‘We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.’
– Eduardo Galeano
I’m seventeen years old. I’m standing in front of a boy I love. My first love. A boy whose kisses are so delectably, deliriously delicious they have just made me cry – yep, shed actual tears – in the basement of some shitty, overpriced club in Piccadilly, where urine wafts through the beats as they bump and blast the air.
A few months earlier, during some time apart, we had stood opposite one another in a similar multi-level, urine infested club in Edinburgh. That night, whilst our friends gyrated in the distance, he told me he would count down from ten, and if I hadn’t kissed him by the end, he would take it as read that we were, without a doubt, over and out.
On reflection, it sounds a little creepier than it felt at the time. At the time, I was convinced it was the most romantic thing I had ever heard. Like something Seth would have said to Summer on the OC (my then main ‘romance-o-meter’). Reader, I kissed him at 7. Sure, I could have played it cooler, but I was in young love.
Later that night, I watched him skip down a cobbled street, punching the air. And as I sat on the windowsill of the top floor, smoke-infested flat I was sharing with seven others, I thought about how I would remember his love-laced leaping until my memory eventually fell into a bucket.
Those kisses are still seared into my brain. Albeit in a somewhat hazed, Scooby-Doo memory bubble sort of way. That they have remained with me after all this time comes as no shock after my recent reading of the psychology and biochemistry of a kiss. With all those neurotransmitters and neuropeptides and pheromones and biochemical brouhaha being transmitted, of course I remember them.
I remember them as clearly as I remember the way his hand cradled the back of my head, and swept my poorly cut fringe from the tiny tear drops decorating my eyelashes, when he told me he was leaving.
‘The kiss itself is immortal.
It travels from lip to lip, century to century, from age to age.
Men and women garner these kisses, offer them to others
and then die in turn.’
– Guy de Maupassant
Whether they are to or from a lover, a family member, a person you just met in Paris or Rome (what happens in Europe…), a homeless woman you decided to make feel less isolated for a few moments, kissing is crack for the lips, the heart, the soul. Or so I thought…
Ever wondered why it’s customary across much of Europe to kiss perfect strangers on the cheek? Even if it’s someone’s dodgy, tax-evading, carbuncular uncle with an over zealous penchant for boob graze you’ve just met?
The plague. That’s why.
On this day, the 16th July, in 1439, kissing was banned in England, for fear that it would spread the pesky pestilence. Sucks to be medieval folk. Or rather, not, as the case may be – no sinful sucking for them.
‘Well, it’s either kiss me or kill me,
that’s how I see it.’
– Tom Waits
In the Middle Ages, all of Europe was kissing. Couldn’t stop them. Blame Alexander the Great for bringing them back from India in 326 BC. He couldn’t take the land but he took their kisses. At least he came away with a memento.
By 1439, it had been less than a century since the Black Death had wiped out nearly half of Europe’s population, and fear of another devastating outbreak persisted on the continent.
Doubtless lip-locking illegality wasn’t helped by the fact that no one really knew what caused it. Many medieval doctors believed the plague was a punishment from God, whilst some scientists suggested it was linked to ‘bad air’ caused by earthquakes or an unusual alignment of the planets.
Naturally. Who hasn’t uttered the phrase, “I’m sorry I followed your new girlfriend on the night bus, pretended to be a cat and meowed the tune of ‘Maneater’ at her consistently for a whole hour before accidentally vomiting a half-eaten kebab on her hair and then bursting into tears – for the questionable choice of song, the sick and the sadness over the ex – but in my defence, Mercury is in retrograde.”
When another outbreak hit in the summer of 1439, Parliament petitioned King Henry VI to end the ceremony of knights kissing the king on the mouth when they did him a service, suspicious that humans might spread the plague through their saliva. I think one of them must have just had really bad breath and Henry got pissy. In any event, the king took this a step further and banned all kissing, with the hope that ‘small specks’ of plague could be kept from spreading.
He wasn’t the first: the Roman emperor Tiberius had also outlawed kissing in public ceremonies in an attempt to stop the spread of herpes; and in 1562, officials in Naples, Italy banned kissing in public (again, plague issues), sentencing those caught kissing to death. So, at least shit didn’t get too serious in 1400s England.
A world without kissing?: Unthinkable.
Kiki, kiso, bo
Seven minutes in heaven, necking, snogging, tonguing, locking lips, sucking face (dementor style), tongue wrestling, gum swapping, tonsil hockey, Frenching, smooching, macking; to pash, canoodle, osculate; a peck, a smackeroo; baiser, beijo, bico, koss, musu, pup, נשיקה, بوسه, နမ်း, aka, sumba, halik, kihi, kiso, bo.
Whatever you call it, once you’ve had a really good one, you crave more. Blame it on the pheromones.
So why do we kiss? That there might be more to it than meets the eye has fascinated psychologists, anthropologists and our genitals for years.
“She’s sweat, wet, got it goin’ like a turbo ‘Vette”
In the same way that the lyrics of ‘Baby got Back’ are somewhat questionable yet demand to be released from your mouth like an insatiable butterfly from its shell-suited bump n’ grindin’ chrysalis, so a kiss shared between a man and a woman can sometimes seem more like a clash of spirits than a meeting of souls, making you question your sexual choices. Just me?
Simply put, psychologists have noted that from an evolutionary perspective, men primarily kiss as a means to an end: arousal. Arousal equals sexy time, a kiss equals knickers. Women, however? Women are the pickier bitches. Apparently, we use the kiss as a job interview of the labial kind as well as a form of ’relationship maintenance’ in order to bond with a mate of the opposite sex. Not only do we place greater importance on kissing in romantic relationships, a first kiss is more likely to affect our attraction to a potential mate, than it does men.
Be warned menfolk. We are biologically judgmental beasts and we are coming (perhaps only once) for your lips.
A bad first kiss? It’s an evolutionary deal-breaker for women. Well, that just seems like biochemical good sense. Who stays with someone who is a rubbish kisser? (Even if they have an estate on the Cote d’Azure and are willing to fund your freelance lifestyle…Right?) Navigating how to ask someone very politely to stop kissing you, after they have gone to the trouble of cooking you a three course, allergen free meal? Now that’s the tricky part.
Men, however, according to research by Susan Hughes, psychologist at Albright College in Pennsylvania, are more interested in facial and bodily attraction and would more than likely still shag a bad kisser. Whoever finds that shocking needs to go move to Venus and never return.
So why the different motives? Reproductive biology, that’s why. Kissing is a woman’s ultimate litmus test for an opposing immune system, strong genes and daddy day care. Typical. Always comes back to the clock.
‘He kisses like he’s dying of thirst,
and I’m water.’
The gender divide is not limited to why we kiss, but to how and when too.
“Basically, most men don’t like to kiss after sex,” Hughes claims. “This is even true of men in long-term, committed relationships, which we thought was a bit surprising…Though men typically want to kiss only until sex starts, women like kissing before, during and after intercourse.” Just like how I used to take my tequila then.
Generally, men prefer significantly wetter kisses. This is due to the perception that “a greater wetness or salivary exchange during kissing” is an index of “the female’s sexual arousal/receptivity, similar to the act of sexual intercourse.” Of course.
Helen Fisher, the badass and hilarious anthropologist at Rutgers University, brought to wider popular attention after her brilliant TED talks concurs. She found that men may like these sloppier kisses so they can ‘inject’ testosterone to women via their saliva, which may momentarily increase their sex drive. A tad evolutionarily manipulative perhaps?
Or perhaps the reason behind all those teenage window wiping kisses we were subjected to. To all teenage boys waiting to kiss someone, go watch Ryan Gosling in every film he’s ever kissed someone in. That’s a good guide.
– and I mean like, yummy, smacking kissing –
is the most delicious, most beautiful and passionate thing
that two people can do, bar none.
Better than sex, hands down.’
– Drew Barrymore
Pulse quickening, pupils dilating, heart beating faster, breathing irregular. That’s not a line from 50 Shades of Grey, it’s just the beginning of the body’s chemical journey that a good kiss sparks.
Incidentally, there was an American rock band from Seattle called Best Kissers in the World. They’ve disbanded. Sigh. Presumably the title carried with it too much pressure.
Fisher explains that the whole brain becomes involved when we kiss, triggering all three of the basic mating emotions; lust (testosterone), intense feelings of romantic love (dopamine) and deep feelings of attachment (oxytocin). Craving, desire, obsessive thoughts. The same chemicals come out to play when we kiss as when we fall in love. Proceed with caution?
Psychologists Dr. Rafael Wlodarski and Professor Robin Dunbar suggested that kissing could be as important, if not more, than sex. Their investigation found that having a partner who was a ‘’good” kisser, greater frequency of kissing in a relationship, greater satisfaction with the amount of kissing, were all positively associated with relationship quality. The frequency of sex in the relationship? Not such a biggie.
So, a kiss is just as, if not far more, intimate than sex.
On a purely biological level there is perhaps the simple fact that the mouth is one of the dirtiest part of the human body; nothing like swapping your most wonderful germs with each other to foster intimacy. Yum. New Dutch research that suggests 10 seconds of lip lock can translate into 80 million germs swapping houses. Good for the gut health then. Don’t worry too much though, a handshake can carry far more dangerous bacteria.
On a physical level; our faces are touching and melding, our breath ‘giving life’. Kissing combines the three senses of taste, touch and smell, which women are genetically primed to be more sensitive to than men. (Vivien Leigh was said to have disliked kissing Clark Gable, because he had dentures which caused notoriously bad breath.)
Perhaps this is why the Kama Sutra has over 40 different techniques, one of which I tried, solo…
‘Then she was kissing him as she had never kissed him before…
and it was blissful oblivion,
better than firewhisky;
she was the only real thing in the world.’
The first literary evidence for kissing dates back 3,500 years to India’s Vedic Sanskrit texts. No word exists for “kiss” but there’s a reference to lovers “setting mouth to mouth” and a man “drinking the moisture of the lips” of a slave woman. So basically, at some point someone slipped, discovered the lips were like two velvet fireworks, and kept it.
According to the Kama Sutra, a woman’s mouth mirrors her genitals: the lips like the labia (as rosy as a Bonobo’s bottom), the Cupid’s Bow like the clitoris and the hard palate just above the front teeth like the G-spot. So kiss her like you mean it, and don’t look up to check you’re doing it right.
Briefly, there are kisses to start passionate encounters (the Askew), ones to slow down the tempo and inject some emotional charge (the Bent). Ones that call the tongue into command (the Direct, the Clip) and ones that call for a little light (or not so light) biting (the Pressure). It’s a fab read, just make sure you have someone next to you to grab and do the tongue twizzle.
The one I was most interested to see if I could harness the effect solo, was the one that’s said to make women go weak at the knees and, in some cases, bring about a ‘special treat’ to boot. Uh, sign me up. The technique? Sucking the upper lip and running one’s tongue behind it.
Despite going at it for a considerable time whilst simultaneously picturing David Boreanaz (shirtless with his Angel tattoo sprawled across his shoulders), apparently you really do need another person for this one. All I was left with was an upper lip that looks like I’ve had a touch of lip filler, and a neighbour’s cat with (mild) PTSD.
A kiss that is never tasted,
is forever and ever wasted.
It’s impossible to know for sure how where the first kiss was born. And, in reality, locking lips is likely to have arisen and disappeared all over the world for a variety of social reasons, including the discouragement of female sexuality.
Nearly 150 years ago, Charles Darwin observed that kissing-like behaviours appear to be part of our evolutionary heritage, but the way we express them at any given time and place is influenced by what’s familiar in our own societies.
He concluded that the drive for humans to kiss is innate and, by broadening the definition of kissing to include “kissing-like behaviours” (including “the rubbing or patting of the arms, breasts, or stomachs” or noses, and even an instance of “one man striking his own face with the hands or feet of another”), it can be considered truly universal.
Some anthropologists disagree, maintaining that the kiss is simply a cultural phenomenon – something we learn in our own communities, have read about or see in the media and copy. New research published in American Anthropologist reports that only 46% of cultures kiss mouth-to-mouth in the way that most of us would recognise a romantic kiss today.
As Helen Fisher points out though, 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.” Lovely. We’re all partial to a little lick.
The Heart of Darkness
Wondering how many type of kisses are there today? German neuroscientist Onur Güntürkün spent two years around airports, railway stations, parks and beaches, watching people kissing. A bit weird, sure. But he recorded 124 ‘scientifically valid kisses.’
For the left field amongst you, the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski noted in 1929 that 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. Haven’t tried it. Can’t attest either way. Maybe they wanted to give the guy watching them in the corner something to talk about.
Suffice to say, kisses continue to look different depending on where you are. Today the only form of public kiss you are likely to catch sight of in Thailand is the hawm-gaem: the ‘sniff kiss’. To do so, shut your lips tightly inwards, press nose against cheek, and give a long sniff.
Interestingly, some experts believe that this is how the modern romantic kiss evolved. Among the Maori in New Zealand and the Inuits, smelling a loved one’s cheek has long served as a means of recognition. Over time, a brush of the lips may have become a traditional accompaniment to smelling one another.
Whatever its evolution, given the diversity and ubiquity of kissing around the world, it’s likely that we possess an innate desire to lock lips.
First they took away our kisses, and we said nothing.
Whilst the crack down on kissing that started on 16th July 1439 had to do with health, later attempts were far from it.
In 1910, France banned kissing on French railways because it could cause delays. In 1982, the Iranian Parliament included ‘kissing for pleasure’ on a list of outlawed moral offences. In 1991, students at Peking University in China were banned from kissing, holding hands, hugging, whispering, or holding unauthorised gatherings. And in 2003, Moscow considered a ban on kissing in public places, which would have included even legally married couples and punished the act with fines and jail time. Thankfully, the Russian people fought back, protesting the proposed law by kissing perfect strangers on the street in a show of defiance. The proposed law was abandoned.
As recently as a few years ago, dozens of couples at a train station in Ankara, Turkey staged a kiss-in to protest a crackdown on kissing on subway cars.
Kisses can be as political as they are passionate. Fight for your right to kiss.
Kiss me out of desire, but not consolation.
Some can take your breath away, some can seemingly bend time and last a crocheted conundrum of forevers, some take time to develop and once they do, they can make your knees tremble and your arteries quiver into attention, pumping blood to all the groovy places.
When shared with the right person, it can prompt butterflies, all manner of tingles, or, if you’re lucky, tears. Just make sure you aren’t in the basement of a shitty club whilst you lock lips, it somewhat ruins the vibe.
Let’s make this day an ode to kissing; kisses past, present and later tonight. Kiss yourself, a lover, a friend; your mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and extended family members. Kiss for those who can’t.
Kisses are wonderful; as sexy and they can be sedate but still shows of affection. They make us feel more alive, more connected, more human, which, sometimes, can be a bit of a struggle.
And if not because it’s fun, then because it’s good for our health. Those who kiss regularly enjoy stronger immune systems, report greater happiness and lower levels of stress when compared with those who don’t. Joys of oxytocin. The average person will spend an estimated 20,160 minutes (about two weeks) kissing in their lifetime. You burn 26 calories in a one-minute kiss. Time well and truly spent. That novel that’s just waiting to be written? Nope. Kiss instead.
As he contemplated life and death, Carl Jung wrote that “The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” I believe that the kiss kindles this light within us.
Sumba, kihi, kiso, bo.
Whatever you call it, whatever form it takes, kissing remains the most humanising practise we can share with one another. A universal language. If we define it as a means to connect with another human being in this big old bad world, then I’m with Darwin.
Kisu, kiss who? Kiss me, kiss you.