Riddle Me This: What’s the Meaning of a Kiss? by Marissa Glover

It’s no coincidence that we use our mouth, our lips and tongue, to kiss—the same body parts used in conversation, which is the human’s primary method of communication. The kiss offers a secondary mode of communication, and the messages we can send via a kiss are as vast and varied as the types of kisses that exist. This communicative nature gives the kiss its power, and the mystery of the kiss comes from how people decide to wield this power. The participants alone determine the meaning of a particular kiss—meaning that is based on the message each wants to communicate, and why. However, even though two people are mutually engaged in the same kiss, their meanings, messages, and motives may not be the same. Thus, the kiss becomes increasingly mysterious—for who can say what a couple’s intentions or motivations are? And even within the most intimate of relationships, how can one person know with certainty what the other is really thinking and feeling?

It baffles the mind that such a simple gesture—one that technically doesn’t require anything other than the lips we’re given at birth—could be assigned so many different definitions that even the mere word “kiss” does not suffice. The Romans referred to friendly kisses (oscula), kisses of love (basia), and passionate kisses (suavia). The French have at least twenty sorts of kisses, and German dictionaries include more than thirty. We humans identify and classify, we say this is that, and suddenly we are masters of the Garden. But this is an imagined control. Only the participants involved in a particular kiss have the authority to assign meaning to that kiss; everyone else is required to wonder because, as Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman explains, “A kiss is a secret told to the mouth instead of the ear.” In this brief space, we will explore the duality of three kinds of kisses in order to better illustrate how the two kissers each determine meaning based on their personal intentions and ulterior motives.

The Kiss as Commerce
Readers might recoil at the notion of using the kiss as commerce, but what if there were a way to spend or trade kisses that doesn’t objectify or commodify one’s partner? Research shows that porn-influenced high school males use the kiss as incentive for females to perform other sex acts. But this offer, “If you [give me oral sex], I’ll give you a kiss,”1 is very different from Venus’ bargaining with Adonis: “A thousand kisses buys my heart from me/And pay them at thy leisure, one by one.”2 We rightly feel revulsion at the former, but do we at the latter? The perpetuation and popularity of Ovid’s ancient myth would say not. So, then, what’s the difference?

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Vénus et Adonis by Charles-Joseph Natoire, 1767

We might argue that, devoid of love, the high school boy uses kissing as bait in order to selfishly satisfy his own desires; whether or not he actually follows through, this Machiavellian approach shortchanges the girl and leaves her feeling used. In contrast to this One Direction-esque tactic (“I spend her love until she’s broke inside”), the exchange between Adonis and Venus is a mature flirtation, an offering of kisses along with one’s heart to the beloved. Here we see the same Kiss as Commerce but very different meanings, as determined by the participants according to his or her intended message and the motivations behind such communication.

The Holy Kiss
In his epistles, the Apostle Paul encourages believers to “greet one another with a holy kiss.”3 Consequently, the holy kiss has been employed across cultures for centuries as one of the few physically intimate gestures to be legitimized by Christian doctrine as acceptable outside of a consecrated relationship. Incidentally, believers today might substitute a handshake or hug for this “kiss of peace” if performed during an orthodox ceremony, and the kiss of greeting has become a predominantly secularized tradition more popular in Western nations, with Europeans more likely than Americans to kiss hello. But in New Testament culture, a kiss of greeting among friends and the holy kiss of peace was commonplace. Observers of this kiss would automatically assume amity between the participants. But would they be correct?

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Kiss of Judas by Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306

Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ disciples, capitalized on this assumption while conspiring to deliver Jesus to his enemies. Judas made a deal with the High Priests—his intended message? The man I kiss is Jesus; that’s how you’ll know him. His motivation behind the message? Thirty pieces of silver. Observers watching the scene unfold see a typical holy kiss, a traditional greeting between friends. Judas alone determined the meaning of his kiss—that this (un)holy kiss would identify, and ultimately, betray.

The Shut Up Kiss
In late seventeenth (and well into the eighteenth) century England, as the debate over gender roles heated up and women began arguing for equality, male-dominated society responded by printing tracts to dictate proper behavior for “well-mannered” folk. Most of this conduct literature reinforced patriarchal order (Husband rules Wife as King rules Country as God rules Universe) and reminded men that silence was a primary sign of a submissive woman. Many went so far as to suggest that the best way to keep an unruly woman quiet is to kiss her. The logic goes, women can’t talk while you’re kissing them, so if you want to shut them up, kiss their mouth. Think John Wayne in McLintock, Tall in the Saddle, or pretty much any western in which he starred, and you get the idea.

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Screen capture from Tall in the Saddle (1944) starring John Wayne and Ella Raines

Ahead of his time, Shakespeare interrogates this societal recommendation in his comedy Much Ado About Nothing by subversively allowing Beatrice, his talkative female lead, to use the kiss to control speech, thereby taking the technique heretofore reserved for the male’s use and turning it against him. Sadly, Benedick commands her silence with a kiss in the final act of the play, exclaiming, “Peace! I will stop your mouth.” Beatrice never speaks again.

The early modern shut up kiss has become a pop culture trope, so common that we’re no longer offended by its origin when Willie Nelson sings for Maria to shut up and kiss him, hoping that in doing so, she’ll also forgive his dastardly ways. Even though twentieth century progress granted both men and women the power to silence their partner with a kiss, we’re still a bit taken aback when Lauren Bacall lays one on Bogey in To Have and Have Not. However, after second-wave feminism, we laugh at Shanghai Noon when Jackie Chan’s usually silent wife, played by Brandon Merrill, kisses Owen Wilson’s character and then utters her only English line in the movie: “Shut up, Roy; you talk too much.”

Yet, there are other shut up kisses where the distance between us and the screen or page disappears, and suddenly we’re actively rooting for the words to stop and the kiss to start. There’s the Dawson’s Creek episode when Pacey first kisses Joey because he’s tired of being her talk buddy. Katniss silences Peeta with a kiss because she doesn’t want to hear that her life is more important than his. Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams even won an award for their onscreen shut up kiss, and now countless women everywhere dream of being Allie on a dock in the pouring rain.

What makes one shut up kiss deplorable and the other desired? Simply put: one is a grab for power, and the other is a mutual surrender. Generally, as society’s treatment of women improves and egalitarian relationships flourish, kissing transitions from a way for males to control female speech to a form of communication. Pacey employs the shut up kiss, but not because he disregards Joey or devalues her conversation. Rather, we’re to see this kiss as a communication of his romantic feelings, a game-changer in the story arc. We believe that Katniss and Peeta genuinely love each other, so her kiss is an affirmation of his worth. And as Allie’s heart breaks with the revelation that she never stopped loving him, Noah’s healing kiss reveals that it wasn’t over for him either—and still isn’t over. In these kisses we recognize an attempt at communication beyond words and a mutual quest for intimacy, and thus we will the characters to succeed.

A Kiss Is Never Just a Kiss
In the 1955 musical film Hit the Deck, Debbie Reynolds sings “A Kiss or Two” with co-star Russ Tamblyn and three other sailors. In the opening verse, Reynolds’ character, progressive Carol Pace, contemplates the kiss in what can be seen as a precursory examination of slut shaming:

What’s a little kiss or two
A wee little kiss among friends?
A pleasure like this among friends
Is never amiss among friends.

Here Carol Pace argues for a woman’s right to kiss a man who’s just a friend—not her boyfriend, fiancé or spouse (which, case in point, might result in having more than one friend with benefits at a time)—because it’s just a kiss. As we’ve already seen, the communicative nature of a kiss suggests that a kiss is never “just a kiss,” but the logic behind Pace’s argument as revealed in her next few lines is relevant:

All is in the point of view—
Some say it will hurt you;
Some deem it a virtue.
However you view it,
The best people do it.
So what is a kiss or two?

Pace knows what a kiss is; she’s not asking for a definition or rudimentary explanation. She’s wondering what the problem is. Or, what’s so special about the kiss that we’ve made it such a big deal? She determines that the kiss is problematized by perspective, or one’s “point of view,” and concludes that as long as she and her friend (the two participants) understand their kiss to be mutually acceptable and pleasurable, then anchors aweigh!

It’s not the physical act of kissing that is mysterious—we all know how it’s done. A kiss is confounding in that it often starts one place and ends another. We seldom know where it will lead, or how it will go along the way. It’s easy to wonder who is kissing and who is being kissed; often, it’s both, together, at the same time. This lack of distinction between giving and receiving adds to the mystery of kissing—as does the fact that kissing requires a partner but lacks procreative power. Kissing is designed for pleasure, with intimacy as the achievable goal not orgasm. This venture into the unfamiliar is heightened by the unique vulnerability of both participants—our eyes are closed during kissing, and our ability to breathe is significantly altered—vulnerability that isn’t required during sex. At best, we dive into the mystery and hope it goes swimmingly. We kiss—and are kissed—from infancy, using kissing as communication long before we learn to speak. Regrettably, the act of kissing is quickly learned, but the language of kissing takes years. Here’s hoping a few centuries of struggle have taught us that with great power comes great responsibility, and that we should use the inherent power of the kiss for good and not for evil.


1 Reist, Melinda Tankard. “Growing Up in Pornland: Girls Have Had It with Porn Conditioned Boys.” ABC.net.au. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 7 Mar. 2016. Web. 3 Aug. 2017. In addition to citing her own research, Reist cites the March 2016 survey report “Don’t Send Me That Pic: Online Sexual Harassment and Australian Girls” published by Plan International Australia and Our Watch. This research is echoed in Peggy Orenstein’s recent book Girls & Sex. According to Orenstein, regular porn use leads boys to regard girls as “play things” (36); and in this porn-saturated culture where “consumption trumps connection,” oral sex has become a “kind of currency” for high school girls, whose number-one reason for engaging in oral sex is “to improve their relationships” (40, 53-54).

Lines 517-518 from William Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, which is based on Ovid’s myth.

Romans 16:16; 2 Corinthians 13:12, 16:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:26.

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