Blurring The Lines Between Sex and Friendship : Invisibilia A lot of us think that it's a bad idea to get physical with friends. We worry it'll get messy, maybe even ruin the friendship. But if physical intimacy between friends weren't so taboo, what could our friendships look like? In this episode, we explore the gray zone of sex and friendship, following a man who deliberately kept his friendships with women hazy and now wants to apologize, and a pair of BFFs who became close through sex.

Friends with Benefits

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YOWEI SHAW, HOST:

Two quick notes before the show - thank you for sending all your friendship story ideas and questions for this season. You gave us a lot to chew on. And I really feel like this season is a collaboration with everybody who wrote in. And one topic we got a lot of questions about was how to make friends as an adult.

So we're teaming up with author and connection coach, Kat Vellos, for a virtual event on Thursday, November 18, 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time. It's going to be fast-paced and interactive, kind of like platonic speed-dating. Hopefully, you'll walk away with some tools for sustaining and cultivating new connections. Tickets are on sale today and are probably going to sell out fast. So if you're interested, head to nprpresents.org to register for the Here to Make Friends event and get more information.

Also, a heads-up that today's episode includes strong language and descriptions of sexual activity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KIA MIAKKA NATISSE, HOST:

From NPR, this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Kia Miakka Natisse.

SHAW: And I'm Yowei Shaw.

NATISSE: So we're going to start today with a song I love about a friendship dilemma that is really at the heart of what this episode is all about.

SHAW: OK.

NATISSE: It's by this artist named Moses Sumney. The song is called "In Bloom," and it's about this really beautiful and awkward tension that can show up in a friendship. So I'm going to play you my favorite part.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN BLOOM")

MOSES SUMNEY: (Singing) 'Cause when we're close in the car or in the store or in a bar, sometimes I want to kiss my friends.

SHAW: So pretty.

NATISSE: I know. And he says sometimes I want to kiss my friends. But then you hear that there's this, like, tonal shift in the music. And he sort of backpedals on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN BLOOM")

SUMNEY: (Singing) You don't want that, do you? You just want someone to listen to you who ain't trying to screw you. Ooh, yeah.

NATISSE: So he says you just want someone to listen to you who ain't trying to screw you.

SHAW: Yeah. I mean, it feels like there's some universal law of friend dynamic - once physical intimacy is involved, somebody is going to get hurt. And it's, like, hard to stay friends...

NATISSE: Exactly.

SHAW: ...Because usually, somebody likes somebody more than the other person.

NATISSE: Yeah. I get why people wouldn't want to risk it. I mean, whenever you introduce physical intimacy to any relationship, but especially a friendship, it can feel like things are going to change and maybe in a way that you don't want it to.

Some people know how to do friends with benefits and make it work. But for a lot of people, it's hard. You know, there's this fear that the relationship is going to change, and we might feel pressure to get on this thing called the relationship escalator.

SHAW: What's that?

NATISSE: So for a second, let's just imagine an escalator.

SHAW: OK.

ANNOUNCER #1: Don't pass by other customers on the escalator.

NATISSE: It's a metal staircase.

SHAW: OK.

NATISSE: It moves in one direction.

ANNOUNCER #1: Allow only one person per step.

SHAW: There's only room for, like, two people generally. You know, if you want to get off, you can't get off in the middle. Like, you're just going and going and going.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: So think about that - that force of the escalator - and apply that to relationships. You start dating someone, and your lives become increasingly intertwined, become sexually and emotionally intimate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNOUNCER #2: Watch your step as you exit.

NATISSE: All of a sudden, you have no choice but to ride to the top. You commit to one another. You choose monogamy. You get married and have a kid. And ideally, if it's a so-called successful escalator ride, you'll do it till death do you part.

SHAW: It's funny that, like, the place where you go is - you die.

NATISSE: I know. I know. It's not my rule. This idea of the relationship escalator is popular in the polyamory community to try to name and critique this very popular social script around romantic relationships.

SHAW: I know. That script, like, if I'm being honest, has absolutely shaped my life.

NATISSE: Yeah.

SHAW: I'm sure I've given stupid advice to, like, my friends before.

NATISSE: Yeah, exactly. It's like even if you could see the idea is outdated, it's so powerful that it can make any physical interaction between friends feel high stakes.

SHAW: Oh, my gosh - totally.

(SOUDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNOUNCER #2: Watch your step as you exit.

NATISSE: But what if you want to cross the line with a friend and not get on the relationship escalator? Like, what else could be possible? But also, how do you avoid people getting hurt?

Today, I have two stories. We're just going to sit and marinate in the gray zone of friendship and sexuality - one from a guy who hooked up with some friends and thinks he owes them some apologies, and another from two best friends who have been having sex for years with no regrets.

SHAW: That's spicy.

NATISSE: (Laughter).

SHAW: OK. Kia, take it away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNOUNCER #2: Watch your step as you exit.

NATISSE: A lot of people want to ride the relationship escalator but, when they try, find it's a struggle. That's what it was like for one of our listeners who wrote to us, Kurt Foriska. When he looked at the women around him, he saw potential.

KURT FORISKA: I thought of them as really good friends that could blossom into something more.

NATISSE: When Kurt was younger, he kept trying to get on the relationship escalator with different female friends again and again, kind of living up to his childhood nickname, Kurt the Flirt. And he had a strategy.

FORISKA: Friends first, and then more one-on-one time and exclusive one-on-one time, and even indications of affection - so holding hands, cuddling, those types of things.

NATISSE: Kurt made a list of all the friends this happened with. He counted 11 women. With some, it was just a casual physical thing.

FORISKA: Every now and then, we would hook up - not past second base.

NATISSE: But with the others, it seemed more serious - living together, appearing as if they were a couple.

FORISKA: So we'd go on couples' trips. We would share rooms if there was a sharing-room situation.

NATISSE: They could even be playful about it.

FORISKA: And we even joined a gym together under a couple's relationship (laughter).

NATISSE: But somehow, he kept getting stuck at the same level.

FORISKA: And I really struggled with it. And in my head, it was, well, maybe you're not attracted to her in that way.

NATISSE: Kurt felt like he failed at the relationship escalator multiple times. But then, by the time he was in his mid-30s, he came to the conclusion...

FORISKA: It's because I was gay.

NATISSE: It took Kurt a long time to acknowledge this. He came of age in the early 2000s, when gay marriage hadn't been legalized yet and just watching two gay characters kiss on TV was considered major progress. So even when Kurt suspected he was gay, he kept getting on the escalator with women to hide his sexuality from himself and from others. But eventually, he came out. And now, when he talks to other gay men about those failed escalator attempts with women, it's almost funny.

FORISKA: I've been in multiple conversations where it's like, how far have you gone with a woman? And you know, we sort of laugh about it or tease each other about who's gone the furthest, who hasn't.

NATISSE: How does one measure? And, like, what's a good or bad measurement?

FORISKA: Yeah. I mean, I never went too far. So if we're rounding bases, you know, like, second base was - I was a solid double every time. Like, get it into the outfield. I could at least get at least get on second base. And then I was like, yeah, this is a good position to be in.

NATISSE: Second base - I'm pretty sure that's copping feels, right? Anyway, one of those conversations with his gay friends happened earlier this year, and Kurt left feeling unsettled. He kept thinking about those complicated rides, who he was with on those rides. He had a revelation.

FORISKA: There's somebody else having the opposite side of that conversation, and it probably sounds a little bit different than in our circles.

NATISSE: Those people he was telling stories about - they were his friends, and they didn't know these escalator rides were serving another purpose - to help Kurt appear straight. And so when he thinks about their experience, he can imagine that maybe there's some hurt there.

FORISKA: I was lying to a bunch of people. I was lying to myself. I was lying to family and to friends. But it's almost like the worst lie was to people that I was bringing into that lie and using them as a shield so that I didn't have to face that lie to anybody else, including myself. And I have never acknowledged that with them in that manner.

NATISSE: When Kurt heard our call-out for our season on friendship, he started thinking about some of his closest friends and this part of their friendship that they never talked about. Now in his 40s, with a husband and a son, Kurt wants to apologize - not for being gay, but for the way he used his friends - leading them on, getting them on the escalator ride to nowhere. He sent us an email about how he wanted to apologize to them, and he invited us along.

FORISKA: I'm going to have to say some things that are a little bit terrifying for me to say. There is also this wanting to apologize, but having zero expectation that - one, that apology needs to be accepted, or that there is this experience that I think happened on the other side.

NATISSE: Yeah. Because that was a big question of, like, well, maybe, like, he'll reach out to all these women, and they'll be like, that's not how I experienced it.

FORISKA: (Laughter).

NATISSE: And so I'm glad that you are aware that being a factor of, like - you are placing yourself inside of your narrative. But when we go to these other people, you're going to be placed inside theirs, you know? And so their perspective of you and what happened could vary wildly.

FORISKA: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

NATISSE: Kurt was ready to have someone else be the protagonist in the story he'd been replaying in his head for years, come what may. And though I was curious about this journey Kurt was inviting me on, I had a lot of conflicting thoughts, like, was this all about him? But what draws me to Kurt is he's honest about himself. He understands that some might view his behavior as selfish, and he has no idea if any of these women want to revisit the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Of the 11 women on the list, there are three he really wants to talk to because he still considers them close friends. Each of these women got to the point where they needed to unwind themselves from the tangled and ambiguous friendship, scaling back their hangouts with Kurt...

FORISKA: Because she had a boyfriend.

NATISSE: ...Or telling Kurt off...

FORISKA: She had said something along the lines of, this always happens on your terms.

NATISSE: ...Or moving hundreds of miles away, supposedly for a new job.

FORISKA: And she's like, hey, you idiot. I have feelings for you (laughter).

NATISSE: These are the moments that haunt Kurt.

FORISKA: There was no doubt in my mind at that time I was the reason for her pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Now he wants to be the person he couldn't be back then; to listen more, to apologize. So I began reaching out to these women. Kurt was optimistic, and I was, too. They seemed interested and open. But then one woman who we felt sure would do it, she caught me and Kurt by surprise with a firm no.

She seemed kind of upset.

FORISKA: That one will take some time.

NATISSE: And then a second friend said no to recording the conversation.

FORISKA: I understand her rationale for not wanting to do it as well.

NATISSE: You're bringing up old stuff that maybe people thought was resolved.

Not going to lie, those nos where discouraging. But there was one person left; someone who didn't go as far up on the relationship escalator as the other two. And she was willing to have the conversation.

FORISKA: I mean, truth be told, I have had a pit in my stomach about it. I think about it right before I go to bed, which is ideally not the time to think about stuff like this, is right before you are trying to get a sleep.

NATISSE: After the break, Kurt and an old friend rehash the past and try to figure out where things went sour.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: The one friend who agreed to talk to Kurt, her name is Kay Robinson.

Are you nervous about talking to Kay?

FORISKA: No, not necessarily. No. No. Let me say, that's a lie. Yes. I think that part of what I'm nervous about is it's not like people like to go back to a place where they were hurting or felt pain and to revisit that if that's something that you moved on from. Like, you've moved on. You know, it's been years ago.

NATISSE: Kurt's nervousness surprised me. He usually has a can-do enthusiasm like the former Boy Scout that he is, and I'm pretty sure he and Kay are still close. They're practically family. We'll get into that later.

Sure enough, when they both get on screen the next day, they fall into an easy rapport - something short of siblings but closer than the average friends who don't live in the same state anymore.

KAY ROBINSON: So we have a joke that when Kurt started brushing his teeth, we knew the party was over. It was time for us all to leave.

FORISKA: Kay, that wasn't a joke, and it's still true to this day.

ROBINSON: (Laughter).

FORISKA: Except for, now it happens about 8 o'clock.

ROBINSON: (Laughter) I have no doubt.

NATISSE: Before we get to the apology, it helps to know where their friendship started.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Twenty years ago with the perfect meet cute - her panties. It was 2001 and Kurt had just moved to Ohio from western Pennsylvania where he'd lived his whole life. Kurt was moving into the room where Kay lived, but she hadn't moved out yet.

FORISKA: She called me. And she's like, feel free to move all my stuff out of the way. Well, she had laundry on her bed right before she had left, so it was still on her bed, and it was her undergarments. And so I'm sitting there. I was like, no, I'll just wait until you get back. So I slept on the couch for the first couple days that I was there, but that was my first intro for Kay.

NATISSE: Eventually, the underwear owner returned in the flesh. Kay is so popular and likable, she's like a natural force of friendship.

FORISKA: She is somebody who is just the life of anywhere that she goes. When she comes in, it is like the Tasmanian Devil. You know, whatever's in his tornado cloud, hers is people.

NATISSE: You might say the same about Kurt. Grad school Kurt was outgoing and inclusive, the type of person who'd invite everyone to everything, a plus one that just kept plussing (ph). So they were similar in that way - both people-persons. And that was a little bit attractive for both of them. A spark was there.

ROBINSON: You know, we had been flirtatious for a long time, but nothing relationship flirtatious; more just like, oh, yeah, this could be fun.

NATISSE: A few months after they first met, Kurt introduced Kay to just how fun he could be. It was a Halloween party, and Kay was wearing a candy necklace. Kurt, he wanted to taste.

ROBINSON: He was like, I'm going to have some - eat some of your candy necklace. And I was like, OK. And I kind of pulled it away, thinking, like, he was going to, like, take it in a - no, he just went right my neck and started, like, eating these things and, like, sensually, like...

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: ...Like, kissing my neck, I guess. And I was like, what is happening?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Later, Kay sent me a photo of this moment. In it, her face looks less like a question and more like a statement - wow. Her mouth is open. Her eyes are closed. And Kurt's hand is wrapped at the base of her neck. You can't even see his face; it's just buried in there. I'm not going to lie - it's pretty hot. You can tell it escalated from a flirty kiss on the neck to maybe slipping a little tongue.

ROBINSON: That was the first time we ever, like, made out, at this party. So we were in this corner, and then we thought it'd be really fun to just go do it in front of everybody 'cause then everyone's like, what is going on with these two? (Laughter) 'Cause we were just the most random two for this to be going on with.

NATISSE: From then on, making out at parties was their thing. Kurt still remembers Kay as a great kisser, and it was something they both enjoyed. These make-outs were also a little social gimmick, a party trick maybe that they pulled out to thrill their friends, sometimes on the dance floor, sometimes in the backseat of a car. It was fun and salacious.

And though they were friends, they agreed that they could be more if they needed to. They made a marriage pact. If they didn't make it to the top of the escalator with anybody else by age 30, they'd take the ride with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: This little game they played - making out - it lasted for a few years, until one night at Kurt's place when they got in a fight that was so bad they didn't talk for months. This is the moment that Kurt's here to apologize for. It happened one night at Kurt's very nice and very cheap apartment near the airport. He was, of course, having a party. And somehow, he and Kay found themselves in a room alone. Here's how Kurt explains it.

FORISKA: You know, I remember that night that you were interested in making out a little, and I - you know, I pushed you away.

NATISSE: However, Kay has a much more vivid recollection of that night.

ROBINSON: Even the pushing away, like - and we should let everyone know on this podcast. When I see push away, I mean he physically pushed me into a wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: As Kay explains her memory of that night to Kurt, she remembers that they quickly kissed earlier in the night, and she'd assumed that maybe they'd kiss more later, like they do. And so when she found Kurt later that night in his room, laid out across his bed...

ROBINSON: I, like, make a move, and you're like, nope. And I was like, Kurt, stop. And you were like, no, Kay, for real. And you, like, pushed me into a wall (laughter). Like, I hit the wall, and I remember coming out - I said, Kurt's such an asshole; I'm so fucking done with him. And I, like, jetted out the door, and I drove home. And I was so pissed the whole time. I was just so mad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Kay's anger was a blanket covering other feelings she wasn't sure she was ready to feel yet.

ROBINSON: I mean, I was, of course, embarrassed. There's that part.

NATISSE: Rejection can feel crappy but especially when it feels unexpected and a little mean.

ROBINSON: Like, just that literally hitting of a wall - like, are you kidding me right now? You know, like, five seconds ago, you were trying to make out with me on the couch, but now all of a sudden you don't want to?

NATISSE: It felt like Kurt was making up the rules of their friendship and leaving Kay in the dark about just what was and wasn't OK.

ROBINSON: I was more pissed because we were friends, and I thought we were better friends than that and that you would, quote-unquote, "use me" whenever you wanted to make out, but whenever I wanted to do something, he was like, no, we can't do that. I'm like, this is not what friends with benefits is supposed to be about. It's supposed to be a reciprocal relationship.

NATISSE: That night at Kurt's house, it revealed an imbalance in what Kay thought was a happy and sometimes a little bit horny friendship. Back then, grad-school Kurt couldn't articulate what went wrong and why, but he did feel bad, and he tried to talk to Kay the next day. She didn't want to hear it, and for months she avoided him, wouldn't look him in the eye when they passed each other on campus.

ROBINSON: I remember not talking to you for a long time because I was just so hurt that it had to be on your terms.

NATISSE: With time, they put that night at the party behind them, though they never directly talked about what had happened. It was easier to leave things unsaid, so that's what they did. They became friends again but this time friends who don't make out. Kay still remembers back in 2008 when Kurt tried to explain in his own way what went wrong that night at his apartment.

ROBINSON: He said, I need to tell you something. I said, OK. And I knew exactly what you were trying to do.

NATISSE: It was another party, this time in a barn for Kay. She was moving away. And Kurt pulled her aside to talk.

ROBINSON: And you said, remember - you remember those times I always would push you away? And I was like, yeah. And you were like, well, there was a reason for that. I said, OK. And I said, well, what is it? And you just kept - you, like, were looking around. I was like - I said, you can just say it, Kurt. And you're like, no, I can't. I was like, yes, you can. It's me. And you were like, I can't say it out loud. I can't say it. I said, well, I'm not going to say it; it's your story, so you have to say it to me if you want to say it to me.

And you said, well, I think that maybe I - and I just kept looking at you. I was not letting you - 'cause then you kept - then you went into, like, your defense shut down mode that you do sometimes. And you were like, no, no, no, no, never mind. We'll just talk about it later. I go, Kurt, I'm literally moving tomorrow. So you need to tell me now before I move away. And I said I know what you want to say. You just need to say it. You know I love you. I don't care what you tell me.

And then I remember you didn't get, like, emotional 'cause you - you know, you're Kurt. You rarely show emotion. But you, like, kind of got verklempt. And you said, I think that maybe I just don't like girls. And you just would not say - you still never said it. You never actually said the word gay. You just said, I think that's all I can say right now. And I said, OK. I said, well, you know I love you. And I gave you a big hug.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Kurt tells Kay that this conversation at the barn was meant to be an explanation for the night he pushed her away.

FORISKA: You know, using those words, I was untelling (ph) the lie. I was - you know, so I was making that right and simultaneously, without having to apologize, trying to make the other part right. Like, see, I didn't mean to hurt you. It was because of this. But I don't think that that was fair.

NATISSE: Kurt didn't permanently untell (ph) the lie. For him, coming out was a little bit like a turtle poking its head out. And after that night, Kurt went back into his shell, pretending to be straight.

ROBINSON: It made everything very confusing when I watched him in these other relationships. You know, throughout - after he told me, I was like, what is he doing? And so at that point, it was a little hard for me to kind of confront him about it.

FORISKA: She watched as Kurt continued to date women and have these borderline romantic friendships. All the while, Kay kept his secret.

ROBINSON: I remember other people having peripheral conversations with me about it. Like, they would ask me about it. Has Kurt ever told you anything? I was like, nope. I just always, like - I'm never - this is not my story to tell. So I'm never going to say - so I was always like, no, I don't know what you're talking about.

NATISSE: Kay had gone from being unwittingly a part of his performance of straightness. Now, whether she wanted to or not, she was a co-conspirator in keeping his secret. It meant a lot to Kurt that Kay took that on.

FORISKA: Just telling you as much as I told you was so freeing and liberating. It was like, finally, somebody that I could confide in. And I knew I could trust you.

NATISSE: By 2015, Kurt had finally accepted his sexuality.

FORISKA: It literally was me looking at a bathroom mirror, and I just start laughing at myself. I'm like, what are you doing? Like, you like guys. Like, that's who you are.

NATISSE: Coming out was a mixed bag. It was a relief for Kurt to accept himself. But he had to stop being the person he'd been all his life and reintroduce everyone to who he really was. It was a lot of change. It wasn't until this year that Kurt really started to think about the perspective of his friends who were affected by his time in the closet.

FORISKA: The whole being in the closet was to protect myself. I get that. But there are other people involved. Like, I couldn't extricate those. So that's why I wanted to do this part - was to amend for hurting you.

NATISSE: Specifically, there's this thing Kay said to him when he tried to apologize the day after the incident.

FORISKA: It only happened on my terms.

NATISSE: And it stuck with him like a barnacle on a ship.

FORISKA: I don't think I ever apologized for that part. And the thing was - is that you were exactly right. In all of those relationships that I had while I was closeted, it was on my terms. And whether I knew it consciously or subconsciously, you know, it was a protective piece.

But I want to acknowledge and apologize for it - one, that I lied to you during that period of time. And then the second piece is that you were right. And I'm sorry that I did that 'cause you read that situation exactly right.

ROBINSON: Well, you know, Kurt, it's funny. I didn't think you remembered that. So that's interesting that you - that that stuck out to you. First, you don't have to apologize to me because everybody goes through their own process. And I don't take at issue lying to me as much as you were protecting yourself at that time from whatever you thought was going to be the outcome if you were to come out or if you were to accept, you know, what was happening in your life, in your heart.

But I do appreciate the apology about the second part because that was - I mean, I vividly remember that being a really big point of contention. And I kind of felt like - I don't want to say used, but used I guess is the best word, you know. Obviously, I don't know that we need to say this to the podcast, but you and I did nothing else other than make out (laughter). And so that was something I wanted to establish.

FORISKA: Oh, I clearly said it. I was - literally, second base is where I belonged. I mean, I just was, like, firmly entrenched on second base.

ROBINSON: I don't even think you got to second base. I don't think we even did that. I literally think we just kissed all the time.

FORISKA: Kay, Kay, it's because your second base is more aggressive than my second base.

ROBINSON: (Laughter) That's not true.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Being able to talk through the murky depths of their friendship, and on public radio, no less - it helped deepen their friendship.

ROBINSON: It just kind of reaffirmed our friendship and reminded me that, you know, it's not - it was not a one-way situation and that it affected more than just me. And it added different levels to our friendship.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: What still kind of gnawed at me, though, was that these other women said no - didn't want to talk on tape. The lines in those friendships were even blurrier. And though I don't exactly know how complicated those situations were, Kay does.

ROBINSON: 'Cause I know two of them very well - but there was a lot of hurt there.

NATISSE: What do you do with the pain of a stalled escalator trip, especially if it was as complicated as the gray zone that Kurt navigated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: When we come back - two more friends who help us think about the ethics around sex and what good an apology can and can't do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Kurt and Kay's apology went well. But I kept worrying about the other two women - friends he believes he led on or deceived and maybe broke a heart. Kurt eventually did have those conversations off mike. And one went well. The other - Kurt says it didn't go that great. It was actually pretty difficult. I don't know exactly what went wrong, but I do know that apologies and sex - that's a tough combo.

I reached out to some folks who know a lot about sex and apologies to try to think about this complicated situation, both from Kurt's side and his friends'.

QUILL KUKLA: I'm Quill Kukla. I am a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, and I'm also a Humboldt scholar at Leibniz University in Hanover in Germany.

CASSIE HERBERT: I'm Cassie Herbert. I am a professor of philosophy and women, gender and sexuality studies at Illinois State University.

NATISSE: Quill was Cassie's dissertation adviser at one time. But since then...

HERBERT: I would count Quill as one of my very good friends.

KUKLA: We have written together. We've traveled together. We have boxed together.

NATISSE: So in a season about friendship, it made sense to talk to them together. They both researched sexual ethics, which they explained to me as the study of what's right or wrong in regards to sex - you know, how it can go well or badly. And when we're talking about sex here, Quill has a pretty broad definition.

KUKLA: I actually come back to something that my son said when he was 8 years old. I said to him, do you even know what sex is? And he said, well, it's when two people who like one another play with each other's bodies for fun. I actually thought it was kind of a lovely definition of sex 'cause it wasn't heteronormative, and it didn't require that anybody's bit be stuck inside anybody else's bit. It was about playing with bodies for pleasure.

NATISSE: So Kurt and his friends were playing with each other's bodies, and it was fun. It also served this other purpose - to make Kurt look straight. And for that, he wanted to apologize.

But Quill says that merely using someone isn't necessarily an egregious or uncommon wrong. We use people all the time for all sorts of social reasons.

KUKLA: A lot of people want to get married in the abstract - not to any particular person.

NATISSE: They want to get to the top of the escalator.

KUKLA: They want that social status of being married. And so in that sense, whoever they find to marry, they're using instrumentally to achieve a certain social goal. It's not ideal, but it's the way that sexuality goes a lot of the time.

NATISSE: However, Quill went on to explain that, from what they can tell, the way Kurt used these women was more than just not ideal.

KUKLA: I do think that using people just instrumentally if they don't know that they're being used instrumentally is wrong. So I do think that, in that sense, he wronged these women. And that deserves some sort of restitution or apology.

HERBERT: I agree with pretty much everything that Quill just said. If they weren't communicating about what kind of sexual interaction they were understanding this encounter to be, whether it was a casual hookup at a party, which it sounds like some of these were...

NATISSE: Right.

HERBERT: ...Or whether they understood it to be the beginning of a much longer-term, sort of more intimate and sort of more emotionally serious relationship - but the fact that they weren't on the same page and didn't have a shared understanding of what this encounter was, that's where I think that things are importantly going wrong in these cases.

KUKLA: Which has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he's gay.

NATISSE: Right.

KUKLA: Right. Straight men use women to appear in a socially normative, appropriate relationship all the time.

NATISSE: Not making it clear to the women that he was using them to perform a version of himself - that was messed up. But it's less clear how to think about the pain his friends felt when they didn't get to the next level with Kurt. Remember - some of these women went on couples' trips with him, met his parents, even lived with him. So how should we think about their feelings and, really, anyone's uncomfortable feelings after an escalator ride unexpectedly ends?

HERBERT: I think that we often conflate things like being disappointed with having been wronged, and those just aren't the same thing.

KUKLA: Exactly.

HERBERT: It's OK to be sad. It's OK to be incredibly heartbroken if someone rejects you. Like, it can be a very unpleasant experience, but it doesn't mean that the person who did the rejecting has committed some sort of moral wrong or inflicted some sort of moral harm on a person.

NATISSE: That's a tough pill to swallow for both people - for the person in pain who wants to hold someone responsible and for the person who sees the pain and thinks it must be their fault.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Even though those rides on the escalator may have ended with hurt feelings, those physical interactions genuinely meant something to Kurt.

FORISKA: I did enjoy it. I enjoyed being close to somebody else. I - you know, the whole idea of human touch and human connection - like, that felt great.

NATISSE: And though it did get messy, that intimacy deepened his friendships in ways that he can still feel.

FORISKA: You become really close with people in, like, actual physical relationships. Now those friendships, maybe because of that, are stronger.

NATISSE: There's this one other thing about Kurt and Kay that really exemplifies how their physical connection deepened their friendship. Remember that marriage pact - that if they were still single when they turned 30, they'd marry each other?

ROBINSON: Who knows why we did that? That was not smart.

NATISSE: Well, Kay eventually turned 30. And by that point, she had a hunch that Kurt was gay. So she renegotiated the agreement.

ROBINSON: And so I said, we don't have to do that anymore. I said, but how about this? If I ever want to have a kid and I'm not married, you'll donate for me.

NATISSE: And he did. Kurt donated sperm to Kay. And now she's raising a son who's genetically half Kurt.

ROBINSON: It just still makes me laugh so hard that, like, out of all the relationships and things that you had in people and how far you went or whatever the case was (laughter), we didn't go further than kissing over some candy necklaces, but we have a child together.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: Everyone else just had these moments with you. I'm like, well, I've got living - literally his DNA right here in my house, so (laughter).

NATISSE: Kurt and Kay found a completely different path to take - to a sperm donation, which is a pretty big departure from the relationship escalator for many of us. But what if we imagine a world where there are no clear boundaries between sex and friendship, where you don't feel pushed to get on the relationship escalator just because you've gotten physical with someone? What could our friendships look like then?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNOUNCER #2: Watch your step as you exit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: Talking to Kurt and Kay and Cassie and Quill - it got me thinking about all the ways we've created borders around friendships out of fear of what might happen - not just, don't mix friendship with sex, but also other old-school rules, like men and women can't be friends or you can't be friends with your ex. It can all feel so restrictive.

So I looked for people who were redrawing or erasing completely the lines between sex and friendship - people in queer communities, from other cultures and nationalities, and people in porn. I talked to two women who work in the porn industry as performers, producers and activists.

LOTUS LAIN: My name is Lotus Lain.

ANA FOXXX: I am Ana Foxxx.

NATISSE: Lotus Lain and Ana Foxxx have been best friends almost as long as they've worked in the industry. The outside world can be unfriendly to sex workers. And for Lotus and Ana, their friendship is an oasis. They have forged an especially close friendship in a workplace where sex is everywhere.

Of course, be ye forewarned - what follows is a lot of unfiltered language about sex and bodies. The conversation is really about their friendship, which is pretty unique and doesn't reflect everyone's experience in porn. And this isn't a representation of what the entire porn industry is like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NATISSE: So why don't we start out with how you two met?

LAIN: So cute.

(LAUGHTER)

LAIN: Do we remember that moment...

FOXXX: Bitch.

LAIN: ...That we locked eyes underneath bangs?

(LAUGHTER)

FOXXX: Yeah. I was like, she's got bangs (laughter).

LAIN: That was the first connection point. We were like, oh, a Black girl with bangs...

FOXXX: A Black girl with bangs.

LAIN: ...Who's nice and smiling at me.

NATISSE: Ana and Lotus were on set, a massive production with lots of people, shooting a variety of scenes in different areas of the studio.

FOXXX: I was, like, all by myself. I felt like I was the only Black kid in class (laughter).

LAIN: Yeah.

FOXXX: There was all these girls. And all day, none of them really said anything nice to me. But I don't know where Lotus came from. She just comes around the corner smiling, stares at me. And we both had the same little cheeky little grin.

(LAUGHTER)

NATISSE: Talking to Ana and Lotus, I could tell they have very few hang-ups around sexuality or bodies. It's part of their job to be naked and have sex. So that usual border between sex and friendship - it just doesn't exist for them.

FOXXX: We've been around each other, like, butt naked and fucking and doing so much stuff (laughter).

LAIN: Just stuff where we're so deep in each other's crevices.

FOXXX: Oh, yeah. Oh, God. You just got those friends that come over and just get naked. That's Lotus (laughter).

NATISSE: OK, so this is a direct question. Do you like having sex with each other? And if yes, what do you enjoy about it?

LAIN: I, like, really enjoy having group sex with my best friend.

FOXXX: Yay, me too (laughter).

LAIN: Yeah, because then I feel like I can see her having fun. I can make fun of her having fun.

(LAUGHTER)

LAIN: And then, like, I can jump in and assist, if necessary.

FOXXX: I was going to say the same thing. I remember there was this one scene that I had directed with her and me and Isiah Maxwell. And it was so, like, pretty looking. But the whole time, her and I were cracking up laughing. And...

LAIN: Oh, yes.

FOXXX: ...Not very serious (laughter). It's really fun being, like - having free, fun sex with your friend there.

LAIN: I'm glad that we can feel comfortable about that, to joke around about that with each other because, honestly, it just makes us just comfortable in general with our sexuality, I think.

FOXXX: Sexuality - but it feels like the rest of us. Like, our sexuality is part of our human nature. So it just feels like we're finishing being humans in front of each other.

NATISSE: For Lotus and Ana, that seems to be a big part of what non-industry folk, aka civilians, miss about sex. Sex doesn't have to be just about pleasure or procreation. It can be a way to get to know somebody.

LAIN: I like to call sex, like, just a physical conversation.

NATISSE: Yeah. I'm curious, Ana, how do you define sex?

FOXXX: Definite communication - I think body language is, like, the loudest language ever.

NATISSE: They think that if we spoke this language with friends, we could create different kinds of trajectories for our friendships.

LAIN: 'Cause I think if sex was a known thing amongst friends, you know, like, casually, without deception, without, like, an expectation, it could be like, OK, we're just going to do this. But we know we're not going to make it into a relationship. All right, cool, let's do this. You know, like, it wouldn't have to be like, oh, I'm tricking you into thinking I like you and I want a relationship. But really, I just want sex.

NATISSE: Lotus and Ana say sex doesn't have to default to a step on the relationship escalator. Sometimes, it can just be releasing a pressure valve and finding more friendship in the steam.

LAIN: I think that it may be just, like, regulate any kind of, like, emotions or feelings or attractions that you may already have for each other 'cause, you know, we're both bisexual. And if we were, like, repressed bisexual people that didn't have an outlet or we were hiding it or holding it in or were not letting it out and, like, we've gotten it out. It's cool. We both know we're beautiful. We both know we're bomb at sex.

FOXXX: (Laughter).

LAIN: So there's not, like, any lingering, longing feelings, you know?

FOXXX: Yeah. I think it kind of helps you become friends faster. I know for sure that there's some people that I have had sex with that when I met them, they were, like, you know, intimidating or whatever. But, like, once we're on that sexual environment together, everybody's inhibitions are down, and we're helping and stuff. So it kind of creates, like, a little camaraderie together, which I really think is fun.

NATISSE: Of course, the sex that Lotus and Ana are having is often on sets where everyone is medically tested and there are so many checkpoints for consent. It's not like that on all porn sets, and civilian sex definitely doesn't have that same infrastructure. But keeping those differences in mind, Lotus and Ana did have a few tips about crossing the line from feeling the sexual tension with a friend to exploring it.

FOXXX: I would totally say to make the space appropriate for that. For my 30th birthday, my present was to get all my friends together and fuck. And that was pretty cool. That was better than getting gift cards.

NATISSE: To prevent hurt feelings, they say don't just assume people want the same things you do.

LAIN: If you're going to have, like, this secret thought in the back of your mind that you're going to fall in love together and you're going get married and go off, you need to let that friend know that's part of the thoughts that's in your brain.

FOXXX: I have kind of a lot of casual sex relationships with some of my friends. And the ones that work understand that we are having sex because we are friends, and that was fun. Like, it's not an always thing. The circumstances for which we had sex was that moment. And we had sex, and that was great.

The friend sexual relationships that don't work are my friends that think, because we had sex, we are now dating. Like, you are going to come meet my mom. Those are the ones that always kind of, like - I have to cut ties with them because those are not my intentions.

NATISSE: The biggest thing is getting on the same page about what you want from the interaction. Beyond that, they think it's actually pretty simple.

FOXXX: I think if you want to fuck your friend, you should just have a good time. Life's too short to be afraid of sex. You know, make sure you're safe. Make sure you're consenting and - why not?

NATISSE: So have sex with your friends or don't. You know, it's a personal preference. Either way, Lotus and Ana and Kurt and Kay show that if you open up to intimacy with your friends, it doesn't have to equal disaster or marriage.

FOXXX: You know what's funny is we've been friends for so long and realize that the requirements that people kind of set on you for a partner, we kind of found in each other.

LAIN: Honestly.

FOXXX: You're like all these amazing people all in one. And then sometimes when you fuck me, I swear you got a dick, so that's pretty cool.

LAIN: I got that stroke.

FOXXX: You got that stroke.

(LAUGHTER)

FOXXX: We're the only people that have been 100% honest with each other about sex and all these things in life. And we haven't quite found anybody else that can do it.

LAIN: Yeah. Like, this is my life's - for lack of better phrase, my life's greatest love. Like...

FOXXX: Bro.

LAIN: It is the realest friendship and relationship I've had.

(SOUNDBITE OF KATE RAWLINGS AND MATTHEW GOODMAN SONG, "BARE")

FOXXX: There was a time that I was getting in a fight with my - one of my family members that was living with me. And the first person that was here was Lotus.

LAIN: Yes, I remember. I'm sorry. You, like, got me crying because I remember that day.

FOXXX: I didn't even call her to ask her to come over. But before 30 seconds was up on the phone, she was in the car.

(LAUGHTER)

LAIN: You've been there with me through all of my kids' dad drama. Like, Ana knows what I've gone through, and Ana will not let me wallow in misery and be sad and feel sorry for myself. She will uplift me. She'll distract me.

She'll - like, it's so wonderful to have a friend like this because I didn't think I would, like, make a real honest-to-goodness big career out of it. I didn't think that I would find true genuine friendships out of it. It just was an adventure I was willing to take. And I'm really glad that it paid off.

FOXXX: Aw. I'm doing my makeup, bitch. You about to fuck me up.

LAIN: I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

FOXXX: Yeah. You're going to be my best friend forever. We're going to be old ladies getting kicked out of nursing homes because of our inappropriate stories.

LAIN: We try and get one of the little orderlies in the closet with us (laughter).

FOXXX: Oh, we going to get the orderly. We going to get all of them.

LAIN: Right. Come here young man. Come here.

FOXXX: Do you know who I used to be?

(LAUGHTER)

ANNOUNCER #2: Watch your step as you exit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNOUNCER #2: Watch your step as you exit.

NATISSE: This story could not have been made without the help of two very important people - producer Adelina Lancianese, who also conceived this dancy (ph) vibe I'm personally obsessed with - thank you Addie (ph) - and editor Rhaina Cohen. Rhaina's actually working on a book about the sort of friendship that Lotus and Ana described; a friendship so close it's basically a partnership. Look for Rhaina's book in stores in the near future.

We had additional production support by Brianna Scott, Alicia Qian, Jo Nixon and Tracy Brannstrom. Alex Drewenskus mastered this episode with help from INVISIBILIA's technical director Andy Huether. Fact-checking by Greta Pittenger and William Brennan.

The beautiful song that you heard at the beginning of this episode is by Moses Sumney. It's called "In Bloom," and it's from his album "Grae." If you liked it, go check it out.

ANNOUNCER #2: Watch your step as you exit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAW: Additional thanks to Adam Goff (ph), Thomas Lu, Kat Lonsdorf, Lauren Gonzalez, Laine Kaplan-Levenson, Esra Padgett, Jet Setting Jasmine, Maria San Filippo and Yachao Li.

Shoutout to all the listeners who wrote in with questions and stories around friendship and sex. Thank you for your generosity and curiosity. You inspired this story. To learn more about the relationship escalator and how to resist it, check out Amy Gahran's book "Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator."

This season of INVISIBILIA is also produced by Yowei Shaw, Andrew Mambo, Luis Trelles, Abby Wendle, Justine Yan and Pablo Arguelles Cattori. We also had help from Micah Ratner and Gerry Holmes.

Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom, and Nicole Beemsterboer is our supervising senior producer. Neal Carruth is our senior director of programming, and our senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

Our theme music is by Infinity Knives, and additional music for this episode provided by Connor Moore of CMoore Sounds and Connor Lafitte. To see an original illustration for this episode and the rest of our season by Sonnenzimmer, visit npr.org/invisibilia.

ANNOUNCER #1: Allow only one person per step. Do not pass by other customers on the escalator.

SHAW: We'll be back next week.

ANNOUNCER #2: Watch your step as you exit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR)

LAIN: I'm also the more responsible one. I got us signed up for life insurance...

FOXXX: She sure did (laughter).

LAIN: ...Like the good wifey that I am.

FOXXX: She sure is.

(LAUGHTER)

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