Friends First

The Friend Zone. What an expression. Why are we always so reluctant to put someone there – or to find ourselves there – with a person we like?

What if your first sexual experience is with a friend? You’re attracted to each other, you have fun together, you respect each other – but you have no pretense of the relationship becoming something more. It’s missing that elusive “je ne sais quoi” in storybook romances, that indefinable something that ignites in the first 30 seconds of acquaintance, or over the first 30 days as you get to know each other.

And yet you laugh, you talk, you’re ripe for intimate exploration – physically and more importantly, emotionally. What if you find yourself in the land of friends with benefits, before the expression was even invented?


They were dropping like flies – virgins giving it up in a cold rec room or the back of a Mustang, helped along by a joint or a Schlitz or the last push of peer pressure. The height of luxury was losing it on shag carpeting in a Chevy van, with speakers blaring Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. Maybe it’s Donna Summer belting out Bad Girls.

Welcome to the 1970s – a few years past the rise and demise of flower power, but not quite the official debut of the sexual revolution. And no, not everyone fumbles in the back of a vehicle on the sneak. My first forays into the Land of Love took a very different path, and I couldn’t be more glad they did – with a little planning, at an older age than most of my cohorts in crime, and with a friend.


France was my Great Escape before I ever boarded a plane and stepped into freedom. I loved the language as I was learning it even in elementary school, and dreams of travel took hold – and never let go. I knew what it was to work hard, set my sights on a goal, and pursue it relentlessly. It took me five years of saving quarters and dollar bills from babysitting, but eventually I afforded myself a summer living in France.

My first kiss took place on a sultry August night along the Riviera. I can still see his face and I remember his name. I was 15.

But all amorous activities stopped right there. As heady a setting (and opportunity) as might have presented itself, I knew how to say “non merci,” and it was respected, as well it should be.

I returned to high school a little less geeky, but still aware I wasn’t ready for sex even if some of “those girls” were. By college? I was more inclined to consider the plunge, but the few occasions that presented themselves still didn’t feel quite right. I had a fairly well developed inner voice that I listened to, at least most of the time. And while I hadn’t intended to be the last virgin standing, by the end of sophomore year in college, it appeared I just might take that prize. I didn’t need love, but I wanted an experience that was memorable, “good,” special and safe. I wanted more than “getting it over with.”

The dilemma: Virginity had gone from requirement if I was to marry (according to my mother) to circumstantial fact of life (I didn’t date much) to a label that had become a burden, a proof statement that I wasn’t attractive enough. Yet I didn’t want the back seat quickie, the drunken fiasco, or the awkwardness of a one-night stand and waking to a stranger in the morning.


One of my college friends described her first experience to me. It sparked serious envy – and amazement. Her parents took her to a physician for contraception at age 16, and she did the deed with her high school boyfriend when she was ready, at 17. She owned her body and her choices even at that age, responsibly. She made love for the first time in her own bed in her own home, with a right to privacy that was inviolable. Her blossoming sexuality was treated as natural.

Flash forward through 24 months of academic life, including a year of study in Paris, as I returned to the States with a growing sense of self and a certain amount of skill in flirtation.

Enter one Parisian, 30 years old, encountered at a B-school party. He was smart as a whip, charming (as we might expect), and he had no need to nail everything in a skirt. I used to laugh that he reminded me of Jimmy Connors because of the bowl cut of his sandy hair. Over the months that followed we became friends. We genuinely liked one another, and it’s with him that I planned and enjoyed my “first.”

What I remember of that special evening is this: he cooked me dinner, he played music on the stereo, he kissed me tenderly, we spoke only French – sexy to my 21-year-old self, just as it is today. He knew exactly what he was doing, he took his time which allowed me mine, and the discomfort I felt was brief. I headed back to school the next morning with an overwhelming sense of lightness.

Over several months, the man I had put in the Friend Zone became my “friend with benefits.” He was solicitous, funny, and playful in bed. He introduced me to a variety of mutual pleasures, which we often savored along with conversation and food. Afterward, my Jimmy Connors look-alike would serenade me on his guitar.


Were patterns established by that first sexual relationship?

It’s only now that I realize: for a decade I was drawn to men who were five or more years older than myself, generally because there were fewer head games and I could be myself; I enjoy mixing my pleasures – food, wordplay, and sensuality all go hand in hand; the most significant romantic (thus sexual) relationships I’ve known have been with French men.

Critical to the equation, always – a partner with brains, humor, and with whom there is friendship. Passion? There was plenty of fire with my first lover, but passion is sparked by the cerebral, and I also came to understand that trust is an emotional “minimum” in my book, if what you’re seeking is a connective experience.

I consider my first to have been lovely. We parted ways easily when he moved on and I moved on. And throughout my twenties I learned the distinctions between falling in love (and making love), and mutually enjoyable sex. Oh, it’s not like I didn’t make mistakes as the 70s rolled into the 80s and then the 90s, a period during which I was married and having babies. I made my share of misjudgments when it came to choosing, or being chosen; staying too long in a relationship that wasn’t sexually satisfying – or worse, emotionally nourishing; periods when esteem was low and I shut down my social life altogether, pouring energies into my work instead or, after divorce, into my children. I had my heart broken more than a few times, and some of those cracks remain irreparable.

As for my first after the end of my marriage, I waited several years. And when I said “yes” it was good. Very good.

My realization is this: By orchestrating my own first, by exploring such potentially vulnerable territory with a man I considered a friend, by taking my time because time is what I needed, I was true to myself. When I listen to my inner voice, I rarely regret it.

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