By Rachel Barry
Kissing is everywhere: that couple next to you on the subway, your parents before they head off to work and your favorite actors on the movie screen. But have you ever wondered, why do we kiss? How did kissing first come about? What is the point?
Kissing is so important to humans there is an actual term for the study of it: philematology. It comes from the Greek term “philos,” meaning earthly love. A simple kiss takes only two or three muscles but those passionate make out sessions? We’re talking two dozen muscles and burning up to 26 calories a minute. Some studies suggest working these facial muscles can actually help prevent wrinkles as well. A workout and a youthening treatment? Sign me up.
The first evidence of kissing dates back 3,500 years, found in India’s Vedic Sanskrit texts, when kissing was described as “inhaling” another’s soul. Now the question is, do we kiss because that’s what we have learned to do, or is it instinctual? Some argue it is a learned behavior, being passed down through mass media, generation after generation.
The first time a kiss appeared on the silver screen was in 1896 in a short film called The Kiss, distributed by Thomas A. Edison, Inc. Since then, kissing has evolved into a well known Western-world feature in film, showing up in countless productions and even making it into numerous titles. Kissing isn’t just used for romance, however. The movie kiss has shown up in films as a political and cultural statements. For example, Island in the Sun (1957) received major backlash from the southern US states after incorporating the first interracial kiss seen in film. Kisses between men in films such as Wings (1927) and Morocco (1930) sparked controversy way before LGBTQ issues had hit mainstream culture. From Romeo and Juliet to Noah and Allie from The Notebook, on-screen smooching has become a movie must. The romantic kiss may not be quite so famous worldwide, however.
According to a study in American Anthropologist, only 46 percent of cultures romantically kiss, otherwise known as osculation. Nonetheless, when the question involved kissing one’s young, the study showed that 90 percent of humans partake in such acts of affection. Why the discretion? Well, our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, are known to kiss. Their kissing, however, is more of a reconciliation peck than a romantic gesture. Other than that, animals mostly keep to nuzzling or licking but not kissing. Some claim this tendency stems from our earliest days when mothers pre-chewed food before passing it into the mouths of their young. Basically, kissing is universal, whereas osculation is not.
So what really is the answer to our need for lip locking? Potentially, it is our terrible lack of smell. Rafael Wlodarski, an expert in philematology, has devoted a large part of his career to studying the origins of kissing. He claims that kissing allows humans to get close enough to one another to pick up one another’s pheromone smells. Pheromones are chemical signals given off by one animal that affect another. Animals attempt to find mates that are genetically different from themselves, and these pheromones are a good indicator for this genetic diversity.
In 2013, Wlodarski did an experiment where he asked people what mattered most about the person they kissed. Smell was normally at the top of the list, especially to women who were, at the time, at the fertile part in their monthly cycle. This correlates with a famous experiment where women smelled men’s worn T-shirts. The women consistently picked shirts worn by men with the most different MHC (major histocompatibility complex) than themselves to be the “most attractive.”
So if smell is what we are really after, why all the germ sharing? With lips being up to 200 times more sensitive than fingertips, a peck on the lips is more resonating than the gentlest of caresses. Research indicates that couples that kiss frequently show more happiness and satisfaction than those that don’t, whereas frequency of sexual intercourse shows no effect. Lips are irrevocably an erogenous zone, so once you get to mouth-on-mouth, you won’t be worrying about if your children are going to be genetically fit. However, Wlodarski argues that those instances when the chemistry just wasn’t there is because it really wasn’t, and your MHCs were just too similar for sparks to fly.
But what about those awkward first kisses shared between giggles that were such a big deal to your tween self? I had my first kiss when I was 13 years old. I was in seventh grade, and we were in his basement. We decided to watch a movie and that whenever the people in the movie kissed, we would kiss. Well, we watched Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and there is only one kiss in the whole movie, and it’s like an hour and a half in, and we kissed for maybe one second and that was that.
With seven years separating me from this less-than-swoon-worthy moment, I can now compare it to many kissing experiences. My first kiss with my present-day boyfriend was shared over a food fight with blue moon ice cream. From an awkward kiss during Harry Potter to a movie-worthy makeout sesh, this first kiss was way better than my first-first. It got me to thinking about the first kisses of my peers. Every day on campus I hear about everyone’s weekend flings and random makeout sessions with dreamy what’s-their-names. But everyone started somewhere, and normally that somewhere involves two gangling tweens trying to copy what they’ve seen in movies. So I set out to get the real story, and asked my fellow students at Albion to kiss and tell. Here are the responses they sent in:
“Okay, so I was in 7th grade and had my first boyfriend ever. We passed notes in math class every single day, and he kept telling me he wanted to kiss me but never did. I was so confused because this kid literally dated every single girl in the seventh grade–so why wouldn’t he just kiss me!? After about two months together we were leaving to get on the bus, and he bent down and kiss[ed] me. No rainbows, butterflies or magic here, folks. It was like kissing the cement wall. Horrible. We dated for another month or so, and on the last day of seventh grade he texted me when we got on the bus. He broke up with me because he ‘wanted to be single for the summer.’”
“My first kiss was the most awkward kiss I’ve ever had. It was in a movie theatre in eighth grade with my ‘boyfriend.’ We dated for like three months and everyone was pressuring us to kiss. When the movie was over, everyone walked out of the theatre and he was like ‘Stay here for a second’ and we like made out… it [was] so damn awkward and forced.”
“I was in sixth grade; I biked to my neighbors house and went to his back deck. He kissed me, I got scared and ran back to my bike and biked away super fast. I was in a Hollister outfit head to toe, and I thought I was cool.”
“We had been dating almost a month when he wanted to take me on a hike around a nearby pond. It was his favorite trail, so I was excited to go. About halfway through, it began to rain. We made it to a covered overlook from which we could see the whole pond and the surrounding forest. We were soaking wet, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Then, like some sappy romantic comedy, he just went for it in the middle of our laughter. It was terrible. I’ve never kissed a boy before and this was his first kiss as well, but it will always remain special to me.”
“When I was 15, I went to Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. The dorms we stayed in were super nice and apartment-style. Girls had the top floor and guys had [the] floor below us. One day I was singing ‘Yellow Submarine’ in the shower and apparently it was super loud because when I got out of the shower I heard knocking on my door. I was very embarrassed because my voice is atrocious. I opened the door, and this guy grabbed my face and kissed me. I was pretty scared because I had no idea who this kid was. He stopped and said in the most nervous voice, ‘My uncle is Paul McCartney; I texted him when I heard you singing. He told me to do that. Bye.’ Then he ran away, literally sprinted away, and I never saw him again. I also got a fat lip from when he smashed my face against his tooth. It sounds cute now, I guess, but it was actually terrifying at the time. We’re Facebook friends now.”
“My story of my first kiss starts when I was very young. When I was five years old my parents were very close to this other family that has a boy that was only one year older than me. [He] and his younger sister would come over almost everyday to play with my older brother and I. For some reason everyone wanted to play the game House. Because of this, this boy and I always got married at least twice a week for two years. One day he asked me to go to my room to watch a movie. I remember vividly him asking me to pop in the movie and then pop in the bed. He held my hand the entire time and told me, ‘You need to close your eyes. I’m going to do something that adults do.’ I was confused but also a five-year-old girl so I closed my eyes and he kissed my lips. I remember not understanding and not knowing what it meant, but it was what adults did, so I carried on. He kissed me three times and then told me that was enough for today.”
“When I was in first grade, I had two best friends both named Matt. One of the Matts was this hella-blonde boy and as my first grade brain thought to name him, Blonde Matt. One day we were at art and we had to paint this wooden block. Blonde Matt held it in his hand as the other Matt moved it around so I could paint every edge. Blonde Matt got so heated in the moment that he threw my block on the floor, spilling black paint all over us and the floor. He then took my hand and proceeded to dip me (the dance move) and kissed me and said I love you. I pushed him out of the way and grabbed my block. The other Matt followed me. The other Matt grabbed my hand and handed me a flower. I took the flower from his hand as we ran for recess, and then he kissed me in front of the entire first grade. So I started crying.”
“A boy and I were in a class together, and I saw him one night at a party. We talked a little bit, but nothing really happened between us. We were hanging out in his room, and we’re just talking for a while until we noticed everyone left. We started playing thumb war, and he was cheating by not letting me win. So I leaned up and kissed him and moved my thumb over his and won! That’s how we started to make out and ended up dating for two years now.”
“I was a very late bloomer. In high school I was too nervous to ever talk to guys, and I soon fell behind as my friends all had their first kisses and boyfriends. High school passed and I got into college, but I still lacked my first special moment with someone. Two months into college I decided to go to a frat party with my friend. She knew an older guy in the frat from her class who had invited us over. We went and hung out for a few hours and while the party wound down and people left, it was only me, my friend, her friend from class and his roommate who was on internship for the semester. He was just here for the weekend, so we hadn’t seen him around before. We were introduced to him and the four of us soon became friends. He came back almost every weekend, and we finally kissed on the weekend after Halloween. We had all been hanging out in a room when my friend and her friend from class told us they were going ‘to go get bagels.’ This was the first time we were alone together, and I happened to be wearing a minion costume. Before I knew it, we had talked for two hours, and it was time for me to go home. I said goodbye and all of a sudden we kissed. That guy and I have been dating ever since!”
Be it a two second kiss in sixth grade or a smooch that sparked a relationship, my interviewing showed me that my fellow college students, particularly the women, tend to emblazon their first kiss in their minds as an awkward, adorable or just special moment in their lives. The guys tend to be a little more vague, with some unable to recall the name of their first smooch sharer. Every first kiss with a new partner is special in its own way, so let’s just be thankful that kissing is most definitely a learned talent and it gets better with time and practice. Now pucker up and go inhale some souls.
Photo by Rachel Barry