Margo Howard Sounds Off

Our beloved columnist clarifies her position on a charged topic: “friends with benefits”

To my wOw readers:

I gotta tell you, I haven’t created such a commotion with an answer to a letter since I wrote about handicapped toilets back in my “Dear Prudence” days. Many people suggested I accept ten lashes with a wet noodle … but, alas, my mother took the noodle with her.

The letter in question, of course, was from “John in Essex.” My English correspondent wrote this:

Dear Margo: I often see references in your column (and elsewhere) to “friends with benefits.” Where can I find a woman like this? It sounds wonderful. I can have sex and do nothing for her in return. When did this “friends with benefits” start? When I was a young man, we used to call those women sluts. So today we rename the sluts, and they fall for it. I wish I were 30 years younger. I could use a friend with benefits. — John from Essex

I answered:

Dear John: Thanks for the laugh. Your sly take on this subject is most likely shared by everyone who is middle-aged. My guess is that this new casual approach to what used to be something meaningful is post-sexual revolution, if not post-post-sexual revolution. Somehow the kids went off the rails and decided sex was just something to do … you know, like a video game or playing darts.

The women you call “sluts” I would call “loose,” and they have been around forever. That behavior, however, was not sanctioned, as it is now; there was usually a reputational price to pay, if not a venereal disease. (Those are still possible, by the way!) Around the 1780s, Count Talleyrand observed: “In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily.” So you see, dear, the activity has remained the same; only the name has changed.

* * *

I now believe hell must have previously been anchored to who-knows-what, because it sure broke loose when I heard from countless numbers of women. The complaints were that I didn’t believe in sexual parity, I was endorsing a double standard, there really was no such things as “sluts,” I should have told John HE was a slut, and furthermore, I should retire. I was also taken to task for using the phrase “venereal disease” rather than STD. (I think physicians would disagree with this person.) Oh, and more than one person wrote that my having been married four times suggested I must have had “a colorful past” of my own. I acknowledge the colorful past, but I can tell you it never involved anyone I was not, well … involved with, and certainly not with anyone who phoned up and said “How about it?”

One writer said:

“This generation thinks that women can have fun if they should choose to this way and they have more to offer as a partner than their sisters who value virginity/purity/chastity. Instead of chastising us for that, celebrate it, or crack down on male sluts as well.”

I clearly didn’t craft my answer carefully enough, because I was somewhere between laughing and playing along. I mean, here is this guy saying Friends-With-Benefits is terrible … and he wishes he could find some of these women. By me, this is humorous. It was in no way reflective of me thinking that women are not free to do whatever they wish in the sex department. I have always believed that one can be busy, sexually, without being a slut. (Which, by the way, is a valid term if a woman’s #1 identifier is that she will sleep with anyone.)

The one thing I am not veering away from is that FWB can be totally without meaning, which I think is a shame. I do, in fact, believe that sex is recreation – for people who have a relationship. If people wish to engage in this pastime with casual friends, fine with me. I just think it takes away from any intimacy aspects of sex. And perhaps the word “slut” has become so expanded as to not mean to me what it means to others. I, for example, refer to myself as “a private plane slut.” I admit that I think FWB is an odd concept for, say, women over 45. I could be wrong. And I certainly wasn’t chastising anyone who chooses to live her life this way. I do not believe in a double standard. I do believe that women who are getting it on with anybody and everybody is the female equivalent of a womanizer. As I have said on Twitter, I wish there were a font for irony or sarcasm. For the readers who thought I was bashing women, I hope I have cleared up what my thinking actually is.

86 Responses so far.

  1. avatar secretagent412 says:

    You admit in your response that [slut] “…is a valid term if a woman’s #1 identifier is that she will sleep with anyone.” So if a woman’s personal sexual conduct doesn’t fall in line with what *you* deem to be acceptable, that woman deserves to be called names? Did you really feel that that lovely little “clarification” would placate other women?

    “Slut” is a pejorative primarily directed at women, that is used often regardless of actual sexual activity to shame, dehumanize and diminish a woman. It is a tool that people (often men) use to keep women “in their place” and fear of that word keeps many a woman from embracing, let alone acting, on her sexuality.

    Equating the term “womanizer” with “slut” is just disingenuous. You know very well that “womanizer” is not anywhere near as caustic an insult. Until and unless a woman’s sexuality is as embraced and celebrated as is a man’s, using that term is just perpetuating that tired old double standard, and doing the women of the world (and your readers, who respect you) a terrible disservice.

    And when people referenced your multiple marriages, they were pointing out that it wasn’t long ago that women like you were scorned and looked down upon by polite society. Keep using that term to color other women red, and you might notice some think you’re a bit pink, yourself.

    • avatar olivepoetry says:

      I don’t have a problem with the word “slut.” It can be applied to men too. I know many more male sluts than female ones. I think that focusing on semantics is a waste of time. Margo didn’t use the word slut first, she was responding to someone else who was using it, someone I might add who seems to be a wannabe male “slut.” Lighten up.

  2. avatar secretagent412 says:

    Yeah, and lots of people didn’t think “colored” was offensive for a long time, either. It was, and “slut” is, and nationally respected columnists bandying around terms that damage people is not something I want to lighten up about.

    • avatar olivepoetry says:

      the word “slut” has been around since the 14th century, a bit longer than “colored”. In the late 1400s, Chaucer used “sluttish” to refer to an ill-kempt man. It is not a word reserved for women. If Margo had used the “n” word I would be offended (I am offended when anyone uses the “n” word. The “s” word, not so much). I just think people give more power to negative language than they need to, especially when they react to pejorative language. 

      One of the beautiful things about the US is the lack of language police.   We are not the French, we don’t have government departments that work to keep the language pure. 

      I love books. I am a huge book slut. 

  3. avatar beatrix_pierre says:

    Geez, people. Everyone can huff and puff over double standards but the reality is FWB actually lets the men get away with no strings attached sex while the women gets the short end of the deal.

    For the rare woman who enjoys having only sex and no other relationship/commitment with the FWB, she is probably looked upon as a woman of power and wealth not as a slut or any other derogatory term.  

    For the men it’s a win win situation. No need to remember special days or worry about fathering a child or being committed. Having a reputation as a womanizer doesn’t stop the women flocking and hoping to be bedded.

    • avatar Raugiel Reddel says:

      Why would a woman have to be powerful or wealthy to desire some no strings attached sex? Is FWB only “OK” for rich people? Otherwise, how would having an FWB relationship make you appear wealthy or powerful?

      Also, as someone who has done FWB a few of times, I ended them all because the MEN demanded too much dang attention. Their professed lack of emotional commitment is often only that – professed.

      • avatar beatrix_pierre says:

        I don’t personally know any rich and powerful women having a sex only relationship. FWB is probably “okay” for sexually active people in their 20’s who can enjoy sex with someone they like in bed but don’t enjoy other activities with.  Just saying that perception is a wealthy woman who has a stud or two to service her needs probably isn’t seen as a slut in her circle while a financially less off woman who is in a similar relationship is viewed as a slut.

        Good for you, you enjoyed FWB with men who wanted to be more than FWB!

        • avatar Raugiel Reddel says:

          I think that any relationship where two people agree on the ground rules (truly and without coercion) should be “OK” regardless of other factors.

          Perhaps some of the reason people seem to be so hot-button about FWB, particular those that are insistent that it “never” works out, is because it seems many people lie about their desire to actually have a FWB relationship when what they really want is something else. Agreeing to a relationship type that you don’t really want will never make you happy, no mater what that relationship type is.

  4. avatar Lisa Cornell says:

    Personally, I always thought FWB applied equally to both males and females as did “sluttish” behavior. In fact, I thought that this was something women felt was the great equalizer. For the record, having had a colorful past and now happily ensconced in middle-age and a monogamous marriage, I see this lifestyle choice as doomed to failure. It offers little or no intimacy and if one can judge from the comments here and in the original post, it leaves its adherents or supporters angry and defensive. The fact is, women and men have been duped into believing they can have it all. The fact is, none of us can have it all. Those who wish to embrace a lifestyle that does not respect boundaries of taste and behavior, should understand there will be consequences for their behavior, which includes a lack of acceptance. For those who think it is empowering, I say good luck with that. I firmly believe they will wake up one day and regret it. That said, life is full of regrets. I guess from my standpoint, I just never understood the concept of how dressing like a slut or behaving like one, empowered women. To me, dressing with little to no clothes on is the most most degrading form of enslavement.
    By the way, I ran this by my husband and he is intrigued. I discussed with him that since he is my BFF, I suppose we could be F Buddies who are FWBS. He wants me to make him a booty call. I told him that he couldn’t call me for a while afterward and he asked if it was against the rules for him to come home after work. I told him, we could make an exception.

  5. avatar Obediah Fults says:

    Let my friend, Margo, alone…you big, bad meanies!

  6. avatar gracem says:

    I was hoping for an apology, when one came, it wasn’t much of an apology. I was kidding, I didn’t mean it that way, and some women really are sluts are not statements of someone who is sorry for what they said. 

    They are the kind of statements made by people who have been called on offensive speech but really do not respect the group they offended.

    I am quite surprised that a website for women would endorse this kind of thinking. Words do matter. You can call it semantics all you want but the words used to describe oppressed groups have power and they matter.

    Do those of you who think the word slut is an acceptable word also think if a “slut” gets raped she is at least partly to blame for the way she acted or dressed? Does her reputaion count against her?

    How very disappointing that this website has chosen to allow women to be degraded and disguised it as everyone being entitled to their opinion.


    • avatar JustChillPeeps says:

      I agree! I’m not sure which is more egregious Margo original reply or her um…clarification (’cause it sure wasn’t anything close to an apology). If someone wouldn’t be unhappy in a FWB relationship because they feel it “…. it takes away from any intimacy aspects of sex.” Fine, that is your business BUT you don’t get to call a woman a slut or loose because she makes a different choice than you. And that’s why many people are upset with both Margo’s original response and her um….clarification.

      And Wow…you might want to make a statement yourselves, something this distasteful from one of your featured writers is NOT good for a site dedicated to women.

    • avatar Lisa Cornell says:

      Wow, I never realized I was a member of an oppressed group. The problem with women who believe all women are members of a disenfranchised group, is that they see women who disagree with them as traitors or victims. I am a firm believer that women who think that they should be able to dress as sluts, behave outrageously and do and say as they please, must be willing to accept the consequences. Ditto for men. However, by and large you don’t see men parade about with their sex organs on display. How does dressing with little or no clothing on, empower women, please tell me. I really do think that parading one’s physical attributes reduces us to shallow sex objects. How can we blame anyone for objectifying us when we reserve the right to put the girls and our asses out there for public consumption. Those who choose to make their living by using their rumps rather than their wits, ought to understand they are making women in general and themselves in particular, look foolish.

      Finally, when I read the writer’s letter, I thought he was being funny. When did we lose our sense of humor. Some of the posters here not only have no sense of humor, but they come across as mean and nasty. They talk about misogyny, but what I hear is misandry. Let’s agree there shouldn’t be double standards and realize we need to start by respecting ourselves and each other regardless of gender.

      BTW, I agree with Margo and love her advice. I had wondered where her mother’s wet noodle went. Thanks for sharing.

      • avatar Lila says:

        Lisa Cornell, WELL SAID.

      • avatar Raugiel Reddel says:

        Do you live in the USA? From where I sit, it is expected and encouraged for women to dress provocatively, and par for the course for young men to do the same these days. Have you seen the “Situation” clothing line?

        Also, if you think making an average of 70% of what a man does for the same job, being expected to do 70% of the housework and 80% of the child rearing – but also expected to call that equal partnership – is giving women 100% equal status to men (therefor not an oppressed group), then perhaps they will never have to treat us like equals. Enjoy the gilded cage!

        • avatar Lila says:

          “…it is expected and encouraged for women to dress provocatively…” YES, big problem: sexualization of females from an early age, teaching both boys and girls that the only value a female has is looking great and putting out (run a search on “sexualization of girls” and see all the reports and studies about the harm). So, defy expectations: DON’T dress like that, DON’T buy into it, teach our daughters the same, and explain why. Clothing choices do send a message.

        • avatar Lila says:

          Statistics: Women will NEVER be 100% equal to men because women are the ones who get pregnant. See “There Is No Male-Female Wage Gap,” Wall Street Journal, 12 Apr 2011, by Carrie Lukas. When males and females were equally compared – a pool in which ALL were young, single, childless, and urban – women’s pay actually came out ahead of men’s. Pregnancy and childrearing derail all that, married or not. Fair? No. Fact? Yes. There are only 24 hours in a day, and every hour spent at work is one not spent with the kids, and vice versa.

          Men also only get 24 hours a day, and even if they are the best Dads ever, they will NEVER have to spend one second of their time pregnant, in childbirth, recovering, having complications… we don’t have to, either, but the price is foregoing a family. Not an equal choice.

          • avatar Sadie BB says:

            Lila – sounds like a good argument for better social supports for working parents. Rather than just passively accepting the status quo.
            Don’t know that much can be done about the pregnancy part but most women I know seem to be off about 4 months per child – it’s the child rearing that really cuts into ones time.

          • avatar Lila says:

            Sadie, it IS the child-rearing that really cuts into one’s time, and somehow it IS still disproportionately the women who bear that burden. Single fathers (like mine) also see their careers suffer, due to all the same distractions that single moms deal with…. but with married couples, where you would think things could be split more equally, it seems that they just… aren’t. And I wonder why that is. Is Mom’s career automatically assumed to be the “lesser” of the two because of her 3 or 4 month maternity leaves for each child?

            As for better social supports for working parents – businesses might talk a good game, but such support is expensive so they would really rather not pay for employee absences… including illnesses or family emergencies, much less maternity. Govt-funded programs – well, need I say more? Not much there either.

          • avatar Sadie BB says:

            Lila – From what I have observed mom’s career is considered lesser because it is lesser. Lesser paid.

            And yes, I am advocating for government support for parents. Right now we have created a situation where intelligent women think twice about having kids and the half the time don’t have them at all. Wonder how that’s going to work out for the next generation.

        • avatar Sadie BB says:

          Go Raugiel!!

      • avatar beatrix_pierre says:

        Go Lisa!

  7. avatar B.eadle says:

    UGH! There was a second letter on the day that this one ran. A letter from a person with an actual question who was seeking actual help. I don’t recall seeing a lot of responses for that poor woman. Maybe some of you who are all up in arms over this idiot from Essex could get off your soapboxes long enough to offer assistance to the other letter writer.

    If you think less of Margo for her response than so be it. Her life will go on. Consider yourself educated on her stance, as she is on yours. John from Essex is laughing his butt off at all the uproar he caused with his stupid letter. Can we just let him go back under his rock?

  8. avatar normadesmond says:

    i’d scrolled down and read some of the
    responses to the initial post and quickly scurried away. all those flailing talons…

  9. avatar LandofLove says:

    “The one thing I am not veering away from is that FWB can be totally without meaning, which I think is a shame. I do, in fact, believe that sex is recreation – for people who have a relationship. If people wish to engage in this pastime with casual friends, fine with me. I just think it takes away from any intimacy aspects of sex.”

    I share your opinion on that, Margo.   

  10. avatar BeanCounter says:

    Everyone is a martyr.   Clarification:  Everyone LOVES being a martyr.   Everyone loves being “offended”.   Everyone loves being involved in everyone else’s sex lives. 

    My take on this?  This guys nonsensical letter and Margo’s tongue-in-cheek response is lovely and entertaining.   It has no impact on my life and how I refer to other people as sluts or not.   You judgmental people are crazy.  

  11. avatar Nousatsu says:

    Letter #1 has obviously elicited many responses and I couldn’t help but share my own:
    First, to the commenters citing religious reasons as why “FWB” or whatever derivation you would like to use is wrong, I must ask – do you follow ALL teachings of the Bible? If not, you are not a “Christian with VERY strong spiritual beliefs”. If you claim to be Christian, then you should not pick and choose which parts of the Bible you believe and follow. If you truly believe you are Christian, then what God has said is his Word. Any derivation is that of forbidden. You are putting yourself above God and saying that what he has put forth is wrong. As to the female commenters, the Bible says a Christian woman should not even be commenting on this site in response to a man’s letter – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12). Not to pick on Belinda Joy, but if your avatar is a picture of yourself, you look to me as if you are a black woman. If you are, the Bible also condones slavery. “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18). Women are also to submit to their husbands – “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22). Women have been seen as the lesser sex for eons and this letter, even if in jest, only perpetuates this inadequacy. I could continue to point out countless other passages from the Bible that are equally ridiculous and insidious, but I don’t feel I need to belabor the point. I was raised Christian, with a minister as a grandfather. I have read the Bible (many times in fact), but I have also read many other religious doctrines. Human sexuality and religious doctrines should have nothing to do with one another. After all…there is a reason the Bible (and others) are kept in the fiction section of the library….
    Second, I can’t help but continue to applaud all of those who are asking – if a woman is a “slut” for sleeping around, then what is the man that is sleeping with her? “It takes two to tango”, after all. Female, male, what does it matter what they do in their bedrooms behind closed doors? I have never understood why anyone else cares what other people are doing on their own, consensual time. It does not affect you in any way, shape or form. Nor do I understand why women get the “joy” of be labeled as a “slut” or the like simply because they enjoy physical pleasure. There is a reason why women are able to reach an orgasm that is separate and independent from procreation. So we are supposed to deprive ourselves from natural, physically pleasure simply because we are not legally bound to another person of the opposite sex? Balderdash! We only have a finite amount of time on this earth in this shell, so why are we to not engage in a consensual activity that hurts no one, but brings joy to ourselves and our sexual partner? And yes, this does sound like the same argument for gay marriage, but no I am not gay. I am well adjusted, educated, loving, caring wife, mother, sister, friend, etc. that is very sexual and derives great pleasure from sex. I have had many lovers and am not apologetic for that fact. Nor should I be. Nor should any man who also has consensual sex with whomever he chooses.
    I’ll close with another quote: “You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel”

    • avatar S Hughes says:

      I think it was Americans who invented black=slave.

      • avatar Briana Baran says:

        In Spain, Italy and Portugal, people with very dark skin (Sub-Saharan Africans, as distinguished from Semitic or Arabic people, or those with Indian or Mediterranean input) were referred to, in a non-pejorative sense, by words meaning “black”, or “as black”. Many pure tribal people do, in fact, have such dark skin as to appear black, or nearly so. This was not prejudicial originally. “Negro” is the Spanish word for “black”.

        You should really look into all the terms for Black people (still the term ALL of my friends and acquaintances use, and my husband’s co-workers, and my son’s fellow students) that were in use in New Orleans that were completely non-pejorative in the 1800’s. “Darkie”, “n****r”, “nigra”…those were insults, as were many others. “Black” became really pop