In life as in movies, a good kiss is indelible. It’s love and desire and unfettered happiness: wives and girlfriends embracing soldiers returned from war; Ingrid Bergman crying out to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, “Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time!”
At least that’s what we’ve been taught.
But a new study published in American Anthropologist has found that kissing isn’t the universal expression of romantic love we all thought it was.
Nor is it necessarily the preamble to penetration.
Researchers examined 168 cultures around the world and found that a majority of those cultures—91 of them (54 percent), to be exact—do not engage in “romantic-sexual” kissing.
You won’t be surprised to hear that ardent smooching is common in most North American, Asian, and European cultures. It’s even more common in the Middle East, where all cultures indulge in the romantic-sexual kiss.
But you’d be hard pressed to find willing, tender lips in parts of Central and South America, or in sub-Saharan Africa.
Indeed, socio-sexual ethnographers observed no passionate lip-to-lip contact whatsoever in Sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea, and Amazonian foraging cultures.
Less surprising is that hunter-gatherers are largely disinterested in making out. Likewise that researchers found a “significant” link between between socially sophisticated, elite societies and a proclivity for snogging.
The research reinforced previous studies that found some cultures consider kissing taboo or bizarre, while others like the Mehinaku tribe of Amazonia think it’s just plain “gross.”
But the authors stressed that lack of romantic-sexual kissing in some parts of the world isn’t due to cultural repression. They conclude that “the romantic-sexual kiss is neither a human universal nor near universal” and attribute the misconception to “Western ethnocentrism.”
Given how rampant kissing is in Western culture and literature, it makes sense that we would misinterpret the expression as a universal impulse.
From ancient Rome to the Kama Sutra, kissing is described as variously sensual, romantic, and explicitly sexual.
“Give me a thousand kisses/ a hundred more, another thousand, and another hundred,” Catullus sang to Lesbia. Teenagers studying the poems of Catullus’ contemporary, Lucretius, would likely recognize his description of a French kiss: “They grip, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart/ As each would force their way t’other’s heart.”
Later, kissing became associated with loss of innocence and rebellion. In Romeo and Juliet, the kiss is a forbidden prelude to love, sex, and ultimately death for Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. (“Thus with a kiss I die,” Romeo says to his Juliet).
Nicola Six, the anti-heroine and seductive tease in Martin Amis’ London Fields, deploys a varied arsenal of hilariously-named kisses on the men she makes fools of.
A character who “wonderfully satirizes male illusions,” Amis once said, she manipulates men with her kisses, employing different ones for different men and different occasions: the Rosebud, the Dry Application, the Tonsillectomy, Lady Macbeth, the Readied Pussy, the Needer, the Gobbler, the Deliquescent Virgin, the Wounded Bird, the “unforgivable” Jewish Princess.
And that’s just a small sampling of the kiss in literature. We haven’t even gotten to pop culture—to contemporary rom-coms and Madonna and Britney Spears’ make-out session.
From the first time we see mom and dad kiss, this stuff is so internalized and instinctual that the findings in the American Anthropologist seem unfathomable.
Indeed, one colleague appeared to have had a stroke (stumbling over his words and struggling to form coherent sentences) at the news that some people on this very large planet don’t indulge in the romantic-sexual kiss.
But for those of you who think kissing is overrated—for those who sympathize with the Mehinaku tribe of Amazonia and think it’s downright disgusting—don’t believe the movies: most people in the world agree with you.