Sex Ed

Kissing Is Not A Universal Sexual And Romantic Behavior Across Cultures

November 17, 2017 by Justin Lehmiller


Many sexuality researchers and educators have claimed that kissing is a universal or near-universal sexual and romantic behavior. For example, several sexuality textbooks explicitly say that kissing isn’t just popular in the U.S. and other Western countries, but “it is also very common in most other societies” [1]. These claims make sense in light of research suggesting that kissing has evolutionary significance. For instance, some researchers have suggested that kissing could be adaptive to the extent that it promotes an exchange of healthy bacteria. At the same time, others have claimed that kissing might play an important role when it comes to mate choice.

However, if we truly want to make claims about the universality of kissing, we really need a large cross-cultural study to explore whether kissing actually occurs in different cultures and societies. A recent study published in the American Anthropologist does precisely this, and the results suggest that kissing may not be the universal behavior it has long been assumed to be [2].

In this study, researchers mostly looked at data from the Electronic Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF); however, they also obtained data on other cultures not included in the eHRAF by surveying ethnographers who possessed knowledge about those cultures. Altogether, data were obtained for 168 cultures worldwide.

Kissing was coded as either “present” or “not present” in each culture, with kissing defined specifically as “lip-to-lip contact lasting long enough for the exchange of saliva.” A classification of “not present” occurred when (1) romantic kissing had never been observed or was considered “disgusting,” or (2) other types of kissing were known to occur (such as parent-child) but there was no mention of romantic kissing.

Surprisingly, kissing was found “present” in less than half of the cultures analyzed (45.8%). In the remaining cultures (54.2%), there was no evidence of romantic kissing.

Kissing varied across cultural regions, with reports of “not present” occurring most commonly in cultures from Central and South America, Africa, and Oceania. By contrast, kissing was most frequently observed among cultures in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and North America. Interestingly, the more socially complex a culture was, the lower the likelihood of a “not present” finding for kissing.

It is important to highlight that a classification of “not present” does not necessarily mean that romantic kissing is completely nonexistent within a given culture. Kissing could potentially exist without having been observed. That said, these data were obtained from researchers who had extensively studied sexuality in these cultures, which means it is unlikely that kissing is a major part of sexual and romantic intimacy in the “not present” cultures.

Bottom line: these findings suggest that kissing may not be a universal or nearly universal romantic behavior after all. This is not to say that the proposed evolutionary explanations for kissing discussed above are necessarily wrong–it could potentially be the case that kissing is an adaptation specific to certain cultures rather than a broader human adaptation.

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[1] Hyde, J.S., & DeLamater, J.D. (2011). Understanding human sexuality (11th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

[2] Jankowiak, W.R., Volsche, S.L., & Garcia, J.R. (2015). Is the romantic-sexual kiss a near human universal? American Anthropologist, 117(3), 535-539.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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