3 min

Using people for fun & profit

A Toronto Star relationship columnist recently accused a guy who was screwing a woman he didn’t love of “using” her. The couple had been sleeping together for two years. The relationship was designated as “friends with benefits.” The woman knew the score. Indeed, they’d called it off, but she (emphasis on the she) wanted to resume the relationship. Yet he was apparently “using” her.

How does that work? How exactly do you “use” somebody who has walked into a sexual relationship with their eyes wide open?

Of all the phrases that have bugged me over the years one of the most annoying has to be, “He’s just using you.”

People use each other all the time and nobody thinks anything of it. People use each other for company, companionship, shelter, money and work. When you network, you’re using somebody for their business contacts. When you talk to somebody because there’s nobody else in the bar and you don’t want to be alone, you’re using them for company.

But take advantage of a reciprocal interest in sex and suddenly you’re using somebody in a way that seems to draw opprobrium from all sides. You’re a sexual predator using someone for your own selfish advantage.

This moralistic view of a commonplace human activity dates from a bygone time when straight men ruled the world and women were at their disposal. Not so long ago, indeed, it was possible, nay probable, that somebody would get used. Men had the power and women weren’t free to say either “yes” or “no.”

But that time has largely passed and these days the worst that can be said about most relationships is that they’re painful. Power inequities still abound and sometimes they take the time-honoured form of money, age or class. But mostly the inequities are emotional, a case of misaligned expectations. One person wants more from the relationship than the other person is prepared to give. One person wants casual and the other wants committed.

Casual relationships are particularly difficult to manage because as far as I can see they don’t exist. It’s always more casual for one person than the other. But, hey, if you want to risk it you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. As the old saying goes, we never promised you a rose garden.

All you can reasonably ask of people is that they be honest with you and even that’s asking too much. People often don’t know what they feel and their feelings tend to change. The would-be monogamist sometimes turns into a promiscuous slut. The person who wanted a casual fling finds himself more involved than he expected.

Often the people who think themselves most immune to romantic involvement are also the ones most vulnerable to its ending. They’re more involved than they think and they end up getting hurt. But that’s another story.

People get hurt all the time in sexual relationships. It’s the nature of the beast. No news there. The bigger problem is our unrealistic view of relationships. We want to idealize what is often a fairly pragmatic process.

The word “use” implies that one person is getting more out of it than the other. But when isn’t that the case? No two people are ever having exactly the same experience, or exactly the same amount of fun. Sometimes one person needs to talk and the other person doesn’t want to listen but they go through the charade anyway, with one person using and the other supplying until the dynamic reverses itself. It’s abuse of a kind, if you will, but it’s also just part of the game.

Everyone uses somebody sometime. You use some people for jobs and others for company and still others for sex. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to use one person for both company and sex. That’s called love.

Yet we continue to think of relationships in particularly starry-eyed terms. We expect them to be balanced, equitable and fair to all parties, with no one person doing too much of the grunt work. The straight comedian Greg Behrendt echoed this view in a recent Globe and Mail interview when he said his partner was not responsible for his everyday happiness. A partner, he said, should be a “bonus” not a “crutch.”

But everyone’s a crutch at some point in their lives. We all have our down times and then we “use” other people. Sometime we even use them for sex. That doesn’t mean you’re not loving, considerate or caring. Just that you’re getting something out of the deal. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be hanging around.