What is Rebound Sex, and is It a Good Idea?

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Rebound sex is generally defined as sexual activity that someone seeks out in order get over an ex or move on after a breakup [1]. In other words, rebound sex is really all about one’s motivations or reasons for having sex. If it’s about moving on more than anything else, it probably falls in the rebound category.

Rebound sex is most likely to occur within about a month following a breakup. Research shows that the longer it has been since the breakup, the less likely one is to report rebound sex.  

This makes sense because distress following a breakup usually peaks at about two weeks, and starts to decline around 4 weeks [2]. Also, on average, 4 weeks post-breakup is when people tend to have sex with a new partner on average.

In light of this, rebound sex is probably best thought of as a short-term coping strategy. That said, there’s a lot of variability in how long it takes to get over a breakup, and if you’re exiting a really long-term or valued relationship, distress might go on for months, maybe even years. So if distress remains high for a prolonged period of time, rebound sex might take place over a much longer period of time.  

Who is most likely to have rebound sex? Research shows that people are much more likely to have it if they were the one who was dumped [1]. Getting dumped can be highly distressing and cause a serious hit to your self-esteem. As a result, this tends to prompt more coping behaviors, such as rebound sex.  

So how many people have rebound sex? In a 3-month study of college students who experienced a breakup in the past year, about two-thirds of the participants reported having sex during the course of the study, about one-third of whom said they did so for rebound reasons [1]. This suggests that rebound sex is a fairly common experience following a breakup, at least for young adults. It’s probably common among older adults, too; however, we just don’t yet have the data to put a number on it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having or wanting to have rebound sex. It’s neither universally good nor bad. On the positive side, for some people, rebound sex can boost or restore self-confidence in a way that really does help them to move on with their life and/or start a new relationship. 

At the same time, however, not everyone who has rebound sex makes great decisions or has positive experiences. For example, if your rebound involves a drunken hookup that you end up regretting, then it might be counterproductive by causing a further hit to your self-esteem. The context and circumstances surrounding rebound sex therefore matter greatly in terms of its ultimate impact. 

It’s worth noting that people who have rebound sex tend to take a little longer to start a new relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean that rebound sex itself makes it harder to move on, though. Keep in mind that rebounding is confounded with being dumped, so it’s kind of hard to separate out the independent effects of each process. For some, rebounding is part of the healing process, whereas for others, it can be a stumbling block that makes it harder to move on. Again, it all depends on the individual circumstances.

If you’re on the rebound, it’s generally advisable to be up front with your partner(s) about that. If you can both be on the same page about what this is and is not (i.e., just sex and nothing more), then you can minimize the odds of conflict and drama. If you’re not emotionally available and ready to start a new relationship, then leading someone on probably isn’t going to turn out well for anyone. As with any other sexual relationship, communication is key.

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[1] Barber, L. L., & Cooper, M. L. (2014). Rebound sex: Sexual motives and behaviors following a relationship breakup. Archives of Sexual Behavior43, 251-265. 

[2] Moran, J. B., Wade, T. J., & Murray, D. R. (2020). The psychology of breakup sex: Exploring the motivational factors and affective consequences of post-breakup sexual activity. Evolutionary Psychology18(3), 1474704920936916.

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