Strictly Casual

What research tells us about the whos, whys, and hows of hookups

After a Hookup, a Wide Range of Emotional Reactions

A new study identifies 4 distinct groups. Which best describes you?

People often like to think of—and portray—hooking up as a black-or-white, all-good-or-all-bad affair. The reality, however, is that casual sex can provoke a wide range of emotional reactions in those who engage in it. Sometimes those reactions are predominantly and intensely positive and not at all negative; other times, the situation is reversed; and in many cases, people experience a mix of both positive and negative reactions of varying intensities.

So, considering the broad spectrum of emotions involved, are there identifiable patterns of reactions that hookups typically evoke in people?

That's the question that a team of researchers led by doctoral student Johanna Strokoff at the University of Louisville tried to answer in a study just published online ahead of print in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. They recruited a sample of 1,580 students (ages 17 to 28; mean age = 19) from a large Southeastern university taking an intro course on families across the lifespan. Of the participants, 56 percent (50 percent women) had hooked up within the last 12 months. They were asked to identify how they felt after their most recent hookup encounter, “All things considered.” Participants were asked to rate five positive emotions (happy, desirable, adventuresome, pleased, and excited) and five negative emotions (empty, confused, used, awkward, and disappointed) on a 5-point scale from 1 (Not at all) to 5 (Very much).

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The researchers then plugged these ratings into a statistical technique called “latent class cluster analysis”, which looks for groups (or clusters) of individuals that are most similar to one another, while maximizing the differences with the other clusters. They tested 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-cluster variations, and found that the 4-cluster model of post-hookup emotional reactions was the best statistical fit for the data. The four clusters are presented in the graph below.

As you can see, the four patterns of reactions were vastly different:

  • The Happy Hopefuls, who made up 32 percent of the sample, had very strong positive emotions (their happiness and excitement were almost at the maximum) and fairly low negative emotions (between 1.5 and 2 on the 5-point scale).
  • The Content Realists, who made up 30 percent of the sample, had pretty strong positive reactions (not as strong as the Happy Hopefuls, but well above the mid-point of the scale) and even lower levels of negative emotions (their emptiness, confusion, and sense of being used were at the very minimum). Another difference between these two groups was in their hope for a future committed relationship—46 percent of Happy Hopefuls, but only 19 percent of Content Realists, held such hopes.
  • The third cluster (24 percent) was labeled Used & Confused, because these students had the strongest feelings of emptiness, confusion, and being used of all groups (almost at the scale mid-point), and only medium amounts of happiness (slightly above the scale mid-point). This was the most ambivalent group, as they experienced both positive and negative reactions with some intensity (though the positives still outweighed the negatives by about one scale point). Similar to the Happy Hopefuls, many Used & Confused students (37 percent) reported hopes for a committed relationship.
  • Finally, the Disappointed & Disengaged (18 percent) displayed the least amount of positive emotions (well below the mid-point of the scale) among the clusters, and high amounts of negative emotions (especially awkwardness and disappointment). They were the only ones whose negative reactions outweighed the positive, yet they exhibited less confusion, emptiness, and used feelings than the Used & Confused cohort.

Their different reactions to hookups were not the only thing distinguishing the four clusters of people; they also differed in more general psychological health and adjustment. As the graph below indicates, the Happy Hopefuls and the Content Realists had higher social adjustment (i.e., more positive interpersonal relationships) and lower depression and loneliness then the Used & Confused and the Disappointed & Disengaged. Surprisingly, Happy Hopefuls drank more during hookups than all other groups. There were no group differences in academic adjustment. (It’s important to note that this was a correlational study, so we cannot say whether, say, higher depression among the Disappointed & Disengaged led them to experience their hookup more negatively; if the more negative hookup experience led to higher depression; or if a third factor caused both of these).

At this point you are probably wondering if there were gender differences in cluster membership. Indeed there were. As the graph below shows, men were somewhat more likely to be Happy Hopefuls and Content Realists, while women were more likely to find themselves feeling Used & Confused or Disappointed & Disengaged. The good news is the majority of both sexes (68 percent of men and 55 percent of women) had mostly positive post-hookup reactions; the bad news is a substantial minority of both sexes (32 percent of men and 45 percent of women) had relatively strong levels of negative reactions, whether or not they were accompanied by relatively strong positive reactions.

Of course, this study, like most hookup research, is limited by the young, collegiate sample so we can't generalize to all people everywhere. But these data do reveal the immense complexity of emotional reactions that follow casual sex, both within an individual same person and across different individuals.

Post-hookup reactions are far from black or white.


Have a casual sex story to share with the world? Or want to read other people's hookup experiences? That's what The Casual Sex Project and @CasualSexProj are for.

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Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D., studies how various expressions of sexuality are related to psychological health and wellbeing.


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