Can you imagine a Hollywood romantic comedy deciding to leave out the kissing? It seems almost a given that the protagonists will lock lips on screen to signify that they have fallen in love. After all, kissing is a universal human behavior, right?
Actually, it probably isn't, at least not in romantic-sexual terms (affectionately kissing babies and small children does seem to be universal). A 2015 study led by anthropologist William Jankowiak of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas studied 168 cultures from around the world. Notably, the researchers could only identify the presence of romantic-sexual kissing in 46% of them. Not only was this type of kissing absent from these cultures, but many found the idea disgusting.
Broadly speaking, the ethnographic data indicates that kissing is absent from many small-scale, non-Western forager societies, such as the indigenous Mehinaku people of Brazil, who described it as "gross." In some ways, it's hard to argue with that, considering that millions of bacteria are exchanged in a lip-to-lip kiss. Conversely, Jankowiak and his colleagues found that complex societies are the most likely to engage in romantic-sexual kissing.
Passionate embrace or swapping spit?
- Humans aren't alone in kissing – chimpanzees and bonobos have also been observed locking lips, though whether this can be described as "romantic" is unclear.
- There are many theories about why (some) people kiss. It could have to do with evaluating the suitability of a potential mate or strengthening relationships.
- Jankowiak utilized the eHRAF (electronic Human Relations Area Files) and live interviews with ethnographers to collect his data. However, not everyone is entirely convinced by these findings. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has pointed out that the absence of kissing from the ethnographic record (or even live interviews) doesn't preclude it from taking place in private, especially if interviewees were reluctant to discuss the subject with researchers.