When you agreed to a drink you took stock: of your motives, of his motives, of the purportedly casual scheduling during the middle of the week, of the number of gin & tonics you could consume before you would have to gracefully depart. At some level, you also advocated, mentally, against all of this; you had been flirting, at work or at your coffee shop or via text message, for awhile, and as the situation escalated you began to hope for an excuse to, if not transgress, at least think about transgressing. At some point, one or both of you made use of the convenient fallacy that men and women can be friends in order to suggest that the two of you "hang out" sometime. You were nervous and excited but did not let yourself become too much of either; after all, you have a boyfriend, and so does his girlfriend.
The night began innocently enough—there were laughs, there was office gossip, there was an equal sharing of beverage costs. But after loudly slurping the remains of your last acceptable gin & tonic, you did not feel so graceful, or so much like departing, and when he suggested one more you felt, somewhere, a relief that it was not you who had to ask. You also felt guilty, but only a bit—after all, it was still early then.
Four hours and five or six stories about your childhoods later, it is not so early anymore. You find yourself so excited that you do not realize how drunk you are; you keep touching each other on ambiguous but suggestive body parts—his bicep, your knee—as you have rarely if ever truly touched someone who is "just a friend." Finally, after most of the people have left the bar on this weeknight, when you have work the next day, you accept an invitation back to his place for one more drink—it's only around the corner, and why he always goes to this place. Weary from a night of subsuming sexual impulses into coded flirtations, you find that as soon as you sit down on the couch from Ikea with whiskey in a coffee mug you are very tired. It is also dangerous to travel there so late at night. After a few moments of looking at each other in the eyes or avoiding each other's eyes, he offers to let you stay over.
Read more: The Narcissism of Romantic Obsession
What happens next may seem obvious, but there is another option: the "platonic" sleepover. It goes like this: Instead of consummating your badness in a night of illicit passion, you make a compromise, and just sleep. This is sometimes stated openly—"just sleeping, right?"—but often merely operates on both people's unwillingness to make the move into actually sleeping together. Something happens, but nothing happens. There may be cuddling, or spooning, or an endless night of yearning for cuddling or spooning. You can tell your boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/significant other/spouse that you slept on the couch, even though what you really did was sleep in this guy's bed, because what's the difference, really, when you didn't cross a line.
This is all bullshit, of course, but the phenomenon is real. Not to be confused with a sleepover you actually have with your friends—these usually happen when someone's parents go on vacation or everyone is too drunk to go home—the platonic sleepover is what you do when you want to have sex with someone but can't, for one reason or another (but usually because one or both of you would be cheating). It allows you to be naughty while claiming that you are not being naughty. In fact, if you pitch it to the right crowd, it may even allow you to seem so enlightened that sharing a bed with someone is no big deal to you—why is everyone such a sucker for monogamy, anyway?
Spooning all night was fine, but the shoulder kissing was too far.
The action that turns the platonic sleepover into a fucking sleepover is ultimately arbitrary, since the whole thing is a charade, but the line between them is widely agreed to be kissing. Navigating this made-up boundary is not tricky—many women have firm ideas about what is acceptable and what is not during the platonic sleepover, even as they admit their partners wouldn't be happy with the entire premise in the first place.
"He tried to kiss my shoulder, and I said no," a woman named Bella* told me about a recent platonic sleepover. She was still in a monogamous relationship with her boyfriend at the time of the non-exploit, but after a long night of confessing feelings and drinking with Tyler, whom she'd had a crush on for weeks, she went back to Tyler's apartment. It was close to her office! "Spooning all night was fine, but the shoulder kissing was too far," she said. When I asked her to confirm that "spooning" means her butt was against the man's penis for an extended period of time, and that this felt acceptable, she replied, "Yes, 100 percent."
"In the morning when we woke up, he poked me with his erection by accident and said, 'I'm really sorry,'" she added.
Delusional? Sure. "I feel the boys I slept in beds with platonically always ended up kissing me," another woman, Gloria, said. Her friend, Cassie, agrees. "I feel like part of the point of a platonic sleepover is so that you can assume they will try to kiss you at some point, but you can still act surprised and be like, what? No! But actually yes."
Indeed, despite the psychological acrobatics necessary to justify a platonic sleepover, it can be disappointing when it never develops into anything but a platonic sleepover—instead of engaging in a confusing and exciting experience that allows you to be coy with your friends, you have done something wrong and gotten nothing out of it but more despair. Mel had a platonic sleepover this weekend, but not because she was testing the waters of cheating on a partner or getting back together with an ex—she just expected more from a situation that would usually end in sex, or at least hand stuff. "I was on a night out with some friends, and after the night finished we had an after party. I waited until everyone was asleep at around 11 AM and then said, 'Hey, do you want to go upstairs and sleep in your bed?' But the guy didn't try and kiss me, which is kind of depressing. Instead of getting off, we watched Jaws." (People interested in dance music seem particularly willing and frequent participants in the platonic sleepover.)
Exes also often appear in platonic sleepovers; after all, a key factor is that you are not supposed to be sleeping with the person you're about to be sleeping with. Sleeping head-to-foot—which one woman referred to as the "96 position"—is a bizarrely popular strategy for these types of encounters.
"It's less weird, except it becomes more weird," Cassie says of this configuration. Cassie came upon this non-sex position when she was sharing a single bed with an ex and he started trying to have sex with her in his sleep, which is something that would happen when they were together. "We both woke up and were horrified."
That was not the end of her platonic sleeping career, though. "Then, after that, I would sleep in bed with my other guy friend," she continued. "I really didn't ever want anything to happen between us, so we would sleep head-to-foot." When I asked her if she had taken such measures because there was no couch, she replied, "Um, there may have been a couch." When I asked why she had to be sleeping in the same house with her friend at all, she said, "Because I did."
Still, women are not always the passive victims here—sometimes the platonic sleepover is the result of capitalizing on sexual tension for utilitarian means. "I had a really awkward sleepover with someone because I pretended or implied that I would have sex with them, but I really just needed a place to sleep that was close," my friend Leigh told me. "When we got back to their place I was like, I'm tired, goodnight!"
Ultimately, though, while the platonic sleepover feels like a good way to diffuse tension and let off steam without going "too far," it often just acts as a gateway to fucking. "I think it's one of those things where you just don't want to say goodbye to someone," Bella says. This can be, truly, platonic enough. "I've had that with female friends before, which is why they end up sleeping over. But the motivation for not wanting to say goodbye is different." When she rationalized their sleepover to Tyler, who was wary about luring her into explicit betrayal, she told him, "I have sleepovers with my friends all the time!" According to Bella, he replied, "Yes, but you probably don't, like, grind into each other."
Their story has either a happy or not-happy ending, depending on how you look at it. "There was a moment, which happened twice, where he was half asleep and not realizing what he was doing," Bella said. "He kind of grabbed my throat from behind very sensually and started pulling me towards him, and I felt like I was getting sucked into an abyss of impossible longing." The two had actual sex two weeks later.
*All names have been changed.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Cassie and her "friend" would sleep in what they called the "69 position." They actually called it the 96 position.