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Kiss, Modern

Kiss, Modern

Kissing is the placing of the lips on some part of a person, animal, or thing, sometimes accompanied by a smacking sound. The word may come from the Old English coss, and has variants in both old Germanic and old Romance languages. Kissing in modern times can serve as a gesture of affection, a greeting, a parting, a romantic overture, a sexual practice, a sign of respect, a blessing, a sign of reverence, or an indicator of subordination. It seems to have historically been more important in the West than in many Asiatic, Polynesian, and sub-Saharan societies, and its ceremonial use in the West in the last thousand years has diminished as its erotic significance has grown. In nineteenth-century America, kissing was part of publicly conducted courtship, but became more private among middle-class couples as courtship moved indoors to sitting rooms and private parlors. The 1920s saw a resurgence of more public forms of kissing in the "petting parties" of teenagers and young adults, and public kissing between men and women has been viewed as a normal part of young adulthood ever since, though such tolerance in the United States has historically demanded that participants adhere to the American norms of heterosexual courtship; which is to say that those kissing should be of different genders and have the same racial background.


In the United States, methods of kissing vary with degree of intimacy. An intimate form of social kissing used between good friends, family members, and lovers involves one person placing his or her lips directly on the lips of someone else. A slightly more formal kind of kissing is the greeting where one person places his or her lips on another person's cheek, a greeting or leave-taking usually practiced by friends and family, and a traditional gesture of respect—and, some would argue, domination—bestowed by men on women in the earlier and middle twentieth century. As the social relations between men and women began to change because of feminism and more women entering the workplace, this gesture, once considered a part of masculine decorum even in political and business settings, has been replaced by the more gender-neutral and less awkward handshake. Confusion as to the propriety of the old-fashioned chivalrous kiss of greeting can be seen fairly often in the breaches of protocol that occur when U.S. presidents, foreign diplomats, or Olympic athletes accidentally proffer the queen of England or other female royalty gentlemanly kisses on the cheek instead of the more proper bow and handshake.

Air kissing, where the lips of one person do not touch another's body but instead make only kissing sounds, evolved as a gesture of affection in the mid-twentieth century between women of the middle and upper classes who did not want to touch each other directly either because of physical squeamishness or, as is more likely, to avoid smearing each other's makeup. This gesture is sometimes still used by older women and women wearing a lot of makeup, but has fallen out of fashion, parodied in films and on television to comic effect as a superficial and hypocritical gesture of affection between social rivals who loathe each other in private but must keep up appearances of ladylike civility in public. The European gesture of touching one's cheek to either side of another person's face, a form of greeting that does not involve touching the lips anywhere, is related to the air kiss in that smacking sounds are sometimes made with the lips at the same time, but this form of greeting is less practiced in the United States than it is abroad.

Contemporary lovers and married people are allowed—and even expected—to kiss each other on the mouth in a more prolonged fashion, as a sexualized form of greeting and farewell. This type of kissing may be repetitive, open-mouthed, and more intense, though it is generally considered in poor taste to be overly sexual in public. Open-mouthed kissing, also known as "French" kissing, is always considered to be sexual, and its public use is determined by individual taste and social and cultural propriety. Marriages are sealed with a kiss that is expected to have some erotic significance, and kissing in public between men and women or boys and girls of the same race is met with general societal approval almost everywhere in the United States and Europe. Tolerance for interracial relationships is increasing in many parts of Europe and the United States, though it can still be dangerous to display sexual affection for someone of another race. Same-sex erotic kissing, however, is prohibited in all but the most liberal enclaves in the United States and abroad. It is often permissible to kiss a same-sex partner in gay-friendly neighborhoods, businesses, and countries where gay marriage or domestic partnerships are legal, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. Women kissing each other is generally more tolerated than male-male kissing because women are often not perceived to be sexual without men and many heterosexual men find lesbian displays of affection attractive and titillating. Nevertheless, kissing anyone of the same sex is usually read as indicative of homosexuality, and can be dangerous when performed in homophobic parts of the United States and the world where gay bashing is common.

Kissing is not as sexualized elsewhere to the extent that it is in the United States, and same-sex kissing may therefore be more freely tolerated even in parts of the world that severely punish homosexual acts. For example, it is considered normal in many Mediterranean countries and parts of the Middle East for men to kiss each other, hold hands, and keep their arms around each other, and affection between women is the norm in most of the world. Furthermore, in Muslim countries such as Malaysia, even men and women can be arrested for kissing each other if they are not married.

Kissing is not, of course, confined to the lips or face. It is common to kiss the hands of friends and loved ones as a gesture of affection in many parts of Africa. Kissing the hand can be a gesture of respect or reverence, such as when clerics kiss the rings on the hands of archbishops, cardinals, or popes. Presidents and kings are expected to kiss the heads of children in a gesture of blessing, and a kiss on the head by a parent or authority figure is commonly understood to sanction and favor the undertaking of a young person, such as a marriage or journey.

Sexualized kissing can involve any area of the body, from mouth kisses to the genital kisses of oral sex. Kissing the neck, breasts, stomach, genitals, or anus of a lover or lovers can be either a prelude to other types of genital sexual activity or a sexual activity in itself. This type of kissing in the context of heterosexual sexual intercourse is commonly referred to as "foreplay" for those interested in differentiating coitus from the types of sexual acts that precede it. Prolonged kissing of all kinds is considered crucial to sexual arousal as long as participants view these types of kisses as attractive, and physiological responses to kissing include all the signs of arousal, such as increased heart rate, increased breathing, flushed skin, dilated pupils, vaginal lubrication, swelling and tenderness of the nipples, clitoral or penile erection, swelling of the testes, and thickening of the scrotum.


Some types of kisses are considered unacceptable in certain contexts. Some people find genital kissing to be repugnant, and many people consider anal kissing, or "rimming," taboo. Kissing or licking in such a way as to suggest sexual activity with other traditionally taboo objects, such as animals or dead people, is almost universally held to be taboo. Open-mouthed, or French, kissing, is the most erotically charged kind of social kissing, and therefore is generally taboo between people who are not socially approved as lovers in various contexts, such as between adults and children in countries where child marriage and sex between adults and minors is illegal, people of different races or religions in areas of prejudice and racial and religious strife, unmarried men and women in Muslim countries, same-sex partners in homophobic countries, married people and partners other than their spouses in places that condemn adultery, and those related by blood ties that are deemed too close for marriage, such as siblings, children or grandchildren, parents or grandparents, and sometimes, first cousins. The term kissing cousins can refer to married first cousins, people related to each other by marriage but not by blood, or simply cousins who know each other so well that they greet each other with kisses.

The media has traditionally censored kissing in much the same way as it has other kinds of sexual behavior. In India, any type of kissing was until recently unacceptable to portray on film. In the United States, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association adopted its Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, in 1930 to regulate moral standards in its films. The Catholic National Legion of Decency was formed in 1933 to monitor sexual content in the movies, introducing a rating system that was later adapted by the Motion Picture Association of America, which released its first rating scheme in 1968. The Hays Code of 1930 forbade the sympathetic portrayal of sinful, criminal, and perverse behavior, and forbade lustful kisses of any kind. Kisses were limited to quick pecks and the closed-mouthed pressing of lips between men and women in such a way as to suggest fierce but contained passion. Gay or lesbian romantic kisses were almost never shown on film and never shown on television until 1991, when L.A. Law had female coworkers kiss, and when they were, such as the 1994 Roseanne episode in which Roseanne kisses Muriel Hemingway, the network broadcast a parental advisory. One of the loveliest tributes ever made to the power of the screen kiss remains Giuseppe Tornatore's 1988 film, Cinema Paradiso, the story line of which includes a village priest who censors and excises film kisses, a boy who loves the movies, and a final scene where the boy-turned-man, heartbroken and alone, returns to the little town and movie house of his childhood to find an old reel of all the censored passionate kisses spliced together, one after another, in glorious succession. As this film suggests, the kiss in modern culture is understood chiefly as a romantic gesture, and it is this aspect of kissing that enjoys the most social significance in film and television.

see also Foreplay.


D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. 1997. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harvey, Karen, ed. 2005. The Kiss in History. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Walters, Suzanna Danuta. 2001. All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

                                                Jaime Hovey

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