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Sex with an Ex: Are Post-Relationship Hookups a New Normal?

On again, off again, then back on — turns out those tumultuous relationships are pretty common among young adults. But what do they mean for personal development, and is "ex sex" the new normal?
Sex with an Ex: Are Post-Relationship Hookups a New Normal?
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It's not you, it's me — but we can still have sex, right? For young adults, ending a relationship doesn't necessarily mean ending intimacy. And according to a new study in the Journal of Adolescent Research, those on-again, off-again relationships could account for a lot of the behavior behind today's perceived "hook-up" culture. Turns out the supposedly casual sex young people are having might not be so no-strings after all.

What's the Deal?

The study analyzed the relationship experiences of 792 young adults (ages 17-24) from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in Toleda, Ohio. Researchers looked for two forms of "relationship churning": reconciliation with an ex, and sex with an ex after a breakup had occurred. Around 44 percent of individuals who had been in a relationship in the previous two years had broken up and reconciled with at least one ex. More than a quarter of the participants reported having sex with an ex in the previous two years. Just under half of all study participants experienced at least one form of relationship churning, and respondents identifying as black or "other" were more likely to report the behavior.

According to Dr. Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and a researcher behind the study, the behavior is probably even more common than their results suggest. "Because our analyses only use data on respondents’ present or most recent relationships," Halpern-Meekin said over the phone, "we're likely under-representing the chances of emerging adults everexperiencing a reconciliation or sex with an ex." So individuals who hadn't been in romantic relationships in the previous two years weren't included in the study, even though they may have experienced reconciliation or "ex sex" prior to that time frame.

Why It Matters

At first glance, the study might suggest relationships among today's youth are tumultuous, unpredictable, and most definitely hot and cold. But before we use this study to support the notion that true romance is dead, it's important to put things in perspective. Relationship churning is clearly common, but it could also be a normal part of young adult development. And according to Halpern-Meekin, reconciliation and having sex with an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend could also help account for what some sociologists call the rise of casual sex and hook-up culture. "The results of studies that look at casual sex indicate that what we look at as "casual sex" might not actually be so casual... Some of the claims about having a hookup culture might be overblown; a lot of it might be people continuing a sexual relationship after they break up."

Of course, relationship churning isn't without its risks. On an emotional level, the researchers suggest sex with an ex-partner could have some especially negative effects. Continuing to have sex with an ex post-breakup can further emotional connections with that person, which could make forming new relationships harder down the road. Exes who keep having sex with each other might also be at higher risk for STIs or unplanned pregnancy if they, for example, decide to forgo condoms even though they are no longer monogamous.

Ultimately, the impacts of relationship churning will vary dramatically from one couple to another. Halpern-Meekin and her team are currently working on another study to examine whether certain factors in relationships — such as domestic violence — correlate to a higher rate of churning (results thus far suggest that they do). What this study gives us is some basic insight into how commonplace relationship churning is for young people. If you're in the midst of a relationship that's proving hard to shake, you're most definitely not alone.

Have you ever reconciled or had sex with an ex? Do you think it's dangerous behavior? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author @d_tao.

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