It’s often said that to get over somebody, you need to get under someone else.
We’ve all come across the idea of using sex as a remedy for heartache. Maybe we’ve seen it in the movies. Maybe we’ve actually tried it ourselves a few times.
Either way, it’s always comforting to know that every misstep you make in the thick, maudlin fog of heartache falls into a well-worn groove in human experience.
But is there any scientific data at all to prove that the rom-com movie’s favorite narrative twist actually works in real life?
While you’ll find troves of online sources of advice concerning rebound – or revenge – sex, there is surprisingly little scientific research on the subject.
Back in 2014, University of Missouri psychologists Lindsay Barber and Lynne Cooper could find only 12 published articles about it in psychological journals. But they found some 18 million casual online articles on the topic through a simple Google search.
Barber and Cooper’s subsequent study allows some insight into this often experienced but little understood aspect of sexual behavior.
The Science of Rebound and Revenge Sex Revealed
Some 170 students participated in the study, which the researchers undertook over the course of a semester. To be eligible, participants had to be sexually active and currently single.
Of course, they must have experienced a breakup at some point during the previous year.
The sample chiefly consisted of women who were in their freshman year. Quite fittingly, the two scientists gathered canonical definitions of “rebound sex” from Yahoo Answers and of “revenge sex” from the website Lemondrop.
Below is the gist of what they found.
1. Most people have sex within three months of a breakup.
In case you’re wondering how your ex is coping, here’s an uncomfortable fact for you. Some 35 percent of the participants began banging other people within a month of breaking up.
Most participants – 66.5 percent – reported having sex at least once over the course of the three-month study.
Of those sexual encounters, 54 percent involved sex with a former partner who was not the most recent ex. Another 26 percent involved sex with a new partner or a stranger.
Those who did engage in rebound sex were also more likely to keep having sex with new partners over time, too, “suggesting that they may be slower to recover from the breakup,” the study says.
2. Revenge and rebound sex are short-term coping mechanisms.
“As you might imagine, or perhaps have experienced, when you’ve been left behind by a romantic partner, your feelings of self-esteem are likely to dip and you may feel general sadness and perhaps anger,” says Susan Krause Whitbourne, a professor of psychological and brain science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
True enough, rather than plain sexual desire, sadness and anger seemed to be the primary motivators behind the quest for sex after a breakup.
One-quarter of the participants said they had sex with someone else out of an urge to exact revenge on their ex-partners. Around one-third said they did it to rebound from the breakup.
The average person also reported higher levels of coping, rebound, and revenge motives for sex immediately after the breakup, which then declined over time, the study found.
This suggests that rebound or revenge sex is usually a relatively short-term coping response.
Overall, participants’ distress from the breakup diminished and then tapered off within months. Distress began to recede more pronouncedly about 25 to 28 weeks after the breakup.
3. More committed partners are less likely to have rebound or revenge sex.
The nature of the relationship and the breakup had an effect on participants’ behavior, as well, Barber and Cooper learned.
Unsurprisingly, the partner who was dumped was much more likely to have revenge or rebound sex than the partner who did the dumping.
The researchers also looked at how long the relationship lasted before it ended, and how committed the person was to the arrangement. The results were more complex.
For example, the researchers found that people who are more committed to their prior relationships were less likely to have rebound or revenge sex.
If they did, it was more likely to be motivated by a desire to cope with feelings of loneliness rather than spite or anger.
4. When it comes to rebounding, trusting your looks does matter.
Having high self-esteem about one’s appearance also seemed to serve as a defense against the sadness and misery that comes after a relationship’s ending.
People who feel better about their appearance tend to become involved in stable relationships rather than continuing to have revenge sex as a way to cope, according to the study.
“Interestingly, self-esteem itself seemed less vulnerable to the effect of a relationship’s ending” says Professor Whitbourne. “People high in self-esteem were more likely to be in strongly committed relationships, but when those relationships ended, their self-esteem didn’t suffer.”
Is Rebound Sex Right for You?
The Barber and Cooper study reveals that revenge and rebound sex are fairly common activities – at least among younger people.
Obviously, while the strategy might sound good, having sex to get over a previous relationship – or somehow get back at the ex – has its downsides.
The results of the research indicate that most people who engage in rebound or revenge sex struggle with loneliness and feelings of being unwanted.
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,” says the prominent Kinsey Institute sex researcher, Justin Lehmiller.
“But in cases where revenge and rebound sex prevent you from letting go of the past, then there is cause for concern.”
Only you would know under which category you fall. Science can either teach you new things – or it can provide trustworthy corroboration for things you’ve long known to be true.
That said, you’re going to be in a strange, volatile place emotionally after a breakup, that’s for sure. So, if you decide to jump into bed with someone, take care that you’re not relocating old feelings of dependency onto a new partner.
You don’t need science to tell you that isn’t something you’d want for yourself.
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