At first it was hard for me to figure out what the man I was kissing reminded me of, but once I pictured it, I couldn’t un-picture it: he was like one of those drinking-bird toys that bob their head up and down in perpetuity. I very much liked him and had been very much looking forward to kissing him, and I was so bummed. He was a drinking bird, bobbing against my mouth with dry, mechanical rhythm. I stuck with him for a month or so, hoping that I could change his ways or that he would just, like, relax, but I couldn’t and he didn’t. Finally, we exchanged rote pecks and parted ways.
I thought of the drinking birds again last summer, only this time it wasn’t the guy who was the bird. It was me. I was on my third date with someone who I could see was objectively attractive and likable, but for whom I felt nothing. I was kissing him so mechanically that even I was bored, so I wasn’t especially surprised when he pulled away and said, “I have an early meeting tomorrow.” (He was unemployed.)
But that wasn’t the end of it. For several months after that, I was a terrible kisser. I would have a great date with someone, but as soon as we were in front of my apartment and he was leaning in, I’d go rigid. I would stand there, hands on his shoulders, moving my head with all the ease and finesse of my year-eight self. I’d been struck down by the kissing yips, and I assumed my romantic career was over
Even if you haven’t experienced the kissing yips, per se, you’ve probably had a moment or two of self-doubt in your kissing career – one of my girlfriends recently stumbled into a sexy oasis after a long dry spell, and she described acute terror that she’d “forgotten how to kiss”. We talk a lot about bad sex as a deal breaker, but I think bad sex is way more workable than bad kissing. With bad sex, you can critique specific things your partner is doing without sounding like you’re critiquing them as a person. (“Less rotary dial, more push-button!”) We’re used to getting feedback about sex – when someone gives us feedback in bed, we just think it’s sexy that they know what they want. Kissing is different. Kissing is governed by pasión, not technique, and it’s much harder to comment on the former. When you acknowledge that you didn’t enjoy a kiss, you’re usually acknowledging that you don’t have chemistry with someone. In hindsight, my kissing yips boiled down to stress – I was anxious and felt totally alienated from the possibility of having chemistry with anyone. One day, after I’d calmed down, I kissed someone whom I found both objectively and subjectively attractive and felt cured. But before that, I had plenty of time to obsess about what makes a kiss good or bad.
A good kiss is one in which no one feels self-conscious.
As one friend put it, “A good kiss happens when neither person is taking it too seriously, particularly in the early stages. Midkiss smiling is great”. Ideally, you’re so consumed by your lust for your partner that you’re not worrying about the mechanics. Sure, you should keep some basic kissing guidelines in mind: “Your target should under no circumstances feel as though your tongue will cause them to choke,” another friend said, “and everybody’s spit should stay in between the mouths – a terrible kiss requires you to wipe your mouth afterwards.” But when neither of you is overthinking it, those logistics come more naturally. You don’t fret about where you’re putting your hands. (I like one in my hair, one at my waist.) Kissing is like breathing: if you start thinking too hard about it, you’re no longer able to do it properly and you start to feel faint. I find it helpful to mentally zero in on the kissee’s most attractive feature. If I’m thinking about his biceps, I’m not stressing about whether I should open my eyes to check if his eyes are open, or whether he can tell I have a deviated septum by listening to my laboured nose breaths. If you cannot isolate an attractive feature, abort.
The real mastery comes in making your kissing counterpart feel comfortable.
Permission is important. For a long time I thought that when a man asked if he could kiss me, he destroyed the spontaneity and thus the romance. But in recent years I’ve started to really like being the arbiter of the kissing – I’ve started to like being the arbiter of everything.
Last year I’d been at a bar with a Tinder date for about an hour when he asked, “Can I kiss you?” I said no, because I hadn’t had time to vet him yet and I’m uncomfortable with PDA. I’m so glad he asked, because I would have been really annoyed if he’d just swooped right in. As it was, he didn’t seem at all offended, and he quickly dissipated any awkwardness by asking me, sweetly, “Can I ask you again later if I can kiss you?” On paper the exchange looks like a parody of consent culture, but in the moment, seeking consent is never corny. It’s just hot.
Beyond giving and receiving enthusiastic permission, the best way to make someone feel confident is also the simplest: tell them they’re a good kisser.
Unless you’re kissing someone with whom you have absolutely no chemistry, someone who is inextricably wound up in their anxieties, or one of those 0.0003 per cent of people who really are inherently, clinically bad kissers, affirmation will fix it. Even if they suck (literally), before you write off someone you like as a bad kisser, try a Hail Mary lie. Pause for a breath and say, “Wow, you’re an amazing kisser”. Yes, they might continue doing whatever unsettling thing they’re doing. More likely: they’ll relax, and you’ll have a really good kiss.