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Commitments : Human Condition : A Kiss Is Not Just a Kiss

July 04, 1994|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Your dog does not understand kissing.

Licking the dog gets, but not kissing. When you smother Bowser with smooches, what does he do? Does he pucker up and kiss you back? No. He drools.

It's the same with your parakeet. Of course, parakeets don't have lips, but even if they did they wouldn't kiss, they'd peck.

For some reason, humans get a particular kick out of osculating. (We also have an ingrained hankering for karaoke, for whatever that's worth.)

We enjoy kissing one another, as well as watching other people do it (in the movies and in Certs commercials). No proper cinematic love story is complete without a last, lingering locking of lips.

This much we know. But why, oh why, do we like kissing so darn much?

When Chicago psychotherapist Sylvia Babbin wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on "Kissing and Its Relationship With Marital Satisfaction and Sexual Satisfaction" in 1984, she found surprisingly little had been written about kissing.

Her survey of the subject uncovered references to kissing in Roman poetry, the "Kama Sutra" and medieval European courtly romances. But scientific studies of kissing were scanty and outdated, many of them from the turn of the century.

To test her hypothesis that the quantity and quality of a couple's kissing is a barometer of marital and sexual happiness, Babbin gave a detailed questionnaire to 100 married men and 100 married women (who were not married to one another). She found willing subjects enduring layovers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Among other things, Babbin learned that married people kiss 4 1/2 times a day on average. That includes romantic and passionate kissing, as well as "hello/goodby" and "good morning/good night" pecks.

"I was surprised," Babbin says. "I thought it was going to be more." Nevertheless, most people said they were satisfied with the kissing they were getting.

She believes kissing fulfills important psychological needs.

"Kissing has to do with touching, intimacy and communication," she says. "So why do people kiss? Those are the three goodies."

Because kissing brings people face to face and eye to eye, it is especially conducive to intimacy, which involves a lowering of our physical and psychological barriers. Kissing, in short, asks us to explore our vulnerability.

"Kissing for many people can be more intimate than sex," she says, noting that prostitutes may be willing to perform a variety of sexual acts for hire but draw the line at kissing.

There was an unexpected fringe benefit to Babbin's research. "My husband became a much better kisser during the process," she says.

Our predilection for kissing is probably an outgrowth of both our evolution and our hairless skins, says Dr. Louis West, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA.

Humans and apes alike engage in what West calls "sensation-exchanging behavior," such as mutual grooming, which seems to enhance the bonding process.

"In humans, skin-to-skin contact is more important than in any other creature, because we don't have pelts," West says. "Our earliest experiences involve the stimulation of the mouth and the face against the warm skin of the most beloved of all beings--the nursing mother."

Even though the infant suckling reflex vanishes in the early years of life, the sensitivity of the lips and face remains, West says.

Although it may seem a kiss is just a kiss as time goes by, kissing methods change according to fashion and cultural norms, he says.

"In my lifetime, the styles of kissing have changed," observes West, 70.

"A passionate kiss in the 1930s involved pressing the lips together. You just never saw people eating each other's faces to show passion the way they do now in the movies."

Erotic kissing was not popular in ancient China or Japan, although it was known in Arabic cultures and in India. In Europe, kissing was originally the province of the gentlemen and ladies who perfected the art of courtly love, but it eventually came into fashion among the lower classes.

Eskimos and Laplanders are known for nose-rubbing, while anthropologists reported in the 1920s that Tobriand Islanders in the South Pacific liked to rub noses, cheeks and mouths together; suck one another's tongues; bite each other's lower lips, chins, cheeks and noses, and, in particularly passionate moments, bite off one another's eyelashes.

*

According to a cross-cultural survey in "Sexual Practices" by Edgar Gregersen (Franklin Watts Inc., 1982), kissing is unknown among such tribal peoples as the Somali, Cewa, Lepcha and Siriono. The Thonga of South Africa are said to regard kissing as disgusting because of the possibility of exchanging saliva.

And while public kissing now is commonplace in most Western countries (although some states once had laws regulating it), it is still seen as scandalous in such places as India, where movies featuring Western-style kisses are controversial.

Not all kissing is romantic or erotic, of course.

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