She: What do you want?
He: What do you do?
She: Everything. But I don't kiss on the mouth.
He: Neither do I.
It's Valentine's Day and we're being blitzed with images of couples smooching so I was suddenly reminded of that scene from Pretty Woman. Julia Roberts' character was a prostitute who didn't kiss her johns on the mouth because for her, kissing was intimate but sex was not. Interviews with real sex workers reveal that they often do avoid kissing as a way to stay detached1,2. But just what is it about kissing might be more intimate than sex? And what should you make of it if you're involved with (or are) someone who barely pays lip service to lip locking?
Deep kissing has different meanings to different people. It's sexually arousing; it's a way to communicate romantic feelings; it increases intimate bonding and attachment and even contributes to mate selection. (See Sheril Kirshenbaum's The Science of Kissing for an in-depth look). There is some survey support for gender stereotypes around men being more focused on the arousal and agentic functions of kissing and women being more attuned to the bonding features4,5,6, but I think that regardless of gender, people who aren't ready to merge love and lust will be more likely to avoid or be uncomfortable with kissing. I think it's because no other physical act offers so many potent and equal sensory experiences for both partners simultaneously (regardless of sexual orientation). Here's why:
- In the moments just before and after lip contact you have the opportunity to gaze directly into each other's eyes as closely as humanly possible. So note when and which partners close their eyes or turn away quickly without maintaining this kind of gaze. It's a marker of discomfort with intimacy (unless you're so close your vision is blurring or there's a halitosis issue).
- You simultaneously take in each other's unique scents and tastes, which literally assess your degree of chemistry together.
- Kissing raises the attachment and bonding hormone (oxytocin) in both sexes.
- No one gets pregnant through kissing so women's disproportionate concerns as potential child bearers are neutralized.
- Kissing offers as wonderful a range of leading, following and movement together as dancing (without an assumed male lead), so it gives people an alternative way to communicate intimate (and sometimes unconscious) messages about relationship feelings and status. For example, note who just wants to dominate with tonsil hockey, who is tight-lipped and timid about exploring, who does nothing but keep their mouth open etc.
- There's a unique sexual equality to the act of kissing. It's the only sexual act that allows partners to simultaneously and equally penetrate and be penetrated with identical, incredibly neurally sensitive body parts. (The lips have the thinnest layer of skin on the body and, along with the tongue, are packed with nerve endings). I bolded this one because I think the implications here (along with #5) can be particularly uncomfortable for people who have trouble with assertion in their relationships and default to taking aggressive or passive stances when conflict or vulnerability arise.
The bottom line is, kissing offers a truly level sexual and intimate playing field regardless of gender or sexual orientation. In a lovely piece called How To Kiss Well , a self-proclaimed "guy who loves kissing" named Ben Van Heuvelen summed it up beautifully:
"In its fully realized form, kissing is an alternate language in which lovers conduct a parallel courtship - they tease, they connect, they discover an accord.... Sarah began to appreciate how a good kiss, like a poem, suggests more than it says outright, expressing those feelings that lovers can share only indirectly".
Happy Valentine's Day!
- Brewis, J. & Linstead, S. (2000). "The worst thing is the screwing": Consumption and the management of identity in sex work. Gender, Work and Organization, 7, 84-97
- Arnold, K.A. and Barling, J. (2003). Prostitution: An illustration of occupational stress in "dirty" work. In: M. Dollard and A. Winefield (Eds.), Occupational Stress In The Service Professions, (pp. 261-280). &New York: Taylor and Francis.
- Tucker, R.K., Marvin, M.G., & Vivian, B. (1991). What constitutes a romantic act? An empirical study. Psychological Reports, 69, 651-654.
- Hughes, S. M., Harrision, M. A., & Gallup, G.G. (2007). Sex Differences in Romantic Kissing Among College Students: An Evolutionary Perspective. Evolutionary Psychology, 5 (3), 612-631.
- McCabe, M.P. and Collins, J.K. (1984). Measurement of depth of desired and experienced sexual involvement at different stages of dating. Journal of Sex Research, 20 (4) 377- 390.
- Sex Differences in Post-Coital Behaviors in Long and Short-Term Mating: An Evolutionary Perspective. (2010). Hughes, S. M., & Kruger, D. J. Journal of Sex Research
Copyright, 2010, Linda R. Young, Ph.D. All rights reserved