Is this a win-win or a lose-lose?
You’ve probably had sex with an ex. You might be doing it as you read this, your laptop propped on a body pillow. I know this because a longitudinal study recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Research says that 53% of young adults reported having sex with an ex, and at least 44% have been in on-and-off again relationships that started with sex. If this strikes a little close to home for you, then also be aware that the study also found that our exes are the least likely of our sexual partners to use condoms.
Now, 53% seemed inordinately high, but then I did the math, and as it turns out, I’ve slept with 71% of my exes after breaking up. (Approximately. Also, whoops?) Clearly there’s a predilection for old territory, in not only my bedroom, but in Millenials the world over. The study focused on individuals seventeen to twenty-four — also known as “emerging adults” — who, much like wisdom teeth, are slowly and painfully growing into an environment they’re not entirely sure they fit into. We’re a generation of backsliders, and the world right now, with its economic cesspool and ever-increasing stimuli, is only making the past that much more appealing.
According to a similar study done by SeekingArrangement.com, 47% of single women regularly have sex with their ex-partners, with the top five reasons given as:
1. “Missed physical intimacy”
2. “Want to restart the relationship”
3. “Things went too far after too much to drink”
4.“Bumped into each other after a night out and it seemed like a good idea”
5. “Flirting on Facebook”
Excepting the final one, which just speaks of browsing Facebook while shitfaced on Jameson, all of those reasons involve retreating into the past, or choosing the path of least resistance, two things Millennials are pretty consistently accused of.
The researchers conclude that we “emerging adults,” shuffling forth from our parents’ basements into the arms of NYT trend-pieces and novelty Tumblrs, are basically fickle and unimaginative retromaniacs. As they discovered, the general path of our relationships essentially involves cycling through previously-formed connections. For a generation constantly blamed for its inherent laziness, the fact that we’re apparently most likely to bone someone we’ve already boned makes it seem like we’re just as bored and stuck as they say we are. We’re just biding our time as we stagger through a sexual recession.
We can conjecture day and night about who and what is to blame for backsliding, but part of hooking up with your ex, and the attendant psychological and emotional baggage, is a comfort thing. Our old jeans are a hell of a lot easier to fit into than our new ones, and so is intercourse that doesn’t involve the vulnerable, "This is what I like, touch me here," period that a new relationship requires. New hook-ups take a frightening, stomach-churning amount of guesswork and investment, so ex-sex feels ideal for the risk-adverse. Need a quick lay? Call an ex, the boxed-cake-mix version of intimacy.
Comfort feeds reticence, and sex with an ex is the first verse of the “I’m not ready to move on” song. Recently, after a many-months-after-we-broke-up "visit" to an ex, he playfully dubbed me his “vintage luggage,” which I think he meant as a compliment. I imagined a well-worn case carried with him on short weekend jaunts (certainly nothing out-of-state). I was mildly offended at the time, but looking back, maybe that was all either of us was looking for: a reminder of an easier time. Sex with an ex is the relationship equivalent of moving back into your parents' basement. It’s cheap, you’re used to it, and it’s a quick move.
But what good does it really do to take a spin through the ol’ Rolodex? Often we end up self-sabotaging when we dally with recycled lovers. Nostalgia is a cold comfort, and feelings of intimacy and closeness can keep you from moving on and meeting someone else. (And trust me, it can happen to either party.) Sex with an ex can be like the mailer-daemon of good intentions, hurling all of our outreach right back to us.
Relationship patterns are patterns for a reason, and given that more than half of us are doing it, it looks like this one is here to stay (much like our exes). We’re never going to stop schtupping the people we’ve already been with, so maybe it’s time to recast the times when we fall into bed with a ghost from our past in a different light. Maybe we should think of these exes not as possible passages to previous relationships, but as nude conduits for self-exploration. At some point you know you have to pack up the vintage luggage and go back home, but for an instant, the vacation is gratifying, and if you’re lucky, you leave while there’s still enough time to find someone new.