Movies and television shows often depict jilted lovers jumping into bed with a stranger they met at a bar in order to have angry “revenge” sex or despondent “rebound” sex. But how often does this occur in real life?
To find out, University of Missouri researchers recruited 170 undergraduate students who ended romantic relationships within the past year and asked them to fill out weekly reports detailing how they were feeling about their ex and whether they had engaged in sex with anyone. About one-quarter to one-third of the volunteers said they had sex to either get back at their partners—revenge sex—or to rebound from the relationship within the first four weeks after their breakup, according to the study published this week in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
“Having sex to get over your partner was somewhat more common than having sex to get back at a partner,” said study co-author M. Lynne Cooper, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri. Both men and women sought out sex to soothe their sadness.
“Most of our participants were college freshmen who had just broken up with their high school sweethearts,” she added. “It’s a highly emotional time, moving away and adjusting to college so we’re not sure these results can be generalized to an older population of singles.”
Some of the findings were obvious—and were found in other polls involving older adults. Students who were dumped or highly distressed by their failed relationship were more likely to assuage their anger or seek comfort in sex. Getting over a long-term relationship that lasted more than a year also took longer to get over and tended to result in a greater number of casual sex encounters.
Out of the two-thirds of the study participants who reported having sex during the 10-week study, 20 percent had sex with their ex-partner, 26 percent had sex with a new lover, and 54 percent had sex with someone they’d hooked up with before the breakup. Some even wound up getting back together with their ex and had to withdraw early from the study as a result.
While the researchers didn’t identify specific personality traits that would lead someone to seek out revenge sex, Cooper said their findings suggested that it’s more likely in those with neurotic or hostile personalities with predominant feelings of anger, low self-esteem, and pessimism. “They may have sex to cope with negative emotions or to assure themselves that they’re still attractive.”
Does revenge or rebound sex actually help heal a broken heart?
“In general, I would think that it’s not helpful,” Cooper said, “but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be under certain circumstances.” She’s planning future studies to determine which people, if any, would be most likely to benefit from seeking out sex for self-affirmation and a little ego stroking.