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Why We Kiss

Sometimes, the motivation may not even be positive.

StockSnap/Pixabay (Modifications: Arash Emamzadeh)
Source: StockSnap/Pixabay (Modifications: Arash Emamzadeh)

Romantic kissing refers to the touching of lips between romantic partners — boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, etc. Romantic kissing is rarely studied in sciences — aside from the very unromantic examination of kissing in the transmission of infections and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Psychological investigations of kissing in romantic relationships, too, have been limited to a few topics — one example being gender differences in kissing (men are more likely to initiate kissing before sexual intercourse; women, after intercourse).1 But no psychological studies have investigated why people kiss — until now, that is.

In an article published in the current issue of Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Thompson and coauthors examine potential reasons why we kiss. In a series of studies, they describe the development of a scale for measuring the motives for kissing; called the “YKiss? Scale,” this measure was adapted from earlier scales, which assessed motives for sex and oral sex.2

Categories of kissing motivation

The sample in the first investigation comprised 647 individuals (295 women; 84 percent Caucasian; average age 32 years; 87 percent heterosexual; 71 percent in a committed relationship). Descriptive statistics revealed that participants had kissed an average of 19 individuals in their lifetime, had their first kiss at age 15 years, and — among those presently in a romantic relationship — kissed their partner, on average, 30 times a week.

Participants were administered the YKiss? Scale and asked, “Thinking back to the past month, for each statement, please indicate how frequently each of the following reasons led you to kiss someone” (p. 58).2

Subsequent to the exploratory factor analysis, researchers retained 45 of the initial 57 items on the Ykiss? Scale. After a second investigation — 364 American adults (203 women; average age of 32 years; 78 percent Caucasian; 90 percent heterosexual; 70 percent in a committed relationship) — three more items were removed. Among these remaining 42 motives for kissing, 23 loaded on a factor the researchers labeled goal attainment/insecurity — motives related to “attaining resources, using kissing as a means, boosting one’s self-esteem, and mate-guarding.” And 19 loaded on the second factor called sexual/relational, related to “arousal, love, attraction, and relational scripts” (p. 59).2

For illustration purposes, below I list 11 sexual/relational kissing motives and 11 goal attainment/insecurity kissing motives compiled in the final version of the YKiss? Scale (p. 63-64).2

Sex/relational reasons for kissing

  • It feels good.
  • The person’s physical appearance turned me on.
  • I wanted to set the mood.
  • I wanted to feel connected to the person.
  • I wanted to increase the emotional bond.
  • It is fun.
  • I wanted to show my affection to the person.
  • The person was attractive.
  • I wanted to become aroused.
  • I wanted to initiate other sexual behaviors.
  • I wanted to express my love for the person.

Goal attainment and insecurity reasons for kissing

  • I was mad at the person, so I kissed someone else.
  • I wanted to get even.
  • I wanted a raise or promotion.
  • I wanted to defy my parents.
  • I wanted a favor.
  • I was competing with someone to “get” the person.
  • I wanted to punish myself.
  • I wanted to enhance my reputation.
  • I wanted to be popular.
  • I wanted to hurt or humiliate someone.
  • I wanted to make someone jealous.

Additional findings on gender and motivations

When different motivations for romantic kissing were compared, researchers found that, as expected, goal attainment/insecurity motivations were reported less frequently than sexual/relational ones.

As for the role of gender, the results showed no gender differences in past month kissing frequency or enjoyment (A. E. Thompson, personal communication, February 11, 2019); however, men — compared to women — reported more motivated kissing.

This finding disagrees with the common assumption that women, compared to men, are more inclined to use sexual/intimate behavior to attain non-sex-related goals (e.g., power).

How can we explain the present finding then? Here is one way: Men are usually socialized to be more assertive, but women are taught self-control and restraint; women act as “gatekeepers” of intimate and sexual behavior.3 So it makes sense that more frequent initiators of kissing (for whatever motives) are men; and that women engage “in romantic kissing in response to their partner’s overtures more often than the reverse” (my emphasis; p. 69).2

As I was summarizing the above explanation for this post, another potential interpretation of data occurred to me. So I contacted the lead author, Dr. Thompson, who kindly shared her views and expressed a favorable opinion of my explanation — which follows below (A. E. Thompson, personal communication, February 11, 2019).

Though kissing can be quite sexual itself (e.g., French kissing, kissing of sexual organs), romantic kissing is more of an emotional and relational activity than a purely sexual one. Thus, kissing is likely to be more valued by women than by men.

Therefore, while women are more prone to use sex/oral sex (valued by men) with their partner as a way to achieve their personal goals, men are more likely to use relational and emotional activities valued by women (and this may include kissing).

Future studies need to examine these and other explanations regarding gender differences in motives for kissing.

Concluding thought

In the English language, we have many idioms that use the word kiss: Kiss someone goodbye, kiss and cry, kiss and make up, kiss and tell, and kiss up to someone. Kissing has been referenced in numerous songs, like “Kiss from a Rose,” “Kiss Me,” or “I Kissed a Girl.” We even assume kisses have a special power, as in a kiss turning a frog into a handsome prince (in “The Frog Prince”) — or as in this line from Faustus demonstrates: “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.”

Yet, despite so many references to kissing, we have a limited understanding of why we kiss. And the findings of the present study remind us that kissing is not always about romance. Yes, kissing is often motivated by relational or sexual interests, but sometimes by insecurity or goal attainment; at times, perhaps by both. So it helps to be mindful of why we kiss, especially because some motives for kissing might be maladaptive. For instance, the motive of kissing to “get back at the person” may be associated with infidelity; and unfaithfulness can have destructive consequences for individuals and their relationship.2

Facebook image: Marco Ceron/Shutterstock


1. Hughes, S. M., & Kruger, D. J. (2011). Sex differences in post-coital behaviors in long- and short-term mating: An evolutionary perspective. The Journal of Sex Research, 48, 496–505.

2. Thompson, A. E., Anisimowicz, Y., & Kulibert, D. (2019). A kiss is worth a thousand words: the development and validation of a scale measuring motives for romantic kissing. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 34(1), 54-74.

3. Wiederman, M. W. (2005). The gendered nature of sexual scripts. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 13, 496-502.

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