Talking Smack

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I stumbled through my first French kiss in the spring semester of sixth grade. Joni was a pigtailed neighborhood girl I’d always liked for her kickball skills and killer record collection. One April after school, I found myself pressed against her in the woods, stunned by a soft, warm, velvety mouth that sucked me into a wonderland of sixth-grade clichés. My faithful pals Dan and Loren had tagged along to provide coaching and support, and as they watched, slack-jawed, they offered helpful advice like, “Put your hand up her shirt, dude!”
      That was a pretty good kiss, as they go. In the years that followed, there were others: brushed cheeks at cocktail parties, dusty pecks in nursing homes, drunken games of tonsil hockey in college, opiate kisses in the throes of love and, now, sweeter kisses stolen in between shoveling snow and hauling groceries and stacking firewood. And one day the question hit me mid-kiss: what biological or cultural explanation lies beneath this strange urge to lick the taste from someone else’s lips? How did sucking face start?
      But first, the definition of a kiss. Dr. Henry Gibbons, who wrote pamphlets about tobacco and midwifery and other things of interest to inhabitants of the 1800s, described kissing as “the anatomical juxtaposition of two orbicularis oris muscles in a state of contraction.” He apparently never let a foreign tongue stray past his own prudishly puckered lips.
      The cultural element is more complex. A kiss communicates different things around the world — in some places, you’re expected to kiss in greeting; in others, it’ll get your teeth smashed out — and everywhere, it’s as nuanced as Chinese intonation. An inch to the left, a slip of the tongue, even a fraction of a second’s hesitation can turn a greeting into a covert invitation, a goodnight into a greedy demand. A kiss, unlike a bow or a handshake, straddles the threshold between the social and the sexual. The kiss of life is good. The kiss of death is bad. Don’t kiss ass. Do kiss the sky. A kiss, you see, is never just a kiss.
      Vaughn Bryant Jr. has come closer than anyone else to unraveling the history of kissing. A professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University, he’s studied nontraditional subjects ranging from Bigfoot (he still isn’t convinced the beast is a hoax) to the Neanderthal diet (which involved examining fossilized turds and learning that our hairy ancestors stayed supermodel thin on nuts and berries).


His kissing research was sparked during an anthropology lecture in the 1980s, when he asked students to cite examples of cultural universals, things like religion and the incest taboo. “One student answered, ‘Well, I guess everyone kisses,'” says Bryant. And this seemed like a no-brainer. But Bryant is a born skeptic, so he began investigating the origin and history of our favorite oral activity.
      An early theory posited that kissing evolved from feeding. Some Papuan mothers in New Guinea pass chewed food directly from their mouths to their young, like birds. Likewise, the Ituru people of the Congo chew the fat of elephants and feed it to companions in the same way. But, as it turns out, the adults of these groups don’t kiss for pleasure.
      Another theory suggested that kissing evolved from the once-common practice of sniffing friends in greeting. The “Eskimo kiss,” for example, is actually a way to get a whiff of the sebaceous glands on a friendly face. Studies have shown that most people can identify relatives in the dark by smell. More importantly, a quick sniff gauges the health of another person: stink-breath from a sinus infection, for example, would serve as a warning for a healthy sniffer to stay away. “As recently as a hundred years ago,” notes Bryant, “part of becoming a doctor or a nurse was learning to recognize the smell of different diseases.”
      Next Bryant scoured early written records for clues. “Sumerian and Egyptian texts from 5,000 years ago discuss beermaking, social status, methods of taxation, laws and military campaigns,” says Bryant, “but none of these early accounts mention anything about kissing.” And human nature dictates that some face-sucker would have scratched out his score somewhere.
      Then, around 1500 B.C., the first written record of erotic kissing appeared in the Vedic Sanskrit texts of India. One passage describes lovers “setting mouth to mouth.” Another is written by a man who says, in tribute to his slave, that he loves “drinking the moisture of [her] lips.” Bryant believes these texts best approximate the origin of the modern kiss. “It’s not like you’ll ever find a fossilized kiss,” he muses.
      Two millennia of kissing evolution followed. By the fifth century A.D., the Kama Sutra described three kinds of kisses between lovers, including one in which the woman touches her lover’s lips with her tongue. Give India credit for the French kiss.
      Around this time, Europeans started to swap spit, too. In the New Testament, Romans 16:16 refers to St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, which exhorted them to “salute one another with an Holy Kiss.” As Christianity spread, so did the concept of the Holy Kiss, which was supposed to serve as an act of reverence in rites from baptism to confession. But by the 1300s, Church officials discovered that the Kiss had taken a rather unholy turn, leading more often to fornication than to pious reflection. At the Council of Vienna in 1312, all forms of kissing among unmarried couples were decreed to be mortal sin.
      The Holy Kiss was eventually replaced with a handshake, and the Great Plague of 1665 dampened all remaining enthusiasm for kissing for several hundred more years. As late as 1955, an article in a Catholic magazine advised that “many a girl who permitted kissing to a near stranger has been swept into sin and into a forced marriage.” And of course every KISS fan is a kid in Satan’s service.
      Yet despite the attendant risk of eternal damnation, kissing is quite healthy from a secular standpoint. The Academy of General Dentistry recommends kissing to reduce cavities because it stimulates the production of saliva, which washes away food particles and bacteria. According to a 1991 Kinsey Institute report, a passionate kiss burns 6.4 calories per minute, which means an hour-and-a-half makeout session (what my Texan friend calls “heavy mugging down”) will burn off a Big Mac, leaving the fries for more intense engagement.
      Even the chemistry of a kiss is good for you. When my girlfriend (whose first kiss was with Marisa Tomei’s little brother at a fifth-grade party) whispers to me about the warm sensation a deep kiss sends straight down between her legs, it’s because kissing causes her body to pump out oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates uterine contraction at birth. (For unknown reasons, levels also spike in males during ejaculation.) Oxytocin reduces aggression, too, which may explain why men drift into post-ejaculatory coma and lab mice deprived of the hormone demonstrate “subtle derangements in social behavior.” And kissing is better than a bowl of bran flakes in the morning: a ten-year German study of kissing found that men who kissed their wives before leaving for work lived an average of five years longer than men who did not. According to the same study, skipping the kiss increased the chances of a subsequent car wreck by fifty percent.
      In a study of cold virus transmission, only one person in sixteen became infected by a 1.5-minute kiss from an infected donor. You’re more likely to catch a cold from turning a doorknob. Of the 280 bacteria that thrive in the human mouth, more than ninety percent are harmless. Oral transmission of HIV has been confirmed only once. And although oral herpes is easily contracted via kissing, up to eighty percent of the adult population in the US carries the virus. It’s hardly something to sweat about.
      After I’d been led through millennia of mashing mouths, I asked Bryant about his own first kiss. No wonder the man’s intrigued by the subject: The lucky bastard was just five years old when a lusty blonde toddler bussed his sunburned cheek on an Ipanema beach. “I don’t remember it,” he admits, “but I have the photo saying it happened.” Isn’t that the way we all like our kisses, a little mysterious, blurred and sweetened by time, even if we don’t understand the how and why? In the end, even though Charles Darwin believed sucking face is innate human behavior, it’s the part that transcends biology that we keep coming back for.  

Gordon Bass is a former senior editor of Men’s Journal who lives in upstate New York. He has written for GQ, Glamour, and Inc. He can’t remember kissing anyone famous, except maybe an actress who once played Barney.

©2003 Gordon Bass and Nerve.com