Performative Kissing: When and Why People Make Out in Public
August 2, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller
When a couple starts kissing intensely in public, it tends to capture your attention—you can’t pull your eyes away. And when you see this, it’s possible to experience a wide range of reactions, from curiosity to arousal to annoyance (hence why you might hear someone say, “Get a room!”).
So what motivates hot and heavy public displays of affection like this anyway? Is it more about showing a partner affection, or showing off? A study published in the Journal of Sex Research suggests that it’s probably more about the latter than the former.
Researchers surveyed 349 college students about their past experiences with “performative making out.” What we’re talking about here is intense kissing that takes place in a public setting where others are clearly going to witness it.
Participants were asked if they had done it before, what it was like, what prompted them to do it, and what kind of reaction they got.
Approximately one-third of the sample had done some performative kissing before. Men and women reported similar levels of experience with this; however, women were four times more likely than men to say they had engaged in performative making out with a same-sex partner (8 percent vs. 2 percent, respectively). While all of the men who reported a public same-sex kiss were gay, almost all of the women who did so were heterosexual. More on that momentarily.
In terms of motivations for public kissing, the most common motivator for men who made out with women was to show off—they wanted to boost their image or social standing. Less commonly, some men reported doing so to demonstrate their relationship status (or show others that their partner is taken), to start a new relationship, or just for fun.
For women who made out with men, the primary motivator was to stir up jealousy, often on the part of an ex. Sometimes this was tied to revenge motives, while other times it was tied to a desire to get a former partner back (i.e., by showing their ex what they’re missing out on). Although some women said they did this in order to demonstrate their relationship status or boost their image, this was less common.
However, when women publicly kissed a same-sex partner, their reasons were different and most commonly included for fun and games, to change their image (such as being seen as more adventurous), or to turn-on a male witness, such as a boyfriend.
So what kind of reactions did people receive?
Men indicated more positive than negative responses, meaning they tended to get what they were after. Few said they regretted the experience, and those who did said it felt awkward, they were made fun of, or they inadvertently hurt someone else’s feelings.
By contrast, women reported more negative than positive reactions—they were less likely than men to get what they wanted out of it. The single most common negative outcome among women was a repetitional hit, with others thinking of her as a “slut.” So a double standard was evident, where men were more likely to be lauded and women to be shamed for engaging in the same behavior.
Of course, these findings are limited in that only college students were surveyed. It would be interesting to study experiences with performative kissing in more diverse samples and across cultures, especially given that PDAs are more taboo in some places than others.
That said, what these findings suggest is that, at least among young adults, performative kissing isn’t usually done in service to one’s partner—more often than not, it’s designed to send a message to others and to manage impressions. However, it doesn’t always land the way it is intended.
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To learn more about this research, see: Esterline, K. M., & Muehlenhard, C. L. (2017). Wanting to be seen: Young people’s experiences of performative making out. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(8), 1051-1063.
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & 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.Read full bio >