When I was in college studying English literature, I came across this wonderful stanza written by Christopher Marlowe for his play, Doctor Faustus (Act V, Scene 1):
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul – see where it flies!
Come Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips.
The image of a kiss so powerful that it can unite the souls of two lovers represents one of the most delightful (and common) conceits employed by poets and playwrights across literary history. It certainly captured my imagination and called to mind some of the romantic fairytales I’d read as a child – fairytales such as Sleeping Beauty or Snow White in which a single kiss awakens the beautiful heroine from her sleeping death and ushers her into a happily-ever-after life filled with love (and handsome princes).
Although they haven’t given it the same devoted attention as their literary counterparts, scientists have also explored the meaning and the importance of kissing. For example, we know from interview data that most couples consider their first kiss to be an important marker that signifies a change in their commitment level or the developmental stage of their relationship. [Other important markers include the first time the partners voice the words “I love you,” and the first time they have sex.]
Kissing represents an important developmental milestone not only in the life of a relationship, but also in the life of an individual. Many teens and young adults consider kissing to be an important rite of passage and a developmentally appropriate sexual event for their particular stage of life. Survey data reveal that most teenagers believe that kissing (of the brief “on the lips” variety) should be experienced somewhere between the ages of 12 and 14, with about two-thirds indicating that “tongue kissing” is also acceptable at that age range. These beliefs are mirrored by teenagers’ sexual behavior; by their late teens, most young men and women have experienced mutual kissing with a casual or regular dating partner.
In fact, kissing is likely to be the very first sexual event that most of us experience. Research generally reveals a sequential progression of sexual activity during adolescence and young adulthood that begins with kissing, proceeds to petting and other non-coital events (e.g., genital fondling), and culminates with sexual intercourse.
Clearly, kissing is important – both to couples as their relationship progresses and to individuals as they move from adolescence into adulthood. But how do people actually feel about their first kiss? Are they excited and happy? Or anxious and worried? Several of my students (Eric De La Pena, Winny Shen, and Elizabeth Gosset) were interested in answering this question, and so they asked a large sample of young adults to think back to their very first kiss and to describe how they felt about the experience. And what they found was a little surprising.
First, most men (85%) and women (94%) approached their very first kiss with anxiety, dread, and other negative emotions. Here are some examples of what they told us:
I was nervous about being kissed and also frightened. It seemed to me that being kissed was as major as having sex. [Female]
First time was with a “friend” from school. We walked to the middle of the park at school late one evening and sat down on the cold, wet grass. He leaned over towards me and I felt so awkward and uncomfortable that I actually started to laugh in his face. I was nervous to the point of hysteria. Eventually, I calmed down and allowed him to kiss me. [Female]
It was exciting and nerve-wracking. I just stared into his eyes. I kept thinking that I really wanted him to kiss me. I was incredibly nervous – almost sick to my stomach – but also curious to experience my “first time.” It was one of the most intensely emotional experiences of my life. [Female]
Before it happened, I felt scared and also very excited, because it was my first kiss and it meant something to me. I have kissed many women since then, but very few of those experiences meant as much to me as that first kiss. [Male]
My very first kiss was with my girlfriend. Very nervous. Very very nervous. I had a LOT of performance anxiety going into it, it being our first kiss (and my first kiss ever). My heart was pounding, palms were sweating, and my stomach felt all messed up. [Male]
My first kiss took place in a tree house. I felt hot, nervous, and excited. I was having problems speaking. I was short of breath. I knew it was coming. And then she kissed me. [Male]
Second, during the kiss itself, people’s emotions shifted and became more positive. However, this shift was more apparent among men than among women. Consider the following responses from the men who participated in our study:
It was like fireworks were exploding in my mouth. It was a perfect moment. I felt euphoric and I will never forget that moment.
My first kiss was exhilarating. As I was doing it, I was thinking to myself “Wow, I’m finally kissing her. Now don’t screw this up.” I felt electric, alive, romantic all at once. I loved the entire experience, best thing ever.
During my first kiss, I had only one emotion and it overwhelmed me. I felt passion, arousal, lust. I was overwhelmed with strong sexual feelings.
I felt a sort of relief when I had my first kiss. I was always pressured by peers to do it because they said it was the best feeling in the world. We were 6th graders so what did we know. Well, there was this girl in my class and she had a liking for me. I asked her if I could kiss her and she accepted the offer. I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her. My body began to sweat and I became sexually aroused. During the kiss I thought that it really was the best feeling in the world – it was awesome in every sense of the word. It made me feel so good and I liked it so much and got so aroused by it that I remember thinking while it was happening that I should be doing it more often.
My first kiss happened at a friend’s house. One day we were in her room playing a computer game and she just leaned over and kissed me. It was totally unexpected and I clearly remember feeling three separate emotional reactions all at once: (1) surprise because the kiss happened out of the blue with no warning and we were “just friends” (in other words, “what the [expletive]???”). (2) disappointment because I expected the first kiss to be much more than it was (in other words, “That’s IT? I’ve been waiting for THAT?”). (3) pleasure (I wasn’t exactly ecstatic that this happened, but I have to admit that kissing someone – doing anything sexual with a girl – was high on my teenage To-Do list, and even though this didn’t resemble my fantasy of my “first kiss,” I did enjoy it and feel some degree of satisfaction). I also remember thinking that this was going to ruin our friendship, but I’m happy to say that it didn’t.
Conversely, consider these responses from the women in our study:
I felt comfortable and safe with this person because he was so gentle during the kiss. I also felt a little grossed out and disgusted because of the wet slimy lips. I think that was probably because it was new to me (now, I don’t feel that way about kissing!).
When it happened, I couldn’t see my partner in the face. We were standing so close. My heart was beating... fast... faster... even more faster.... My thoughts? ‘Oh, I think my heart will explode.’ My feelings? Wonder, excitement, joy, amazement.
When his lips touched mine it was only for a few seconds, but it was so gentle and sweet. I was so happy and excited... I was actually having my first kiss! My heart was literally soaring. I had liked him soooo much and to finally have something that I daydreamed about come true was unbelievable. A real kiss is much better than one that you wish for.
It was awful. Too messy. He didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t romantic or soft. It felt like an attack. I didn’t see him much after that and I didn’t want to. It was one of the most disgusting moments of my life.
I felt nervous because I didn’t know if I knew how to kiss or if I was doing it right or what my partner was thinking of the way I was kissing. I didn’t enjoy it due to the fact that the whole time we were kissing I was so nervous and also because it did not feel very good. My partner smiled at me after and I smiled back but I was lying because I didn’t enjoy it and sure didn’t want to do it again.
My first kiss was awful. It was absolutely disgusting. My 14 yr old b-friend just started kissing me. I just stood there while he stuck his tongue in my mouth. Disgusting. It makes me sick to even think back to that experience.
For women, then, the first kiss generated a more mixed bag of emotions than it did for men. And this pattern continued when participants reported how they felt after the kiss was over. More men recalled positive feelings and sentiments, and more women recalled negative emotions. For example, men said:
The moment felt right, somehow. I leaned over and kissed her ... My heart was racing, I closed my eyes. Afterwards I felt shy and tender and happy. It was the nicest experience and the most pleasant feeling. I had had my first kiss, and it was with someone I really liked. I can still remember that day and my happy feelings.
We were sitting on the swings & we leaned into each other at the same time and we kissed. After it ended, I felt happy and relieved that it had finally happened and I finally knew what it felt like.
After it was over, I was euphoric, almost like I was high or having an out of body experience, I was light-headed, heavy breathing, and so on. I remember feeling like I wanted to stay in that emotional high forever.
My first kiss was from the prettiest girl in school (or so I thought) so it was something that made me happy. Right after we kissed I felt shy. I laughed and blushed and she did the same thing. I smiled whenever I thought about it for a week or two after.
He leaned closer, and we kissed, and he went at it. I felt embarrassed because I didn’t know what to do. He was doing most of it. When he stopped I got up and went to the restroom and cried because I was ashamed. I couldn’t believe I kissed him. I was in shock, and worried about how I would tell my mother.
I felt two emotions after the kiss – relief that it was over and he had finally taken his tongue out of my mouth and disgust at how nauseating the entire thing was. In fact, I went to the restroom and washed my mouth. I felt like throwing up.
I remember thinking that it was awful and that I never wanted to do it again.
It was nothing special. My one emotional reaction was disappointment. I was expecting to experience what “Seventeen” magazine describes. I did not. What a total lie.
It was about a year ago with my first serious boyfriend. We were at the movies and he took me aside to look at the night scenery overlooking the theater and he kissed me. It was my very first time. I liked him, but I didn’t like that first kiss. It was actually kind of disappointing and not what I expected. After it was over I thought “this is it?” but to him it was like “walking on clouds holding a star” when I asked him what he thought.
The first kiss is a memorable experience that occurs only once in a person’s lifetime. And when I think back to my own very first kiss, I can most definitely relate to the reactions reported by our participants. I was 14, sitting in a darkened movie theater with my then-boyfriend Don. The experience, now decades old but as clear in my mind as if it happened yesterday, evoked a shifting array of both pleasant and unpleasant feelings in my adolescent self. How about your first kiss? Was it everything you expected? Or did it surprise you?