Is Kissing a Human Universal?

Couple kissing
Aug. 19, 2015

Contrary to recent hypotheses, new research suggests that romantic-sexual kissing is not a universal human behavior.

A team led by UNLV anthropologist William Jankowiak was the first to quantify the universality of the romantic-sexual kiss via a cross-cultural study. Jankowiak largely utilized the eHRAF (electronic Human Relations Area Files) to determine the presence or absence of the romantic-sexual kiss. This data was then supplemented with a survey of ethnographers currently working with living populations. The results were published in July 2015 by the journal “American Anthropologist.”

Of the 168 cultures investigated, only 46% noted the presence of romantic-sexual kissing. In addition to searching for the keywords “kiss” and “kissing,” Jankowiak and his team reviewed records for behavior that could be identified as kissing such as the intertwining of tongues or pressing lip to lip contact. In many cases, the cultures that were listed as “not present” specifically addressed the people’s disgust at the idea of locking lips.

One surveyed ethnographer detailed that the Mahinku of Brazil described Western kissing as “gross” and “sharing dinner.” It was notable that many of the forager groups and other small scale societies shared similar views on kissing. For this reason, Jankowiak and his team specifically sought older ethnographies, many dating to pre-Western contact and globalization.

Their findings discovered a link between social complexity and the presence of romantic-sexual kissing. As the complexity of the cultures social structure increased, the likelihood that the culture kissed in this manner also increased. According to the paper, this suggests that “…kissing may even serve as a culturally specific adaptation.”

“Regardless, the study overturns the belief that romantic kissing is a near-universal human behavior,” Jankowiak told the BBC. “Instead it seems to be a product of western societies, passed on from one generation to the next.”

Jankowiak was working with Dr. Justin Garcia of the The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction and UNLV graduate student, Shelly Volsche.