If you’re anything like me, you have at one point found yourself shouting “just kiss already” at the tv. Kissing has come to represent that crucial moment of ‘ruining our friendship’; it’s the ultimate romantic physical display of love. Kissing, along with holding hands, is often our first step into understanding the physical manifestations of love, and how exciting that can feel. As teenagers, we hold our breath, staring longingly into the eyes of the one who holds out affection. Kissing is also a special sign of love shown to members of our family, or dear friends. Cheek kissing is a greeting in many cultures. However, as you probably guessed, this sweet act of the lips is gendered.
Studies have shown that in heterosexual couplings, whilst women are generally happy to kiss and leave it as that, men are more likely to see kissing as a means to an end, namely having sex. Whilst both men and women think that kissing is a key part of a well-functioning relationship, and even take cues from the kiss as to whether the partner is compatible, women will only see kissing as a cue to sex for long-term partners, whereas men use kissing as a tool to arouse their partner. In reality, men are happier to forgo kissing (and other types of non-penetrative sex) altogether if it allows more time for penetrative sex. Interestingly, men also generally enjoy wetter kisses. Why this is is yet undiscovered, but the running theory is that men take this as a sign that their female partner is aroused, just as they would infer this from a wet vaginal area.
Although in a heterosexual relationship, women are more likely to see kissing as tender or love-building, in kissing couplets of two (or more) straight-identifying women, kissing can be seen as a meaningless outworking of desire. Just as Katy Perry sings, studies have found that many women have kissed a girl and liked it but ended up finding it ‘don’t mean (they’re) in love tonight’. This curious kissing can be explained in many ways: it can be seen as an act of self-discovery; women want to feel what men might feel. It could also be a rite of passage, with many women recalling situations in school or university where they engaged in some same-sex kissing. In many cases, a woman may feel a sexual or romantic desire for another woman that does not fit within our understanding of sexuality, for example, they may feel lust for one woman and one woman only their entire lives. Whatever the reason, women are much, much more likely to try kissing their peers than men.
Of course, we must not forget those for whom kissing is not desirable, or even on their radar. Asexuals, amongst others, might feel excluded by our laser focus on kissing; physical desire is often seen as the moment a relationship ‘becomes real,’ alienating those who don’t experience this in the ‘heteronormative way.’ Relationships, like people, come in all different shapes and sizes, and nobody should ever be pressured into kissing or anything else for that matter.
Two further things are important to note at this point. The first is that women’s desire, especially the desire to kiss another woman, has been used in two unique ways to erase women’s experiences. First, the ‘SGK (straight girls kissing)’ or ‘LUG (Lesbian until graduation)’ stereotypes have been used to invalidate and invisibilise the experiences of lesbians, women who like women, women who have sex with women, and bisexuals. You’ve probably heard that famous line ‘it’s just a phase’. By saying that all women want to kiss other women, we trivialise something that should be held sacred, namely the love and attraction shared between two women. ‘SGK’ and ‘LUG’ also make unhelpful assumptions of heteronormativity about women, but that is another matter.
Secondly, the idea of women kissing other women has become a pinnacle focus of pornography everywhere. The male gaze views two women kissing as something so irresistibly sexy that all the reality is washed away. Boys are taught to find lesbian kissing sexy, girls are taught that snogging their friends makes them sexy, and the porn industry profits off the ‘harmless’ and ‘experimental’ phases that ‘all women go through’. This is in contrast to the ‘disgust’ felt at watching two men kiss, immortalised by the 2017 study that found men exhibiting similar levels of disgust towards images of two men kissing as they did ‘a bucket of maggots.’
There is much to be said about kissing. It is a moment of vulnerable intimacy that we share with another person, whether that be a family member, friend, spouse, teenage friend at a sleepover, or a Tinder hookup. Kisses can be full of meaning or utterly meaningless. Kissing in public can be a massively political act, from #kissoflove in India to queer activists, and right back to freaking out your British aunt. They are ours to give when we want to and refuse when we don’t. Some may scatter them like drops of joy amongst strangers, loved ones, and pets, whereas others may reserve them for special occasions and the plump cheeks of babies.