According to a new study of kissing preferences, romantic kissing is found in only 46 per cent of world cultures, making our Western preoccupation with pashing look a little odd. The study examined 168 cultures from wide range of geographical locations, historical backgrounds, and social structures, and defined romantic-sexual kissing as intentional lip-to-lip contact between adults. Previously, it was widely believed that romantic kissing was a near-universal practice. This appears to be the product of Western ethnocentrism, the belief that a behaviour currently deemed pleasurable in the West must be a human universal. Earlier surveys of kissing had not distinguished between romantic-sexual kissing and adults kissing children, or had included brushing the lips against other parts of a partner’s body in the definition of “kiss”.
Because kissing was considered universal, scientists have tried to explain why people would want to share their germs in such a slimy way. After all, one kiss can earn you 80 million new bacteria. Evolutionary anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have argued that kissing is an important way to assess a potential mate’s health and genetic compatibility. But while there is strong evidence that scent plays an important part in human attraction, it is unclear why locking lips would be preferable to just sniffing around.
Open mouth and tongue kissing have been observed in our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. But for chimpanzees, kissing is a form of reconciliation and is more common between males than females—in other words, not a “romantic” behaviour. Bonobos greet each other with sex (a “bonobo handshake”) and use sexual stimulation for all sorts of bonding. So it’s unlikely that their smooching is an important part of mate selection. No other animals are known to kiss as part of their mating ritual.
Interestingly, the study found “a strong correlation between the frequency of the romantic–sexual kiss and a society’s relative social complexity”. None of the forager groups studied in Sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, or the Amazon engaged in romantic–sexual kissing and some even labelled the practice “disgusting”. One regional exception was the near-ubiquity of kissing in the Arctic; nine of the 11 forager groups from Northern Asia and North America did kiss.
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Some peoples have been kissing for a very long time—Hindu Vedic Sanskrit texts from over 3,500 years ago describe kissing as inhaling each other’s soul. In most cultures, however, the emergence of the romantic–sexual kiss has occurred very recently; for example, there are no depictions of kissing in Egyptian hieroglyphs. It may be that the development of kissing coincides with other factors, such as oral hygiene; or as lead author William Jankowiak suggests, kissing may be primarily a product of Western societies, passed on from one generation to the next.
Since the behaviour has developed with culture, kissing can be thought of as a ritualised part of romantic and sexual foreplay, rather than as a natural and universal behaviour. The authors note that “like other romantic and sexual behaviours, while kissing may be a way to communicate intimacy in some societies or may function as a specific eroticised activity in others, it is important to note that for quite a few kissing is seen as unpleasant, unclean, or simply unusual.”
But kissing still has an important role to play. In a Western context, studies have shown that kissing directly influences the function of romantic relationships and is an important part of pair bonding. As the paper almost poetically puts it, “the romantic–sexual kiss may be a seemingly pleasurable part of sexual repertoires that vary across place and time, but anchors on the truly universal human capacity for romantic love.”