Passionate kisses are not the norm in most cultures

Fewer than half of all cultures surveyed—46 percent—engage in romantic/sexual kissing, defined as lip-to-lip contact that may or may not be prolonged. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Researchers looked at 168 cultures throughout the world to better understand where kissing does and doesn’t occur, and found romantic kissing was the norm in only 46 percent.

“We hypothesized that some cultures would either not engage in romantic/sexual kissing, or find it to be a strange display of intimacy, but we were surprised to find that it was a majority of cultures that fell into this category,” says Justin Garcia, assistant professor of gender studies at Indiana University. “This is a real reminder of how Western ethnocentrism can bias the way we think about human behavior.”

Romantic kissing, defined as lip-to-lip contact that may or may not be prolonged, was most prevalent in the Middle East, where all 10 of the cultures studied engaged in it. In North America, 55 percent of cultures engaged in romantic kissing, along with 70 percent in Europe and 73 percent in Asia.

But there was no evidence of romantic kissing in Central America, and no ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinean, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported any evidence of romantic kissing in the populations they studied, the research shows.

The research, published in the journal American Anthropologist, also shows a relationship between social complexity and kissing: The more socially complex and stratified a society is, the higher the frequency of romantic kissing.

Chimps kiss

Interest in the study stemmed from renewed attention in the role of close touch and kissing in people’s romantic and sexual lives, Garcia says. Recent studies have made claims about the universality of erotic kissing, some even claiming 90 percent of societies engage in the act.

“However, we realized no one had used standard cross-cultural methods to assess how frequently kissing actually occurs in different societies, but by doing so, we could begin to understand why it might occur in some places and not others.”

It is not clear where romantic/sexual kissing evolved from. Some animals engage in similar behaviors; chimpanzees, for example, are known to engage in open-mouth kissing.


When it comes to humans kissing, it does serve as a way to learn more about a partner, “whether one feels there is any ‘chemistry,’ or possibly to assess health via taste and smell, and in some ways to assess compatibility with each other,” Garcia says.

“There is likely a biological underpinning to kissing, as it can often involve exchange of pheromones and saliva, and also pathogens—which might be particularly dangerous in societies without oral hygiene, where kissing may lead to spread of respiratory or other illness.

“But this is only in societies that have come to see the erotic kiss as part of their larger romantic and sexual repertoires. How that shift occurs is still an open question for research.”

Researchers from University of Nevada, Las Vegas, are coauthors of the study.

Source: Indiana University