QotD: “What’s in a Kiss?”

Sexual behaviours/practices are not innate, they are culturally influenced; even something that seems (to a Europeans/North Americans etc) as innate as kissing, is not a universal practice:

The anthropologist Donald Marshall memorably described the people living on the Pacific island of Mangaia as the most sexually active culture on record. Men spent their late teens and 20s having an average of 21 orgasms a week (more than 1,000 times a year) without a single mouth-to-mouth kiss before Europeans arrived. Clearly human beings do fine with or without locking lips.

However, after an exhaustive exploration of the scientific literature and research, I am convinced the kiss is a wonderful example of a human behaviour where “nature” complements “nurture”. We seem to have an inborn drive to connect with another individual this way, but the shape it takes is influenced by our cultural mores and social norms. Just as Darwin observed nearly 150 years ago, kissing-like behaviours appear to be part of our evolutionary heritage, but the way we express them at any given time and place is heavily influenced by what’s familiar in our own societies.

As the anthropologist Helen Fisher points out, even in societies in which kissing wasn’t done, people “patted, licked, rubbed, sucked, nipped, or blew on each other’s faces prior to copulation”.

The most unusual kissing-like custom I’ve come across was described by the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski in 1929. Lovers in the Trobriand Islands near New Guinea would bite off one another’s eyelashes during intimacy and at orgasm. “I was never quite able to grasp either the mechanism or the sensuous value of this caress,” he wrote.

What’s in a Kiss?

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