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What’s in a kiss?

Wednesday October 7, 2015

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The kiss. More often than not, the first point at which we publicly and actively communicate desire.

And yet the reasons we kiss can differ significantly between men and women. It may seem like a mutually shared attraction and a precursor to further harmonious interactions but scientists (what do they know, right?) suggests otherwise.

Could it be that rather than signalling a coming together, a kiss is more a battle between gender specific and mutually exclusive desires?

First, to the hypothesis. Women kiss to create a bond and assess their partner as a potential mate whereas men kiss in order to increase arousal for their partner and increase the likelihood of having sex.

Back in 2009, the journal Evolutionary Psychology published a study by Susan Hughes of Allbright College, Pennsylvania. The study surveyed 1000 male and female undergraduates on their kissing preferences using a five point scale to answer detailed questions.

The study found that for both men and women, kissing is considered both an intimate and important way to establish connection and assess compatibility. Further, kissing could increase and decrease levels of desire.

So far so good. This supports previous research that showed kissing is an important mechanism by which we exchange pheromones and other biochemical elements.

But while women are likely to outright reject a bad kisser, the majority of men would still consider coitus with someone whose kissing technique was left wanting. That is, men would still think about horizontally tangoing with someone despite biochemistry suggesting that this probably isn't the best idea.

In short, "Whereas females felt there was a greater likelihood that kissing should lead to sex with a long-term partner than a short-term partner, males felt that in either instance, kissing should lead to sex.”

It gets more intriguing. Gentlemen, have you ever been accused of being a sloppy kisser? Don’t worry, it’s not just you. It’s apparently most guys. It turns out that significantly more men than women enjoy kisses that are ‘wet’. The thinking is that men perceive wetness of kiss as a measure of arousal.

There is some truth to this, as a follow up study by Helen Fisher of Rutgers University the same year shows. Fisher found that while kissing, men passed testosterone through their saliva which in turn momentarily increased arousal in their partner. And just to cheapen things further, the original study found that half of men were wiling to go all the way without kissing while only 14% of women would do the same.

It’s not just a question of the type of kiss but also when to kiss.
Hughes’ study found that men generally don’t like to kiss after, how can we put this politely, completion. Women in contrast like to kiss throughout the process. It turns out that, surprisingly, this is as true of men in long term relationships as it for those who are single.

So what does psychology and science say are the reasons behind these differences?

For Hughes, it’s about men and women both using the kiss to get what they want, at least from an evolutionary stand point. According to Hughes “…females are limited re productively, so they want to bond with a mate, whereas males can have a lot of partners and so are generally more interested in having promiscuous sex.”

So what do we do about these differences? To my mind, nothing. While technically speaking women use kissing to increase feelings of mutual attraction and men use kissing as a means to an end, humans have been kissing since, well, quite a long time ago and I’ve never heard anyone complain about the fact that kissing exists.

Kissing as an act of attraction is independent of gender, sex and orientation so while this research is nonetheless interesting I’m still an old romantic at heart. After all, as Sinatra crooned ‘A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh’.

Try rewriting that song as an evolutionary psychologist.

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WORDS BY JOHN DAVIS