Kiss Off: How We Use Our Mouths On The People We Love

Kissing

by Matt Lurie

A man and woman once told me they no longer kissed because “they had better things to do.” The man and woman were Stephen and Amy, my girlfriend Elizabeth’s parents.[1] Elizabeth, who sat with us at the dinner table, said she couldn’t imagine it—not kissing.

“It is just so important,” she said.

But though I didn’t say it, I was starting think otherwise.

The first time you kiss someone it feels like drinking water, a purer flavor of water. You need it.

By the five hundredth time, it can feel like taking out garbage.

Of course I still want to kiss people. I want to eat them, and to disappear into the act of consuming them. I want to lose myself to gumming on someone’s face for a while. I think about kissing at least daily.

I also think about eating garbage with about the same frequency: having to eat all the garbage I’ve made—being forced to, at gunpoint, to save the life of someone I loved.

In high school, one of my best friends’ girlfriends hated kissing. “But she would do everything else,” he told me. I didn’t investigate further. Yet I’ve held that fact there, in my head, until now: that she was interested in every part of him except for his lips.

I used to kiss with my eyes completely open, trying not to blink, as if I was filming each kiss for myself. Now I wonder why I was trying my hardest to convince myself I was kissing. And what the hell had I been doing in the meantime, to this other mouth?

I’ve spent much of life obsessing over kissing, whether it was happening now or going to happen soon. I’ve only recently thought there was something to learn about it.

A kiss is what happens when you touch someone or something with your lips. I feel it important to define, as we commonly refer to kissing as just that: kissing. But the word contains multitudes of actions and activity, a swamp of possible intentions. Kiss is a verb; to kiss is to join. Beyond joining, we conjoin. We divide time, information, attention with each other. And kissing goes beyond touching lips. Lips fasten and abrade each other. There’s suction, friction, power and subjection. Each “kiss” is a moment of synchronicity, two or more whole selves occupying space in a small, shared world. When I imagine a kiss, I imagine each body, knees weakened, as hinged. Two wings fluttering, blowing in the wind.

Lips are an erogenous zone, one of the body’s most sensitive places—approximately as densely-packed with touch receptors as our fingers—as well as the area with the thinnest skin. Disproportionately large parts of the cortex focus on processing signals from our lips, and those sensations are closely associated with perception, memory, thought and language. A kiss can, in fact, change someone’s mind. It frequently does. According to one oft-cited statistic, 59% of men and 66% of women have ended a romantic relationship due to a bad kiss. What makes a kiss good? Quality standards seem to be subjective, while guidance takes the form of metaphor and innuendo. People speak of aggression and tempo. You don’t want to “use” your tongue too soon or too much; don’t “give” someone your tongue too forcefully or too readily. Fresh breath and clean teeth are important. Be careful not to bump teeth, but don’t be afraid to gently bite—if your partner is into that.

Few coaches mention how much bacteria to keep in your mouth, nor how to best ensure the smooth exchange of pheromones, although sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists claim both factors may influence why and how we kiss.[2] It’s an act tied to sexual, social and familial intimacy, and one found in almost every culture, possibly developed over millions of years from mouth-to-mouth feeding.[3] Indeed, it’s difficult not to make the comparison to eating, or to deny kissing’s resemblance to the sucking reflex babies use to draw milk from their mothers’ breasts. The myriad physiological and psychological benefits both lip-locking and breastfeeding grant draw the comparison further.

Maybe that’s why Amy and Stephen didn’t do it. They were adults. Kissing looks infantile when you isolate it. Go mow-mow or mwah-mwah right now with your mouth to see what I mean. When you’re in fifth or sixth grade, kissing seems dauntingly mature; by eighth or ninth, you’re ready for it. Taking that step can even feel courageous. But it’s reflexive. You’re thinking in terms of grade level. You’re hardly removed from a child or baby yourself.

You wouldn’t plant your face in someone’s boobs. You wouldn’t pee on someone’s head to claim them. Why haven’t we trained ourselves out of kissing? Why does this specific suckling-feeding behavior get a pass?

It may be too deeply buried. Other species display similar behaviors: cats and dogs rub snouts and cheeks, birds nuzzle their beaks together, fish clasp mouths. Even ants greet one another and pass along information by touching antennae. Kissing may be one of our basic instincts, as primal as our desire to live forever or our compulsion to hold hands.

As with any question of essential human nature, it makes one pause: Do I kiss because I want to, or because I was born to want to? Is it the best way to give shape to the raging passion in my soul? Or is it simply the inexpressible urge of a muscle? Whose need is it—the self, or the lips?

I reckon probably both. The association with the digestive system, the proximity to the nose and brain—these factors have compelled our species and others to kiss as much as our million-year habits have molded us. Like sex, kissing alternately motivates, beguiles, disgusts and frightens us. If you’re not in the mood, you can step outside of either, see a bunch of desperate apes going at it and think, “Yuck.”

About sex and kissing: when you are in the mood, it’s easy to confuse the two. For years as a teenager, kissing was sex to me—at least one end of sex. Kissing had to lead to sex, and each time I kissed and hadn’t had sex, I told myself things just hadn’t gone far enough. We hadn’t gone far enough.

If we were to reach that point, if sex were to happen, we would have gone all the way. That’s what I heard, and that’s what I internalized. Life was a linear path or a ladder or, at most, a cactus: it had a point. Sex was the point, the endpoint. I had no plan after sex, could I achieve it, were it to happen. Sex, like kissing, is supposed to occur.

Then it did occur. Afterward, I was still alive. And to my dismay, nothing had changed. I was still unenlightened and afraid, still capable of misery.

This persistent belief about sex and the subsequent longing for unmet meaning have influenced me my whole life. I am almost done with the first draft of a novel about a man living in a world in which when men ejaculate, they die. In such a world, a kiss could be an act of violence.

The same is unfortunately true in this world. To a lesser extent. Maybe.

Several years ago, I was at a party and a girl asked if she could kiss me.

“Uh,” I said. She initiated in an instant, and there we were, tied up in one. It was chaste and brief. I think I just turned around and walked away from her afterward. I don’t remember—I took a little while to come down from what had occurred.

I’ve never been able to snap back into reality in the moments following a kiss. It’s like the back of my eyes dilates. I get into kissing to the extent that I experience myself contained within a kiss, shutting off the rest, the way in which one’s attention magnifies to examine the details on a pebble. The universe shrinks. Jumping back into my body after spending a minute—let alone two or three hours—of doing that can feel invigorating.

Or is it relief? Kissing is scary. The appetite to kiss is matched only by its paralyzing anxiety. I’ve sat in dread for hours as I ignored whatever movie was playing in the background, waiting for my moment to strike, pounce, attack.[4]

I’ve engaged in similar violence: kissing without consent. The girl at the party at least had the decency to ask. I haven’t—not always. I’ve “stolen” kisses. I’ve taken some chances I shouldn’t have, regretted some opportunities I’ve registered in retrospect and which I needlessly delayed. Others I’m not sure about; they form an indefinite map of could-Is and was-its, signifying branches of a long tube to other lives. Missed mouth connections.

Kisses are currency, and how you spend them matters. You can feel that, when you’re kissing another person on the lips, how they’ve given into it too. And when you kiss them elsewhere, up the neck or down the leg, it’s like you’re showering them in dollar bills.[5]

Therein lies another link to sex. The progression. Kissing as a transaction is “first base.” It leads, we’re taught, to groping breasts and nipples, then manually or orally fondling someone’s genitals. But if kissing is one variable in the equation of sex, what do you end up with if you skip it, or if you don’t like it? Sex shouldn’t have to include kissing, and kissing doesn’t have to lead to sex.

My teenage self probably would have said something similar. At an early age I understood sex to be a compendium. I discovered the Joy of Sex in my mom’s bedside dresser drawer when I was eight years old. I remember knowing, that young, how many options there were for joy, the whole variegated sky of human sexual expression. To a child, it makes sense: different people want different things. I hated carrot cake, but other people liked it enough to serve it at their birthday parties. Fine. Those people and I just wouldn’t eat the same dessert or have the same sex. We just wouldn’t kiss.

As tight as I’ve held onto it as a token of passion—the real, transcendent, ta-da! binding of souls—I know the truth about kissing. I knew it back then. Kissing is one door in a hallway, one of many rooms to explore or not visit, another thing you could do or not do to another body. At every “base,” at every sexual touchpoint, sits another heap of nerve endings, one of a few specialized pieces of our anatomy dedicated to touch, the way ears hear, or how nostrils flare at a peculiar scent.

A theory stemming from Sanskrit literature in the 13th century posits two types of erogenous zones: one activates during certain phases of the lunar cycle, while the other is “excitable on any time of the day. They are totally four—cheeks, lips, breast and genitalia.” Or perhaps the higher density of nerve endings in those regions—and corresponding neurological capacity—makes each sensation seem stronger, more coherent and consistent. The palpable zaps and buzzes we feel in our backs, collarbones and knee cavities are irregular by contrast. They flicker in and out. They come to us fleetingly after the fact; we can see a momentary touch before we feel it. And, when touched, ticklish spots seem to scurry and change places, settling back into their original locations as the feeling fades.

But not my penis. That’s different. If nerve endings are merely the densely-populated parts—skin-cities—my penis was the god the cities worshipped, the moon around whose moods and light they designed their streets and days and calendar. Feeling existed for the sake of my penis, the unfathomable ur-feeling known through parallel language: Latin, Yiddish, slang, proper pronouns. My penis, schlong, cock, dick. My dick came first.

Rock Hudson and Julie Andrews

I remember making out, days after my first kiss, and the girl telling me I was treating her body “like a temple.” I was half-hovering over, half-clutching her lower back and she was allowing me to touch her elsewhere. My hands lunged all over; I wanted to feel everything at once. Eventually I landed at the denim-covered groin, intuiting I should stroke her there, between the legs, in the about same place I needed touch so patently myself.

How I forgot this for several years I don’t understand. Girls would continually lead me toward their clitorises and, again and again, my thoughts remained only, equally, with my lips and my penis.[6] The two projected like prongs from my body, divining where to stick themselves. Even in my deepest periods of self-hatred, I was able to hold onto what I perceived as the fundamental beauty of my dick and lips.

I’ve never sucked a dick, but I’ve imagined it. A penis has a mesmerizing shape, like a banana, and a fun little mechanism, like an extending toy light saber. Who wouldn’t want to put their mouth around that?

A lot of people, it turns out.[7] Fewer people, in my experience, dislike kissing. People regard blowjobs with disbelief and misgivings, as convinced they’ll bite off the penis as they are it will skewer their throats.

I wondered about Amy and Stephen. Is that what they were doing instead of kissing? It was what we had been doing, or trying to do, though in truth it felt like an obligation. Elizabeth would enact a slow, unvarying ritual on me, working her way up from my thighs. I would sit there and try to will myself to stay hard. Kissing, in comparison, seemed more lively, more fun. I had both given and endured injuries from making out: puffy lips, misaligned jaws, scraped chins. A few months prior, I had dated another girl who wore lipstick, and I used to kiss her so vigorously it looked like I had fallen asleep with my mouth in a cherry pie.

Lying there, waiting for it to be over, while Elizabeth roamed and sniffed around like a nervous antelope, I noticed—for the first time—that I didn’t like what was happening to my dick. There it was, waggling in displeasure. And there I was, noticing it. Either my penis had become self-aware or there was a me that existed independent from it, a me that didn’t necessarily include my penis.

Oh.

It’s an oh that’s taken many years, an oh I have to constantly remind myself of. Oh, right—who cares about my dick? How many particular dicks matter to me? How many particular anythings?

After the initial shock, it was easy to neglect my penis, even laugh at it.[8] Neglect, maybe, but not forget. Reverse for the clitoris: easy to forget, and hard to neglect—that is, if you want to see one again.

Lips were much more difficult to get over. Elizabeth’s lips had been one of the reasons I considered us compatible. But about a week after that blowjob, we were kissing—sort of dipping and lapping at each other—and I thought, “I don’t like this. This is bad.”

Bad. Whatever it was was impossible to articulate beyond that. I didn’t have the words to think about it, because I had never really thought about kissing. I didn’t have to.

But, bad. Bad. I couldn’t say that. So instead I said “weird.”

“This is weird.” Or “There’s something weird.” Or “We’re kissing weird.” She knew what I meant immediately.

“Am I a bad kisser?” It was like she was asking if she were a bad person. Of course she wasn’t. You can’t go around calling people bad kissers.

Yet an uneasy feeling of truth spread within me, like a message sent through time by my disappointed, post-ejaculation self. Or my eight-year-old self. You know how your dick is dumb, just a fleshy tube and actually kind of bad? The message said. This kissing is bad. She is bad at kissing. Actually, it said, you are the one who is bad at kissing. It was the same churning, honking worry that had been plaguing my erection recently. The part of my mind that will go anywhere—to calamari to your grandfather’s lips to your mother being opened by a bear—to keep me from having sex. The feeling had been bubbling up every time Elizabeth and I touched, every time we talked, every time I thought about her. What was it trying to tell me?

I loved Elizabeth. She loved me. Our love ruined my relationship with my closest friend—her current boyfriend when she and I met—whom we betrayed simultaneously when we announced we were in love. We distanced ourselves from others and were alienated in return. We fucked and fought all day with each other. We argued, incessantly, about everything in expansive, aesthetic terms: music, food, family, comics, myth, belief, evolution, what it meant to be a child versus being an adult, the perfect and indelible taste of iced black coffee in New Jersey in summer. We wouldn’t shut up. When we made out, we would talk between kisses.

But I couldn’t talk to her about kissing. Or about blowjobs, or any of those intersections between sensitive parts. We considered ourselves excellent communicators, though we avoided talking about sex. If something mattered that much, we figured we didn’t need to talk about it. We would be able to feel it, together, like love.

Our relationship lasted seven months. At the time, I thought we were liberated. We were, at last, adults. In fact, we were cherry-picking our truths of each other: zooming in on qualities that made sense. By suppressing evidence about the other, we were suppressing ourselves. By the time we split up, we had quartered ourselves. We had hewn our relationship into an ornate cage.

At the time, the story I told myself about our relationship was this: I had pushed her away, she cheated on me and she broke up with me because she couldn’t handle the guilt. I wasn’t satisfied with that. I needed to talk it out, but she wouldn’t let me. She needed time apart.

“I have to be in my bubble,” she said. Now I see she was scabbing over. She was rebuilding herself.

I was too stupid, or too stubborn, to do the same. I refused to rebuild. If she wouldn’t occupy the space, I would cram someone else in there instead. It would be years until I could stop thinking about her, stop constantly arguing with and obsessing over her. Until, one day, I was able to: not for the whole day or an afternoon or an hour, but a minute. After about one minute I realized I hadn’t been thinking about her. My lips relaxed.

Today that first weird kiss doesn’t seem like the end of the relationship, or the day I knew it was doomed. It’s one blip on an old chart of attraction, intimacy, anger and failure—another life receding away from felt experience and into the realm of stories. I’ve noticed that instead of finding the perfect replacement, I’ve shifted myself a little to accommodate other people, and keep shifting, and changing, and building. I was doing it before I ever considered myself an adult—growing up. Or just, I don’t know, growing, sprouting branches in every direction, changing, waning and weaning and gaining. It’s a process of metamorphosis, concurrently happening in sudden degrees and gradual establishment of patterns, like the moon.

Does adulthood occur with the acknowledgement of that pattern? Or does growing up mean the accumulation of trauma, enough injuries sustained that they no longer matter and my pain no longer impedes my forward movement? When I think back, neither seems true. Projecting myself onto each memorized moment, I feel the familiar stew of complexity and possibility, the could-Is and was-its. I can remember who I was then, and the story seems much longer, harder to pin down.

At the same time, all these lips I conflate into a continuum of homogenous kisses are anything but. They moved and felt and tasted different. They expressed their gender in different ways. And they kind of vanish into the mush of the face, which itself blurs and varies, like how a clitoris becomes part of a vagina—any vagina—and how a vagina dims into a clump of hair and a gash felt in the dark.

The infantilizing, the sensual, the gross and fucked-up kissing—all of it looks incidental in rearview. We engage in so many simian, babyish acts that to pick one apart leads us to the essential relationships lurking underneath. You don’t angst over the person you kissed too soon, or the times your teeth met; you sigh because you wish you had told someone how you felt when you had the chance.

Just as I often figure out what I’m thinking in the course of speaking, I rely on my lips for knowledge about my past. They retain memory like a pair of sponges. I can travel in reverse and feel Elizabeth and me kissing, the way I can sit here with my mouth agape and conjure the taste of iced black coffee. I can place myself at that dining room table and remember not only how much I loved her and loved talking to her, but how I loved talking to her parents.

I don’t wish Elizabeth and I had kissed more. I don’t need another shot. What I do want is another conversation with her mom and dad. About why they didn’t kiss, and about when they stopped, and if they truly did. I have my ideas, but I’d still like to know what they were doing instead. I’d like to hear the details, if they were willing to share. I’d like us to talk about it, like adults.

Endnotes

[1] Names have been changed to protect the privacy of people involved.

[2] Evolutionary psychology (EP) attempts to explain how our minds function from the lens of adaptation: i.e. we’ve developed our psyches in response to our environments.

Some evolutionary psychologists use their purview to justify misogynist attitudes or reify a traditional gender dichotomy. And, as Steven E. Barkan succinctly states, “Many sociologists are wary of biological explanations of behavior, in part because these explanations implicitly support the status quo and may be used to justify claims of biological inferiority.”

The sexism issue may be inherent in EP (read more here and here) or  feminism and EP may be able to coexist (read more here and here).

Meanwhile, studies have indicated that “psychologists who identified with the highest phase of feminist identity endorsed more negative perceptions about evolutionary psychology, preferred nurture explanations over nature explanations for patterns in human behavior, and possessed a higher mistrust in science than their colleagues identifying in the lowest and middle ranges of feminist identity.” Other studies have shown “gender differences in mate preferences with presumed evolutionary roots decline proportionally to increases in nations’ gender parity.”  Assumptions and cultural backgrounds are important.

Naturally, the framework of evolutionary theory is, itself, evolving: “Living things do not evolve to fit into pre-existing environments, but co-construct and coevolve with their environments, in the process changing the structure of ecosystems.”

[3] Again, contentious: “As […] evidence on kissing suggests, what seems to us a very natural, even instinctual act turns out not to be so natural and biological after all. Instead, kissing seems best understood as something we learn to enjoy from our culture, or the symbols, language, beliefs, values, and artifacts (material objects) that are part of a society.”

[4] At the right length, and because they compel people into intimacy without eye contact, movies really are the perfect pretext for kissing.

[5] Despite popular belief to the contrary, many sex workers do kiss their clients.

[6] Or “clitorides,” a word I like better. But I don’t have one, so who am I to say?

[7] A high-larious 69%, according to IsItNormal.com.

[8] You know, it does bend a little to one side.

 

Matt LurieMatt Lurie is a writer living in Boulder, Colorado. Find him on Twitter @Matt_Lurie.

 

 

 

 

Image: “Open wide” by Les Chatfield. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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