It’s a popular storyline in the movies and on TV: one of the characters gets dumped by their romantic partner and decides to cope with this unfortunate reality by having sex with someone else. In these stories, sex is sometimes portrayed as a way of restoring one’s self-esteem, which ultimately helps that person to move on with their life (i.e., “rebound sex”). Other times, however, sex is used as a post-breakup weapon—as a way to “get back at” the ex (i.e., “revenge sex”). But do people actually do these things in real life, or is this just the stuff of screenwriters’ imaginations? A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior reveals that rebound and revenge sex are the real deal, and not that uncommon.
In this study, researchers studied the sex lives of 170 heterosexual college students. To be eligible for the study, all participants had to be sexually active and currently single, but have experienced a breakup at some point during the last year. The sample predominately consisted of White females who were in their freshman year.
All participants completed a weekly diary for three months in which they were regularly asked how distressed they felt about their most recent breakup, as well as whether they had sex with anyone and the reason(s) they had sex. Participants had several reasons they could choose from, including rebound reasons (“to help you ‘get over’ your ex-partner and the breakup”) and revenge reasons (“to ‘get back at’ your ex-partner”).
Most participants (66.5%) reported having sex at least once over the course of the three-month study. Of those sexual encounters, 20% involved sex with the ex, 54% involved sex with a former partner (who was not the most recent ex), and 26% involved sex with a new partner or a stranger.
With regard to the reasons people reported having sex, about one-quarter of participants said they did so for revenge reasons and about one-third for rebound reasons. Those who had been “dumped” were the most likely to report these sexual motives--those who initiated the breakup themselves were less inclined to have sex for these reasons. Perhaps not surprisingly, the tendency to report having sex for revenge or rebound reasons declined over time, which coincided with a decrease in feelings of distress about the breakup. This suggests that sex is usually a relatively short-term coping response.
These results are limited from the standpoint that they primarily speak to the experiences of young heterosexual women who have just gone off to college after breaking up with their high school boyfriends. In different populations and at later stages of life, the prevalence of revenge and rebound sex would probably differ.
So revenge and rebound sex are reasonably common, at least among college students. But do they represent a good or bad way to cope with a breakup? For some people, rebound sex might be just the trick for restoring their self-esteem and helping them forget about their ex. In this study, however, participants who used sex in this way seemed to have more difficulty moving on to another stable relationship. Of course, just because these participants were less likely to start up a new relationship right away is not inherently a sign that they were troubled. But in cases where revenge and rebound sex prevent you from "letting go" of the past, then there is cause for concern.
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To read more about this research, see: Barber, L. L., & Cooper, M. L. (2014). Rebound sex: Sexual motives and behaviors following a relationship breakup. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43, 251-265.
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