One lover dumps the other. Soon after, according to conventional wisdom, both are likely to jump into bed with new lovers, often strangers.
“Dumpers,” many people assume, may have “rebound” sex to get over the distress, loss, and anger engendered by the break-up, and to bolster their self-esteem. “Dumpees,” for their part, may have “revenge” sex to soothe the greater distress, loss, and anger of being cast off, and to bolster their own more injured self-esteem. Meanwhile, friends warn both parties to go slow, claiming that sex “too soon” after a breakup is bad for the soul.
Recent research shows that when lovers actually engage in rebound or revenge sex—and the truth is that only a minority do—this conventional wisdom is more the exception than the rule.
Great Interest, Little Research
On the Internet, at least, rebound and revenge sex are hot topics deals. Googling “rebound sex,” yields 5.4 million hits, and “revenge sex” 10 times that number, nearly 58 million. But when I entered the same keywords into the psychological literature search engine, PsychInfo, only a few reports turned up, two of them notable: In one, University of Missouri (UM) researchers polled 170 sexually active introductory psychology students who had experienced breakups during the previous year. And in the second, ABC News conducted a telephone relationship survey of 1,501 U.S. adults of all ages that included questions about their reactions to breakups.
How Common Is Rebound/Revenge Sex?
Among the UM undergraduate participants—two-thirds of whom were women— only a third said they’d ever had sex specifically to get over a breakup or to get back at a recent ex. The ABC News survey produced similar findings: Among respondents 18 to 29 years old, 33% said they had engaged in rebound sex, and 16% in revenge sex. Rebound and revenge sex, then, are by no means rare, but they’re less common than many believe. The ABC sample overall included adults of all ages, and overall, only 20% of participants said they’d ever engaged in rebound sex and just 10% in revenge sex. While anyone may have rebound or revenge sex, as age increases, evidently these motivations decrease. This is understandable—aging generally reduces feelings of sexual urgency, so those leaving one bed may be less likely to jump quickly into another. Also, as adults mature, they (usually) gain perspective on the fluctuations of life and come to cope with breakups in other ways.
Who Are the Partners in Rebound/Revenge Sex?
Sex with a hot stranger is a key element of the rebound/revenge-sex mythos. Breakups purportedly push people to throw caution to the wind. To get the ex “out of their systems,” the newly single jump into bed with anyone who strikes their fancy. After all, it’s not love, just rebound/revenge sex. But according to the UM survey, strangers are both dumpers’ and dumpees’ least likely partners:
In only 5% of cases, a person’s first post-breakup partner was a stranger (someone met that day).
In 20%, that partner was the recent ex himself or herself.
In 21%, that partner was a first-time lover who was already a friend or acquaintance.
… and 54% of the time, the partner was a previous lover (other than the most recent ex).
Clearly, then, breakups don’t hurl people into the arms of strangers. On the contrary, 95% of the time, post-breakup sex partners are friends or acquaintances, including the recent ex. Post-breakup sex is less about throwing caution to the wind than about curling up with someone familiar. The common denominator appears to be comfort. After a breakup, who can best provide it? A friend.
How Long Are People Interested in Rebound or Revenge Sex?
The more established the relationship, the more extended the distress, and the longer the exes report interest in rebound/revenge sex. Independent of relationship duration, for both dumpers and dumpees, distress declined steadily and largely ended after around six months.
Is Rebound/Revenge Sex Bad for the Soul?
Not according to a study by researchers at the University of Illinois and Queens College in New York City. They discovered that rebound relationships often provide emotional benefits.
As part of an ongoing study of romantic attachment, they surveyed 77 people (60 of them women) aged 18 to 39 who’d experienced recent breakups. The researchers found that the sooner people entered into new relationships, the greater their feelings of well-being and self-esteem were. This is a small sample, but contrary to the often-repeated advice that it’s a mistake to jump into a new relationship “too soon,” these researchers found that “beginning a new relationship quickly after a breakup seemed to have positive consequences.”
The few studies of rebound/revenge sex can’t be considered definitive. More testimony would help. What’s been your experience? Have you ever engaged in rebound or revenge sex? Were your partners strangers or people you knew? And looking back, do you regret it? Or did it help you recover?
ABC News. “The American Sex Survey: A Peek Beneath the Sheets,” Oct. 21, 2004.
Anderson, E.R. et al. “Ready to Take a Chance Again: Transitions to Dating Among Divorced Parents,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage (2004) 40:61.
Barber, L.L. and M.L. Cooper. “Rebound Sex: Motives and Behaviors Following a Relationship Breakup,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2013) 43:251.
Brumbaugh, C.C. and R.C. Fraley. “”Too Fast, Too Soon? An Empirical Investigation into Rebound Relationships,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2014) epub ahead of print.
Leigh, B.C. et al. “Sexual Behavior of U.S. Adults: Results from a National Survey,” American Journal of Public Health (1993) 83:1400.
Smith, T.W. “Adult Sexual Behavior in 1989: Number of Partners, Frequency of Intercourse, and Risk of AIDS,” Family Planning Perspectives (1989) 23:102.