Alex* a 23-year-old Boston-based esthetician, was standing in the living room at a friend’s party when she saw her ex of about a year. He held a drink in one hand, and her inhibition in the other. “I’d lose all thought processes around him,” she tells Bustle. They’d dated for about 11 months, but continued hooking up after calling it quits in early 2020. “He was a classic narcissist. Just a really selfish person. And as terrible as this sounds, I still went for it knowing that I didn’t even like him.”
Despite knowing her ex was bad for her, their run-ins — like that party — would almost always end up back at his place. They’d even sometimes talk about where they went wrong as a couple. “He’d usually whisper something in my ear like ‘I’ll make it up to you’,” says Alex. “Outside the bedroom, sure, we didn’t work together. But inside, it was a different story.”
Stand in line for the bathroom on any given night out, and you’ll probably hear a drunken stranger plea for direction: “Should I text my ex?!” But it’s one thing to hit up someone from whom you consciously uncoupled; it’s another to engage in “toxic ex sex.” TikTok suggests people are catching onto the allure of the latter: Scroll through your #ForYou page and find a deluge of TikToks about manifesting a toxic ex back into your life for a “closure” romp. Experts and people who’ve been there agree: Even if the relationship wasn’t worth it, the sex can be.
“It’s that it’s safe, but it’s not safe,” says Andrea Dindinger, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. “What makes it exciting is that they know it’s bad. They know that, when their friends find out, those friends are going to be like ‘What the hell?’ or ‘No!’”
Sometimes, it’s a lot easier — or more convenient — to sleep with an ex over someone you don’t know as well, even if the relationship didn’t end so great. (This was particularly true during the height of the pandemic, when the prospect of cruising apps for dates felt akin to public health risk.) Plus, past sexual partners already know your body and what turns you on, or what doesn’t.
Emerson, 22, a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, found herself going back to her on-again, off-again ex of about two years for that exact reason. Even though she found the relationship toxic — he was in an open relationship with a jealous partner, and had a bit of a manipulative streak — they had amazing sexual chemistry and similar kinks, and not many people in the Midwest were as open to kink culture as him. Emerson tells Bustle that she was new to exploring kink when she met him and that “adding kink, fetishes, and some power dynamic play” opened up a whole world of experimenting for her. Though she was fully turned off to the idea of making the relationship “on-again,” she would still hit her ex up frequently before finally meeting her current partner.
Danielle Wilson, a relationship coach, suggests that the hotness of toxic ex sex doesn’t come from the familiarity of old routines, but rather from the illusion of certainty. “From a psychological point of view, it has less to do with their skills and more to do with the fact that during sex was the only time that your needs were met by them,” she tells Bustle. If this person doesn’t reciprocate your feelings outside of the bedroom — as Emerson experienced — it feels really good when they do between the sheets. “All of your feel-good hormones peak during sex,” Wilson explains. “Suddenly, you feel validated and seen when you might not have before.” She adds that there’s a certain irony in feeling respected by your partner at that moment.
That’s why Victoria, 27, a Philadelphia-based medical sales representative, has no false hopes about hitting up her long-term ex-girlfriend. During the four years they dated, she says, it was a jealous relationship, where you’d “constantly check the other’s location.” Now that she’s single, she texts her ex when she wants to do some boundary-pushing stuff in the bedroom, but feels it’s a little “much” for casual hookups. Victoria has no regrets about the meet-ups because she makes sure they’re about her sexual needs. “It’s like, if I’m not orgasming, then why would I be there?”
According to Dindinger, Victoria has the right mindset. She also advises her clients to not have sex with a toxic ex without an orgasm: “The orgasm isn’t necessarily about the terrible ex, but about you being connected to your breath and sexuality.” When you make it about yourself, that’s when it’s worth it.
Alex has taken a similar mantra into 2021. Rather than waiting to run into her toxic ex at parties, she’s started scheduling the hookups herself. The sex, she says, is even hotter because she’s in control — more so than she was in the relationship. “I tell him what to do to me and he follows.” She adds that if the power-play wasn’t already supercharged because of its toxicity, it probably would be like any other sexual encounter. It might seem bad, she adds, but feels “so good.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
Danielle Wilson, Relationship Coach
Andrea Dindinger, LMFT, Marriage and Family Therapist