If young couples who make out in public come off as disingenuous or insecure to you — you may not be far off. A new study that looks at the reasons why college aged people engage in performative sexual behavior finds that many are just doing it to show off.
The study, published in The Journal of Sex Research, surveyed men and women between the ages of 17-35 (though the average age of a participant was eighteen) to examine the motivations and outcomes of making out in non-private settings. The authors argue that most research on "performative sexual behavior" has focused primarily on women's same-sex behavior. While 96 percent of those who participated in this study were straight, researchers looked at various reasons why both same sex and not same sex couples engage in public make out sessions.
Out of the 349 participants (155 women and 194 men) surveyed, thirty seven percent of men and 32 percent of women said they had engaged in public making out (or PMO which the researchers defined as "kissing on the mouth, with or without the use of tongues, and fondling breasts and buttocks", often before college. The majority of participants (though more men than women) reported that they engaged in this behavior, "to enhance their image or status by proving they were capable of making out with a particular person." Other reasons included demonstrating their relationships, fun and games and simply trying to hook up with a make out partner.
When asked why they were to engage in PMO, both men and women responded that it was to "enhance" their image with their peers. Though what they considered as image-enhancing differed between sexes.
Thirty-eight percent of male respondents often wanted to gain respect from their peers, with some saying it helped them "look like a player" or "get more credit." They also explained how they sought to use the experience to bond with their friends, with one respondent mentioning he wanted to be seen by "my bros so they thought I myself was a bro.... I would be accepted into a new state of brodome [sic]."
Twenty-seven percent of women also sought the respect of their peers, but making their peers jealous also came into play. One respondent said she wanted "girls to be jealous, and me to feel better about myself." Another stated she hoped making out with someone in front of her ex-boyfriend would make her seem more desirable to him.
When looking at same-sex PMO, the study echoed the previous findings of studies. The researchers found that wanting to arouse or please men was a prominent motivation, as 7 out of the thirteen female participants who participated in same-sex PMO reported that they wanted to "arouse or please men," while this motivation was never mentioned for men who participated in same sex PMO.
One major finding was that some women worried about "looking like a slut" after engaging in PMO, whereas men did not, and instead benefited from it. One example highlighted a man who had made out with a woman to show off to his friends, and while he believed his make out partner was potentially the love of his life, he said his friends now "thought of [her] as a big booty hoe."
According to relationship expert Dr. Nicole Martinez, the worry of being labelled as a "slut" for engaging in public affection isn't limited to younger adults. "Females of all ages who are affectionate in public, or who are the initiator, are viewed differently than if a male did the same thing."
What the study didn't look at was how social media came into play. Dr. Martinez believes overtly lovey-dovey couples are often trying to "manage others' perception of their partner." She says, "I always tell patients that people tend to only paint the best possible picture of themselves and their relationship on social media." So if you're feeling down about your ex posting photos looking super happy with their new partner — try not to sweat it.