Lips, Inc … the primal power of the kiss
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Lips, Inc … the primal power of the kiss

Mad passion may seem to drive a human being to smooch the object of their desire but, according to scientists, romance has little to do with it.

I was very young the first time I saw Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair, but it's still one of my favourite films. There are several reasons, but chief among them is the chemistry between its leading actors, Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, who, in 1968, were both at the height of their physical attractiveness. Dunaway, as insurance investigator Vicki Anderson, is cat to McQueen's eponymous millionaire master-thief mouse.

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in 1968's "The Thomas Crown Affair".

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in 1968's "The Thomas Crown Affair". Credit:Alamy

Their affair (of course!) begins with a teasing game of chess in a wood-panelled, lamp-lit room, their blond beauty so luminous at this point you feel as if you've stumbled on a pair of unicorns gently disporting themselves in a sylvan paradise. She, wearing a backless, daringly ruched halter-neck dress, her long hair a silken skein of an up-do, is a vision of blush perfection; he is immaculate in a three-piece suit, his eyes an ocean of blue in his tanned, lined face. When she says "Check", the jig is up: he stands, pulls her up beside him and murmurs, "Let's play something else."

Jewison prepped his actors to film the longest kiss in screen history. In fact, it wouldn't be – Jane Wyman and Regis Tommey had locked lips for three minutes and six seconds in You're In The Army Now in 1941 – but it would be one of the sexiest. As McQueen moves in to join his lips to hers, he pauses momentarily and just … hovers. Anticipation is at a crescendo. The touchdown, when it happens, comes amid a dizzying choreography of consummate lip work and rule-flouting cinematography as the lovers dissolve in a swirling conflagration of mutual desire. I won't even mention the music.

Western culture, it seems, has been worshipping at the altar of osculation, the scientific name for the universal and humanising act of kissing, for quite some time. Over the decades, it has paid tribute iconically (Auguste Rodin's sculpture of Dante's infernal lovers, Paolo and Francesca, Le Baiser, circa 1882), dazzlingly (Gustav Klimt's The Kiss, 1908), rapturously (Marc Chagall's L'Anniversaire, 1915), trailblazingly (cinema's first French kiss between real-life lovers Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, Splendor in the Grass, 1961), controversially (Captain Kirk's interracial adoration of Lieutenant Uhura, Star Trek, 1968) – even menacingly (Michael Corleone's whispered "I know it was you, Fredo" to the brother who has betrayed him, The Godfather II, 1974).

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Humanising certainly, but universal? In 2015, Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute, launched an ethnographic study of 168 cultures across the globe and discovered that only 46 per cent of them practise romantic kissing – that is, via prolonged, open-mouthed, lip-to-lip contact. The erotic kiss, he found, was alive and well across the Middle East, North America, Europe and Asia among socially complex cultures where a class system prevails (alongside, not coincidentally perhaps, leisure time and good oral hygiene). Elsewhere, among the forager and hunter-gatherer tribes of Central America, sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea and the Amazon, it was nonexistent, the Mahinku of Brazil even going so far as to declare the practice "gross".

These findings were, he said, "a reminder of how Western ethnocentrism can bias the way we think about human behaviour". Kissing, he concluded, might have a biological underpinning, but a "conscious co-opting" of it from culture to culture over millennia was responsible for its prevalence – or lack thereof – today. After all, the earliest known reference to the erotic kiss is contained within the Vedas, Hinduism's oldest scriptures dating back 3500 years. And the ancient Romans and Greeks were furious osculators.

Rodin’s 1882 sculpture, "Le Baiser".

Rodin’s 1882 sculpture, "Le Baiser".Credit:Alamy

It was back in 1977, in his bestselling book Manwatching, that zoologist and author Desmond Morris first explored human body language and the primal, seductive power of the lips. An adult female primate signals to a prospective mate that she will be receptive to his amorous advances by showing him her genitals, he explained: when she's in oestrus – at her most fertile – her labia become swollen and more brightly coloured than usual in a bid to attract his attention. Mercifully, as evolution bestowed on humankind the grace (and modesty) of vertical locomotion, our fertility-flashing undersides became our fronts, making the lips a visual stand-in for the labia and the breasts, spherical in shape and separated by cleavage, an anatomical substitute for the buttocks.

Our lips, unusually in the animal kingdom, are everted; that is, the soft, cushiony part of them is permanently exposed, boosting their allure. "They have been artificially reddened with lipstick for thousands of years," wrote Morris, "and the deliberate use of suggestively gaping lip postures in films and advertisements frequently underlines their role as a 'genital echo'."

They're also densely packed with nerve endings. Breastfeeding, that evolutionary masterstroke that pairs a small pair of everted, rosebud lips with the nipple of an engorged breast, is deeply pleasurable for a baby. Morris, and Sigmund Freud before him, suggested that our pursuit of the romantic kiss in adulthood is our way of trying to replicate not only the physical bliss of that early closeness, but also the same emotional bond.

The lips, then, are our most visible erogenous zone and a portal through which our most basic functions – sustenance, speech, the breath – pass in and out of the body. They're a boundary, but also perhaps a threshold on which would-be lovers meet as equals. "The kiss is suggestive of another possibility and, for that brief moment, you're both swimming in the potency of that promise," says Melbourne artist Johannes, 48. "It's braver than sex somehow: you're crossing the boundary not only between 'me and you' but also between the cerebral and the physical. The closeness of the encounter forces you to lose focus and just … surrender."

Gustav Klimt’s 1908 painting, "The Kiss".

Gustav Klimt’s 1908 painting, "The Kiss".Credit:Alamy

For Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, there's so much going on, on a purely physiological level, when two people kiss deeply that its role in our species' natural selection is clear-cut. "Forming a pair bond to raise babies is the single most important thing we do with our lives," she says. "If you have kids, you live on. If you don't, you die out. Simple. Reproduction matters. The kiss signals our suitability as a reproductive partner."

And let's not forget, she adds, that we're not the only species doing it: "Dogs lick each other's faces, moles rub noses, albatrosses tap bills and bonobos, our closest relatives, are big into French kissing. None of us would be doing it if it didn't feel good or have a selective function."

When we kiss, our heads usually tilting to the right in an echo of our earliest postnatal position (most new mothers, say researchers, are left breast-dominant), the movement of the muscles that control our lips and tongue causes five of our 12 cranial nerves (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste) to launch a sensory reconnaissance of our partner.

If the brain's limbic system likes the incoming data, an army of chemical messengers, flitting from synapse to synapse, disseminates it to our nerve cells. This, in turn, stimulates the release of a heady cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones whose job it is to make us feel good about our tonsil-hockey playmate.

When kissing, a dopamine surge, which is linked to cravings, stokes feelings of romantic love, while a spike in oxytocin fosters attachment.

"Testosterone fires the libido," says Fisher. "Men tend to like sloppier, wetter kisses than women because their saliva contains testosterone and they're attempting, on an unconscious level, to inject more of it into their partner's mouth. A dopamine surge, which is linked to cravings, stokes feelings of romantic love, while a spike in oxytocin fosters attachment." Serotonin, she adds, causes us to have obsessive thoughts about the other person (more Bugs Bunny meets Lola than Glenn Close in bunny-boiler mood), while a rush of endorphins bathes us in euphoria. All the while, our breathing is deepening, our pupils are dilating and our pulse is quickening: it's party time.

In her book The Science of Kissing, Sheril Kirshenbaum explores the theory that we are, quite literally, sniffing out our partner's genetic code in these moments of intense physical attraction. Our sebaceous glands, which generate our body's individual scent or musk, are most highly concentrated around our noses, necks, faces and armpits (also called the "axillary scent organ"). We are, she says, more strongly attracted to partners whose scent is different to our own; in this way, we ensure more variation in our major histocompatibility complex, a group of genes that control how our immune system defends itself against disease. The idea is that any offspring resulting from a late-night, 15-minute tryst on the sofa in front of Jimmy Kimmel will go on to reap the rewards of this genetic diversity.

Women, on the whole, are more assiduous than men in their partner-vetting. They like to kiss – and often, even when sex isn't on the agenda (men are not only more likely to consider kissing an "appetiser", they're also more likely to be okay with the idea of dispensing with it altogether and proceeding straight to the main course). While a man can manufacture an infinite supply of sperm with which to impregnate a limitless number of partners, a woman comes to her sexual maturity with only 400 eggs and 33 years of fertility ahead of her: from an evolutionary point of view, it seems, the pressure is on to choose her mate well. "Kiss me," wrote Sylvia Plath in her journal, "and you will know how important I am." Wise words. Pity they were wasted on Ted.

Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood get up close and personal during  Hollywood’s first French kiss, in 1961’s "Splendor In The Grass".

Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood get up close and personal during Hollywood’s first French kiss, in 1961’s "Splendor In The Grass".Credit:Alamy

Julie Bates, 69, and recently awarded an Order of Australia for her advocacy, has been a sex worker for 38 years. She tells me that there has been a marked increase, over the past 20 years, in the number of clients requesting kissing and condom-free sex, a development that she attributes to the effect of libido enhancers and the authenticity of a good sex worker's role play (where the client forgets he's paying for the service). As a result, some of her colleagues now include a "girlfriend experience" among the services they offer. It typically includes passionate French kissing and can run, says Bates, to "many hundreds of dollars for the hour".

Generally speaking, she finds the idea repellent, but the reason she gives is pragmatic rather than emotional: "Fear of contagion," she says. "If you look at what can be transmitted through kissing [including colds, glandular fever, herpes simplex and hepatitis B] … I've lobbied for 30 years to make the industry safe. We put condoms on penises and use dental dams for oral sexual contact for a reason."

Still, she concedes, "kissing and hair-touching are two of the most intimate things another person can do to me." She pauses. "I've allowed it on the odd, very rare occasion – when there's [sexual dysfunction] caused by prostate surgery or a spinal injury, for example. Don't go thinking, 'Oh, aren't you wonderful?'," she adds with a little rasping laugh. "That's just me understanding what's required in order for [that client] to experience some kind of sexual response and release."

The perfect kiss, that manifestation of a deep primal undertow, forged by desire and sculpted by intuition, resists all prescription, say the experts, yet some basic rules of engagement do apply. As with other delicately poised moments in life – threading a needle or baking a soufflé, perhaps – sudden movement can spell disaster: nothing, everyone agrees, murders a mood like a tongue ambush. Instead, a good kiss, like Wagner's Liebestod or Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird, builds slowly, one partner feeling and reflecting the other's intensity. Importantly, it also recruits more than just the lips: think of it as a choreography of movements – a gentle butt-cup here or exquisite hair-tug there – whose aim is to communicate passion and ignite a reciprocal spark.

American television's first interracial kiss, between Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura.

American television's first interracial kiss, between Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura.Credit:Getty Images

Nineteen-year-old Sydney student Niamh remembers a kiss she shared with a boy her own age 14 months ago in a remote Donegal cottage as one of the most singular experiences of her life. The pair had been hanging out as friends for a long time in Sydney – "We were, basically, the boy-girl versions of each other," she says – when they decided to meet up for two weeks in Ireland over New Year at the end of 2017. "One afternoon, I was making dinner and he was cleaning – quite grown-up things for a couple of 18-year-olds to be doing, really – and we kissed," she says. "It was soft and gentle with lots of give and take because sometimes I like to take the lead, too. And the rhythm was really good. I think that's the most important thing of all actually, because sometimes a kiss is just a kiss and sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's like a beautiful slow dance where you both feel free enough and comfortable enough to let go of your vulnerability. I felt so connected to him in that moment."

Sometimes a kiss is like a beautiful slow dance where you both feel free enough and comfortable enough to let go of your vulnerability.

Niamh says all of her friends here use Tinder – "You swipe right, you swipe left based on a photo. It's a pessimistic way to look at life" – and thinks the app is robbing the kiss of its mystique. "People go on one date – not even that a lot of the time – and then have sex. They're happy with that arrangement until they go home and realise what just happened."

Perhaps, like the sinister couple in René Magritte's The Lovers II whose lips meet through cloth veils wound round their heads, the Tinder generation, addicted to sexual shorthand, is choosing to be indifferent to the real worth of the erotic kiss – as sensory envoy and matchmaker.

There's nothing dispensable about it, though, for Johannes. "It's not like an orgasm, which is a completion, a crescendo of union," he says. "There's a boundlessness, a timelessness, in a kiss. It's like you lose your centre of gravity."

Turns out he has a bit of a thing for The Thomas Crown Affair, too – in particular, Jewison's wizardry in the capturing of that breathtakingly scenic lip-lock. "He breaks the 180-degree rule so the camera 'flips' the actors as it spins around them. And then with the separation of the colour field towards the end, filmically, he's caught that transcendent moment when you become the other and the other becomes you." He pauses. "It's such a great moment."

Kiss of destiny

BY Konrad Marshall 

Illustration by Simon Letch.

Illustration by Simon Letch.Credit:

It was April 7, 2000, and it happened, under palm fronds and stars, by a beach on a steamy night in tropical north Queensland. I'd been flirting with this girl from New York fairly publicly, and quite pathetically, since we met in our student accommodation in Cairns.

We weren't meant to be courting one another. I had a long-term girlfriend in Melbourne, and she had a long-term boyfriend back in the States. Our kiss happened on a meant-to-be innocent group getaway down the coast. We were joined on the road trip by a girl from Cape Cod who was friends with the New Yorker and her then boyfriend, plus a lovely Norwegian girl who I sensed (but tried to deny) had a crush on me.

The four of us drove, in my rusty blue Holden Shuttle van, through the sugarcane to Townsville, where we slept at a hostel and then hopped on a morning ferry out into the Coral Sea.

I often wonder if the name of our destination played any role in the kiss that followed. After all, we finally pashed, two opposites inexorably drawn together, on Magnetic Island.

We spent the day driving a rented golf cart around the cliffy curves of the isle, recklessly hemming the shoulder above steep drops. We visited koala colonies, collected sea glass and listened to hippy jam band music. After dinner and too many drinks, we walked from our shared bamboo hut down to the beach in darkness, a few torches in hand, the air fizzing with youthful freedom and tantalising possibility.

We wandered there a while, breathing in the tidal flow breaking on the shore. And somewhere in the darkness between the dried piles of seaweed and the rustling palms, our fingers touched. We were holding hands, our heads tilted and our lips locked, and it was wonderful – until a panning torchlight froze upon us, and lingered there. We were baldly sprung. The girl from Cape Cod looked immediately disappointed in her friend. The girl from Norway, holding the torch, looked at me, crushed.

Do you know the song As Time Goes By from the film Casablanca? I always thought the famous early lyric was "a kiss is just a kiss", but that's not right. The line really reads "a kiss is still a kiss", which now seems the truth of the matter. A kiss has ramifications whether good or bad or both. No matter how playfully electric and fleeting that moment in the tropical night seemed, when the torchlight hit us, worlds changed.

The kiss connected two people. The New Yorker is now my wife. We've been together almost 19 years and married for 15. But the same kiss that joined us was also the acrimonious end of two other young loves. It killed a crush and mortally wounded a friendship.

A kiss is just a kiss? Not that night. Almost two decades ago, a kiss was a gut-punch, a judgmental sigh and twin acts of betrayal. A kiss was heartbreak. A kiss was desire. A kiss was delirium. A kiss was destiny. Lips meeting in the middle, a single kiss was four ends and one beginning.

Feline smoochy

BY Amanda Hooton

There are four people in my family: my partner and I, our six-year-old daughter, and Rose the cat. Rose rules our lives. She does this using the same two qualities a 1940s screen siren or a queen of ancient Egypt might employ: extraordinary beauty and ruthless powers of emotional manipulation.

Illustration by Simon Letch.

Illustration by Simon Letch.Credit:

When she arrived, the beauty was already obvious. She was an eight-week-old wisp of smoke-grey and caramel from the Animal Welfare League, with golden eyes and pewter spots on her tummy. And so soft, like cashmere or rabbit fur. The fact that she was also, already, a trained killer – she could catch a mosquito between her tiny front paws from day one – did not affect our devotion. We adored her.

And then she began to kiss us. One morning I heard my partner saying to our daughter: "Bend down so she can give you a kiss." As I came into the room, Rose was standing, tail up, one paw placed in front of the other like a supermodel. She stretched her neck and touched her tiny pink nose to my daughter's cheek.

I was transported. I thought only Disney animals kissed people. Rose's kisses are very light and quick, and her nose is cold, and hard, and slightly damp. Sometimes she seems to be greeting you gravely, nose-to-nose like an Eskimo chief; sometimes it's the off-hand air-kiss of a society hostess.

But here's the thing. Whatever variety you receive, beneath the joyful gift of a cat's kiss is a darker truth. Like Cleopatra or Lauren Bacall – and in common, I suspect, with felines the world over – Rose gives nothing away for free. Think you're receiving a spontaneous display of interspecies trust, dependence and affection? Think again, grasshopper.

Here's what lies behind Rose's kisses. She rises some time between 4am and 5.30am. Her first significant task of the day is to scratch furiously at her catflap, loudly proclaiming her desire to a) be served breakfast, and b) leave the house and murder local wildlife. Upon receiving this cue, it is our task to rise and feed her (a handmade mix of steak, lamb hearts and chicken livers), then unbolt the door to reveal the pearly light of dawn, into which she disappears like an apex predator wraith. An hour later she returns, re-enters, then retires for an hour's beauty nap. Then, at 7.30am (after we've all been up an hour), she rises again, stretches languorously, and trots down to the kitchen for her second breakfast.

Once this is served, and if all the preceding steps have been obsequiously followed to her satisfaction, then she may deign to kiss you. Usually she is sitting imperiously on her yellow stool throne at this point; you must bend like a supplicant to the level of her gunmetal-grey ears. But in the moment she lifts her face to yours, even the knowledge of your own subservience ceases to matter. The fact is, the kiss itself, as is the way of kisses the world over, makes all the suffering worthwhile.

Latina fireworks

BY Tim Elliott 

A while ago, I was cleaning out some drawers when I came across a passport-sized photo of a girl whom I was, for a short time, so overpoweringly, blindingly, pitiably in love with that I forgot who I was and what I was doing on the planet. Her name was Giselle. She was Colombian. She was 27. I was 26, but I could have been 826 for all I knew, or cared. That's how bad it was.

Illustration by Simon Letch.

Illustration by Simon Letch.Credit:

I first met Giselle when she came to Australia in 1995. She was an exchange student, learning English and staying with the parents of a friend of mine called James. With her broad face, high cheekbones and dangerous eyes, she was a classic Latin beauty, the kind of woman who rolls out of bed with Days of Our Lives hair and a rose between her teeth. As I was planning to go to South America soon, I spent a bit of time with Giselle, on whom I soon developed a crush, despite the fact that she and James had become an item. When I left for South America, she took me aside and said, "Mek sure dat when joo ged to Colombeeya, joo call me, yes?"

I said yes.

I arrived in Bogota six months later. I called Giselle and we made plans for dinner. When I turned up, however, she had brought a girlfriend. Still, it was good to see her, and we made plans to catch up again soon. But soon wasn't soon enough, so I began calling her. I didn't have a mobile phone, and neither did Giselle, so I had to call her mum's house, where she was living. If Giselle wasn't there, I'd leave a message and wait for her to call me at the hostel where I was staying. It wasn't ideal, but somehow I managed to arrange another dinner with her, after which we went dancing at a salsa club.

Then something strange happened. I would call Giselle's mum but Giselle was always out. "You just missed her!" her mum would say. Or: "I haven't seen her all day." So I left messages. Lots of messages. Giselle never called me back though. Maybe her mum was forgetting to give her my messages? And so I kept calling.

Finally, after three weeks of this, Giselle got in touch. Could I come to her mum's place that Saturday? Of course! I turned up, and we had dinner, and then retired to the couch. We were sitting there watching the news when, out of nowhere, as if in a dream, Giselle leaned over and kissed me. You know popcorn in the microwave? That was my brain at that moment, the billions of neurons numberless, every quivering node and superheated synapse detonating simultaneously. Put it this way: the woman knew how to kiss.

That was the last I saw of Giselle. I said goodbye that night and soon left for Mexico. When I got back to Sydney, six months later, I found a letter from Bogota. Inside was a photo of Giselle. On the back she had written: From your Colombian chica, xo xo. When I came across the photo, 22 years later, I was surprised to find that she wasn't as pretty as I'd remembered. But that kiss? That kiss never gets old.

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