A new cross-cultural study finds that when it comes to romantic and sexual relationships, the kiss is far from a universal behavior
Like smiling or laughing, kissing is often referred to as a primitive, human universal—that is, a trait, behavior, or cultural feature found in all human societies. Everyone locks lips to express their love and affection for their partner, right?
Not so fast. Researchers from the University of Nevada and Indiana University have discovered that the ‘romantic-sexual kiss’ is far from ubiquitous. In fact, it’s used as a display of affection in a minority of cultures—and actually considered gross by some. (But there are Scientifically-Proven Ways Kissing Makes You Healthy)
In the study, which was published in American Anthropologist, researchers analyzed 168 cultures that spanned a wide range of geographical locations, historical backgrounds, and social structures over the course of a year. They found romantic kissing was only present in 77 places (that's just 46 percent!). Even more surprising was the fact that smooching your sweetie was completely non-existent in some cultures—91 of them, to be exact (that's more than those who were in favor of it!).
When broken down by cultural area, the researchers found romantic kissing present in 100 percent of the Middle Eastern cultures studied, 73 percent of Asian cultures, 70 percent of European cultures, and 55 percent of North American cultures. Shockingly, they found no presence of romantic kissing in Central America.
“Like other romantic and sexual behaviors, while kissing may be a way to communicate intimacy in some societies or may function as a specific eroticized activity in others, it is important to note that for quite a few kissing is seen as unpleasant, unclean, or simply unusual,” the study concludes.
The study authors also report that the more socially complex a society is—defined by denser populations, social classes, and centralized political leadership—the higher the frequency of romantic–sexual kissing.
“We suspect that perhaps Western ethnocentrism—that is 'the belief that a behavior currently deemed pleasurable must be a human universal'—may be driving the common misconception that romantic–sexual kissing is a (near) universal,” the study authors conclude.
That's not to say that we should discount the value kissing has on our romantic relationships. After all, research shows kissing activates the release of the lovey-dovey hormones dopamine and oxycotin, which help to promote feelings of affection and closeness. We should, however, remember it's not as normative as we might think, and clearly there are other ways to express love worldwide other than just brushing lips. For more on what goes on with our bodies when we swap saliva, see Your Brain On: A First Kiss.