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Pleasure is good

Malavika Sangghvi  |  Mumbai 

Bill Gates, the story goes, takes an annual vacation with his ex-girlfriend - and it’s legit.

Of all the fascinating nuggets that make up the legend of Bill Gates, perhaps the most fascinating is the fact that he is supposed to have signed a prenuptial agreement with his wife, Melinda, that would enable him to go on an annual vacation with his ex-girlfriend, Ann Winblad, to a destination of their choice. An option that he is reported to exercise with enthusiasm whenever both parties can manage to get away. (Winblad is a successful and highly regarded IT entrepreneur in her own right.)

You can admire the man for his genius, for his longstanding position as the world’s wealthiest individual, and for his philanthropic zeal. But if the story is not apocryphal, then it’s time we acknowledged one more area in which Gates has forged way ahead of the rest of the human species: interpersonal relationships.

It takes a certain kind of maturity to acknowledge that human relations can exist beyond the narrow confines of archaic definitions, and that a modern world calls for a modern approach to the way we have defined relationships so far.

Look at the epochal changes in the last century and the way they have impacted modern lifestyles: industrialisation, the Pill, air travel, world wars, television soaps, convenience gadgets, the acceptance and popularity of divorce, self-help books, feminism, and of course the IT revolution, and most recently the rise of social networking sites.

Is there any reason to believe that age-old traditional definitions of interpersonal relations can still hold good, when everything else around them has changed so drastically?

There was a time not so very long ago when filling in personal data in official documents meant that you ticked off one of two or three options: married, single and divorced.

Today even something as white bread and common as Facebook offers you half a dozen options to choose from when declaring your personal status — from “single” to “in a relationship”, “in an open relationship”, to the more enigmatic and honest “it’s complicated”, along with the traditional widowed, separated and divorced.

More relevant are the modern-day gradations and variations in what was the traditional man-woman coupling. One of the newer entrants to the lexicon of the way people relate to each other is the term “friend with benefits”. The Urban Dictionary (recommended reading for every CEO who doesn’t want to appear naff on a date, or to his teenaged kids) describes friends with benefits as: two friends who have a sexual relationship without being emotionally involved. Typically two friends who have casual sex without a monogamous relationship or any kind of commitment.

A relationship website that passes by the name of Mr Ethical Slut has a more empirical explanation. “For the most part, these two people are friends. The big difference between their other friendships is sex. Friends with benefits have the ability to go out on date-like activities. However, real dates are not initiated because there is no romantic interest between the partners. They hang out because they enjoy similar activities and each other’s company. Sex is an optional part of the relationship. If one partner has sex outside of the relationship, it does not end their friendship. Instead, the sex element is taken out of the relationship and they continue to be friends. Sex can also come back into the friendship when both parties are ready for it.”

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The added advantage of being in a “friend with benefits” relationship is that the connection is amorphous enough to embrace whatever direction the bonding might take. If the couple wants to continue their sexual connection, they are free to, and if one of them gets emotionally involved into another more romantic liaison then there is still continuity as the deep bonds of friendship prevail.

Friend with benefits, perhaps, is just what the doctor ordered for the fast-paced, demanding, ephemeral lifestyles in Indian cities.

Here, especially for young people on the move, it can act as a reassuring bond that provides some semblance of unbroken and nurturing support in a life that may be otherwise fractured and challenging.

The concept might have been a direct offshoot of that 1997 bestseller The Ethical Slut, seminal reading for most people interested in modern lifestyles.

Described on the jacket as “A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities”, the book explores and encourages consensual non-monogamy as a new way to conduct romantic/sexual relationships, and can be used as a handbook by people interested in adopting this approach.

Interestingly, the word “slut” has gained international recognition free from its pejorative connotations recently and, with Delhi getting its own version of the Slut Walk, the word has inserted itself into the lexicon of urban India too.

As in the instance of Slut Walk, the term is ironically turned on its head, so that in fact it connotes someone who demands respect for having the courage to live life on one’s own terms, free from hypocrisy.

In the book the word is used to describe “a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you”.

In fact, any one who reads the book will realise that the emphasis is on the ethical part of the concept.

Along with the friends with benefits approach to modern-day urban relationships are the equally fascinating concepts of f***-buddies, frenemies, Platonic friends and “happily unmarried couples”.

But they require articles of their own. Suffice it to say that for anyone who despairs that traditional relationships no longer reflect or meet their needs, there is enough room to explore, evolve and transcend the straitjackets and pigeonholes that we have placed ourselves in.

And that when the world’s richest and perhaps most intelligent man has the courage to paddle up a new tributary on the relationship river even though we might not be ready to float our boats behind him, we should at least be cheering from the banks!

First Published: Sat, June 25 2011. 00:31 IST