The recently dumped and broken-hearted friend on the prowl for some confidence-boosting sex is a romantic-comedy staple. Now, research finds that rebound sex is no movie invention.
In a study that may not surprise anyone who has ever experienced a breakup, researchers found that up to one-third of college students who had recently been in a breakup had sex to "rebound" from their relationship within a month of the split. People who had been dumped were especially likely to feel angry and distressed, and to seek out rebound sex, researchers reported online Dec. 20 in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
"People really do use sex as a way to get over or get back at their ex-partner in the aftermath of a breakup," said study researcher Lynne Cooper, a psychologist at the University of Missouri. [50 Sultry Facts About Sex]
On the rebound
Cooper became interested in studying rebound sex because of the overwhelming number of anecdotes about the phenomenon.
"Google 'rebound' or 'revenge sex,'" she told LiveScience. "You wouldn't believe how much stuff is on the Internet about it. It's really striking."
And yet there was next to no scientific data on rebound sex. That made Cooper want to look deeper — were the stereotypes about rebound sex true? Why do people decide to have sex after a breakup? Does rebound sex really help?
"I've always been interested in how people cope with adverse events in their lives, and how the ways they choose to cope with these adverse events affects their recovery and, ultimately, their well-being," Cooper said.
She and Lindsay Barber, a master's student in psychology, recruited 170 college students who had been through a breakup in the last eight months. (The average time since the split was 13 weeks.) For 10 to 12 weeks, the students filled out weekly reports about their emotions, sexual activity and motivation for those sexual activities.
Much of what the researchers found confirmed the conventional wisdom about rebounds. Thirty-five percent of participants said they'd had sex to get over their ex, and 25 percent said they'd had sex as a form of revenge. People who had been dumped were more likely than people who did the dumping to have rebound and revenge sex.
The tendency to have rebound and revenge sex fades over time, the researchers found. By about five months post-breakup, people who were dumped became no more likely to use sex to cope with their negative emotions than people who did the dumping.
The study couldn't uncover whether rebound sex really helped people; researchers weren't able to assign students randomly to try out rebound sex, so it's likely that there are individual differences between people who have sex to cope after a breakup and people who don't, Cooper said. Nevertheless, people who reported the highest levels of rebound or revenge sex right after the breakup were the most likely to have sex with strangers and to keep having sex with lots of new people over time.
"It suggests that people who are using these strategies are, in fact, more likely to take sexual risks, and that they may be having greater difficulty in moving on and establishing a new relationship," Cooper said.
Cooper next plans to investigate whether rebound sex helps the broken-hearted feel better. She'd also like to expand the research beyond college students to other age groups and longer-term relationships.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.