that’s not the kind of world we live in.

Sadly, indeed.

I like to think even Carlin would understand that some amount of soft language is necessary. Whether you call it consensual non-monogamy or polyamory, how we think about these ideas are going to affect our attitudes towards it. If consensual non-monogamous couples don’t want to be associated with crackpot religious cults, then they have every right to set themselves apart.

That said, it’s also entirely possible that more soft language will emerge as consensual non-monogamy becomes more mainstream. Love, sex, and relationships are complicated and human beings are uniquely talented at complicating things. Years from now, we may not call it consensual non-monogamy. We may use something along the lines of “mutually non-binding romantic intimacy relationship agreements.”

At that point, hopefully someone will have picked up on the absurdities. George Carlin may no longer be with us, but that doesn’t mean we should tolerate more bullshit in a world that already has too much of it.

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Daily Sexy Musing: Friends And Benefits

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I’ve always found the concept of friends with benefits to be a complicated way of confronting a simple situation. People get horny. Not everyone has romantic chemistry, but they still have sexual chemistry. Even as a romance fan, I don’t deny that. For some, it is possible to want to have sex with someone, but not be in love with them.

Sex and intimacy are basic human needs. I feel like friends with benefits is a byproduct of a modern world where people are free to be individuals, but aren’t always equipped to navigate the emotional landscape around them. Our culture places a high value on true love and monogamy, but is less inclined these to get in the way of people pursuing other sexual arrangements.

In some cases, it triggers a moral panic that terrifies parents and frustrates teachers. In others, it inspires a couple of sub-par romantic movies. This erratic approach to the concept of friends with benefits makes it difficult to explore. It can ruin friendships forever or blossom into a romance that lasts a lifetime. The outcome varies wildly from couple to couple.

Erratic or not, there’s still a unique sex appeal that emerges through friends with benefits. Even if you subtract the romance, it still has more depth than a one-night stand or a drunken hook-up. I believe that depth can have greater meaning beyond the sex itself. This Daily Sexy Musing is my way of delving into that meaning. Enjoy!

You are my friend.

You are my lover.

You aren’t my soul mate.

You aren’t my true love.

Even so, I come to you when I need an intimate embrace. You are there for me, just as I am there for you. There’s no elaborate display or romantic gesture. There’s just two people, coming together and seeking relief. It’s a beautiful thing, but only to a point. There is purpose, but with limited potential.

There’s a time for friends and there’s a time for love. With us, we can only have one, but not the other. A friend will listen and console you. There is love, but not the kind that fosters romance. To be with someone is not the same as just being around them. I can’t be with you, but I can be there for you.

Being there means giving a part of ourselves.

Being there means offering comfort.

Being there means being close without being in love.

It’s in those moments when a friend can offer more without being a lover. They can touch you, hold you, and caress you until that primal need is filled. It’s so simple and basic, intimate touch coupled with a sweet release. It gives us moments of bliss mixed with moments of contentment. We may not have love, but we still have each other.

For now, that’s all we need. It’s the most we can offer. It doesn’t fulfill every desire, but it’s enough to keep our hearts intact. We can still find love, even if it’s not with each other. That time will come. We’ll both be ready for it. Until then, this will do.

We are still friends.

We are still lovers.

We cherish the benefits.

We cherish each other.

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