Is Kissing A Universal Sexual And Romantic Behavior Among Humans?

Kissing is frequently claimed to be a universal or nearly universal romantic behavior. For instance, many sexuality textbooks argue something to the effect that while kissing is common in the U.S. and other Western countries, “it is also very common in most other societies” [1]. On the surface, such claims might seem reasonable in light of research suggesting that kissing may have evolutionary significance. For instance, some scientists have argued that kissing may be adaptive because it allows for an exchange of healthy bacteria, whereas others have claimed that kissing might play an important role in mate choice. In order to make claims regarding the universality of kissing, though, what we really need is a large cross-cultural study looking at whether kissing actually occurs among different groups of people. Fortunately, such a study has just been published in the American Anthropologist, and the results suggest that kissing isn’t quite the universal behavior that has been previously assumed [2].

In this study, researchers primarily looked at data from the Electronic Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF); however, they also obtained data on additional cultures not included in the eHRAF by surveying ethnographers who were knowledgeable on those cultures. Between these sources, data were available for 168 different cultures around the world.

For purposes of this research, kissing was defined as “lip-to-lip contact lasting long enough for the exchange of saliva.” Using this definition, kissing was coded as either “present” or “not present” in each culture. A determination of “not present” was made in cases where (1) romantic kissing had never been observed or was considered “disgusting,” or (2) other types of kissing were known to occur (e.g., parent-child) but there was no mention of romantic kissing.

What may surprise many of you is that kissing was only determined to be “present” in less than half of the cultures included in this study (45.8%); in the remainder (54.2%), no evidence of romantic kissing was found.

Kissing appeared to vary across cultural areas, with reports of “not present” occurring more commonly in cultures from Central and South America, Africa, and Oceania. In contrast, kissing was more frequently observed among cultures in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and North America.

The researchers also found that the more socially complex a culture was, the less likely there was to be a finding of “not present” for kissing.

One important limitation to this study is that a classification of “not present” cannot necessarily be taken to mean that romantic kissing is completely nonexistent in a given culture. That said, it is important to note that these data were derived from researchers who had extensively studied sexual behaviors in these cultures. Thus, we can at least have some confidence that kissing is unlikely to be a major part of romantic intimacy in the “not present” cultures.

In short, these findings point to the provocative conclusion that kissing does not appear to be a universal or nearly universal romantic behavior after all. This is not to say that the proposed evolutionary explanations behind kissing are necessarily incorrect; rather, it may be that kissing is an adaptation specific to certain cultures as opposed to a broader human adaptation.

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[1] Hyde, J.S., & DeLamater, J.D. (2011). Understanding human sexuality (11th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

[2] Jankowiak, W.R., Volsche, S.L., & Garcia, J.R. (in press). Is the romantic-sexual kiss a near human universal? American Anthropologist.

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