Lip service

Is kissing the most intimate act or a coming attraction for sex?

Published August 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

My first French kiss was at a seventh grade dance with John Freud, a distant relation of Sigmund. Frenching wasn't as repulsive as I had feared, but it wasn't that great either. Worry over not knowing what to do eclipsed sensation and any feeling of connectedness. As our tongues heaved like blind, swollen fish, it dawned on me that you can't enjoy something you don't know how to do.

Soon thereafter, I learned my first kissing move -- sucking the man's lower lip into my mouth -- from the paperback of "Jaws." That helped me get it right, but it still took a few years of practice and advice and feedback before kissing become arousing. It's like partner dancing -- you can't lose yourself in the music until you've put in the time counting "one, two, three, one, two, three." This need to learn in order to enjoy reaffirmed my teenage suspicion that sex -- particularly kissing -- was not as "natural" as people made it out to be.

I still don't consider it necessarily natural -- or intimate: The first thoughts when kissing a new person are evaluative. Who hasn't been disappointed by someone too slobbery, too dry, too fast, too still, too pushy? Even when two people find their groove and settle into it, kissing never becomes purely unconscious, the way things can beyond first base. After all, it engages public, not private parts.

And yet it's the very thing prostitutes won't do. (I admit my primary source on this is "Pretty Woman," but a pimp and a former hooker confirmed it.) I suppose not kissing seals the impersonality of the exchange and hardens the boundaries around the act or acts purchased. In the non-paying world, kissing is a tease, an audition or a substitute for sex. It's a grace note out of place in a financial transaction.

Several Februarys ago, I was thinking about this stuff in part because I was getting no action whatsoever. What I wanted as much as anything was to kiss: As Freud (the one I never made out with) observed, you can touch yourself, but you cannot kiss yourself. Then my friend Jeannine invited me to contribute to her erotic art auction, featuring performances as well as the visual art being sold. Hours later, I had my installation/performance idea -- the Anonymous Fantasy Kissing Booth.

I gathered magazines and began tearing out pictures of sex icons -- movie stars, models, playmates, and other beauties. Most were women, but a pouty John Travolta made it in, as did Rock Hudson in a towel, Barbie, Elvira, a couple Marilyns, Tina Turner, Cher, Eddie Murphy, Betty Page and a giant pair of disembodied red lips from a toothpaste ad. Except for Barbie and a few other jokes, pictures had to pass my personal kissability test. I then photographed all the photos so the mouths landed on the same spot relative to the frame and had slides made.

At the site of the auction, I stretched a white sheet tight over a corner of the room, stood behind it, and cut a hole barely bigger than my lips at standing mouth height. I trained the slide projector on the sheet and adjusted it so that the photo's mouth lined up with the hole and set the projector to switch slides every 60 seconds. I hung a crude wooden sign that said "Kissing Booth, $1" next to the sheet. I was sorry that I wouldn't get to watch a customer who'd paid to kiss Cindy Crawford suddenly be kissing young Brando, but I knew it had to be my mouth for sale. I wanted to communicate the tension between the impersonality of prostitution and the intimacy of mouths, between a glory hole and the county fair. I figured my artistic agenda might inspire me to some appropriate improvisation behind the sheet.

I opted to stand rather than sit, because I feared that some drunk would try to stick his dick through a lower hole. I wanted the ripped sheet to suggest not only glory holes but also sex between Orthodox Jews; I didn't, however, want a penis poking into my small dark corner.

The friend I'd enlisted as my pimp ended up having to man the projector once the room filled with people, and I was not prepared for the money exchange myself. Nor had I predicted how disorienting it would be not to see who was kissing me. I found my first limit early on: I didn't want blindfolded, in-the-dark sex. I wanted to see the person I'd be kissing. I ended up peeking out of the mouth hole when I heard someone approaching, sticking my fingers out for the money, then returning my lips to their spot in the projected photo.

The room filled up and I could hear people exclaim, "Oh my God, look, the mouth is real!" The first customer was young, broad-shouldered and curly-haired -- very cute. He pushed his money through the hole, and as soon as I got my mouth back in position, his tongue poured in, his head pressing the sheet inward. His attractiveness, and his nerve made this more appealing than most such blitzes, and I kissed back the best I could from underneath the blanket of tongue. I withdrew after about six seconds, and he protested, "I paid double, don't I get more?" I saw he'd pushed two dollars into my hand, which cracked me up -- did he think he was paying my rent?

A few other men approached the booth in the same spirit of wanting the most bang for their buck and were surprisingly hostile as they bartered the tiny transaction. Several tried to peer into the mouth-slot to see what I looked like. It was disturbing and a little arousing to see that even an ironic facsimile of prostitution brought out so many men's inner john.

My only female customers were a pair of nurses, who both mentioned what image was projected when they kissed me. I'd designed the mix of fantasy photo and real mouth with men in mind, but the men paid little attention to the slide show. Some of the pictures, projected life-size, were ones I imagine many of them would masturbate to at home, but getting a little something real, even a six-second kiss with someone they couldn't see, seemed to eclipse the fabled male visual imperative.

About a half hour into the show, I peeked out and saw Edward approach the booth. He was a lanky architect with bee-stung lips whom I'd had a mild crush on for about a year. His MO was to flirt with me at parties, and then stop abruptly, so I'd suspected that he had a girlfriend stashed away somewhere. Edward knew it was me behind the sheet; he had work in the show and had been there earlier while I set up. So the kiss I sold him was "real" in several senses.

But that didn't change the fundamentals of my kissing, just the level of effort and perhaps the focus. I wanted Edward to want more of me, but it was still performance, not emotional communication. I parted my lips just a bit and he fit his smoothly around them. He rolled them side to side then inwards, and then a hint of tongue, which I hinted back.

It was the only kiss the customer ended, not me, and as Edward backed away from the sheet he exclaimed, "good kisser!" I smiled through the hole. We had our first date weeks later, after I recovered from the hideous respiratory ailment I caught that night. (Is this the reason whores won't kiss? It took three rounds of antibiotics to get well.) We had competent, detached sex several times, but the kiss across the sheet was as enjoyable as any we had subsequently. Soon we stopped calling each other: We'd found no compulsion to go beyond our standard moves into something more personally choreographed.

My stint in the booth confirmed my suspicion that kissing is not necessarily the most intimate act -- the fact that women generally like it more may be how it got that reputation. But in fact, truly intimate, long-term couples kiss less than other people: Many of my married friends mourn that the hours-long make-out session has passed from their lives. Perhaps its elusiveness adds to the allure of kissing: You can't hold on to it and you usually can't buy it.

By Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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