New Study Finds Romantic Kissing Absent from Many Societies

While kissing is considered an indelible part of romantic and sexual relations in most of the Western world, it appears that the practice is far from universal. According to a worldwide study conducted by researchers at the University of Nevada and Indiana University, fewer than half of the world’s cultures kiss in a romantic way; indeed, many cultures find smooching to be weird or downright gross. More from The Washington Post:

The researchers studied 168 cultures over the past year and found evidence of romantic kissing in 77 societies, or 46 percent, but none in 91 others.

“It’s a reminder that behaviors that seems so normative often do not occur in rest of the world. Not only that, but they might be viewed as strange”, Justin Garcia, the study’s co-author who teaches gender studies at Indiana University, told The Washington Post. “It’s a reminder of romantic and sexual diversity around the world. It shows how human biology interacts with different cultures to explain various behaviors humans engage in”.

The researchers found romantic kissing to be the norm in the Middle East, with the practice established in 10 out of 10 cultures studied. In Asia, 73 percent enjoyed romantic kissing; in Europe, 70 percent; and in North America, 55 percent. No smoochers were found in Central America.

“No ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic-sexual kiss”, the researchers wrote in the study.”

Here is a visual representation of the results:

As someone born and raised in the U.S., and of Middle Eastern descent, it is pretty fascinating to think that kissing is virtually nonexistent among wide swathes of humanity, or that it manifests in different ways.

Across Europe, a peck on the cheek is a common cultural greeting; one on the lips is indeed a romantic gesture. In India, Bangladesh and Thailand, it’s a private practice. Still, some societies do not consider kissing romantic at all.

The Oceanic kiss, for example, involves passing open mouths over each other — without actual contact, according to news.com.au. It’s not that these cultures aren’t sexual, the researchers said, but that the kiss is not seen as a sexual expression. For instance, some consider smelling a partner’s face to be sexual because it allows them to learn more about each other.

“The Aka pygmies talk about their ‘night’s work’, researcher Volsche told news.com.au. “This is the euphemism they use for sexual contact. They admit that it is enjoyable, the main purpose is to conceive a child. Where we in the West may brag about the quality of foreplay or the length of an individual interaction, the Aka focus on how many times in a night they ‘worked.'”

So even though the kiss may, in fact, be an evolutionary adaptation, it doesn’t appear to be a cross-cultural one, Garcia said.

Such anthropological observations really help to put things in perspective. The practices, customs, and ideas that we take as a given for humanity — e.g. what is “normal” or “common” — are just reflective of one particular worldview or cultural experience among a multitude of others. Even something as “typical” as kissing manifests in a range of different ways, if at all.

Love and Relationships in the 21st Century

In her fascinating Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, [Stephanie Coontz] surveys 5,000 years of human habits, from our days as hunters and gatherers up until the present, showing our social arrangements to be more complex and varied than could ever seem possible. She’d long known that the Leave It to Beaver–style family model popular in the 1950s and ’60s had been a flash in the pan, and like a lot of historians, she couldn’t understand how people had become so attached to an idea that had developed so late and been so short-lived.

For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church, and community. It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a potential mate’s skills, resources, thrift, and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness. This held true for all classes. In the American colonies, wealthy merchants entrusted business matters to their landlocked wives while off at sea, just as sailors, vulnerable to the unpredictability of seasonal employment, relied on their wives’ steady income as domestics in elite households. Two-income families were the norm.

Not until the 18th century did labor begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women’s contributions to the family economy were openly recognized, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labor became separated, so did our spheres of experience—the marketplace versus the home—one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the post-war gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.

— An excerpt from “All the Single Ladies” by Kate Bolick. It’s a long but interesting read.

Hat tip to my friend Colette for sharing this with me.