In the words of the sage, "You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss..." But that's never been true in western culture. A kiss is never "just" a kiss. And all the various meanings that kissing can have create what we might think of as "Schroedinger's intimacy" where observers decide whether a kiss is a sign of erotic intimacy based on their assumptions about the relationship of the people involved.
This can create problems for interpreting artistic depictions or textual descriptions of women kissing other women. A kiss can be a salutation between close friends or kinswomen (as in the iconic image of Saint Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary greeting each other with a kiss and embrace). It can be an act sealing a bargain or contract. But it can also be a sensual or erotic act, and in literature that directly acknowledges the erotic potential between women, this ambiguity is often a "testing ground" or invitation to see if further intimacy would be welcome (or at least tolerated).
In hunting for evidence of women's same-sex eroticism in history, kissing cannot be assumed to be primary evidence of erotic feelings in every case. But neither can kissing be dismissed as never indicating erotic interactions, simply because non-erotic interpretations existed in parallel. This provides the author of historical fiction both a dilemma and an opportunity. It can be vitally important to know under what circumstances your characters would be able to kiss without it provoking public suspicion or condemnation, but you also need to manage your readers' expectations so they will understand all the layers of meaning those kisses will have.
Berry, Helen. 2005. “Lawful Kisses? Sexual Ambiguity and Platonic Friendship in England, c. 1660-1720” in The Kiss in History, ed. Karen Harvey, 62-79. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-6594-1
Throughout western history, the act of kissing--of touching the lips either to another person’s lips or to another part of their anatomy--has had a wide variety of meanings and messages, as well as being a physical experience on its own. The essential ambiguity of what a kiss means in any particular context has been a part of its powerful symbolism and its use as a social tool, for good or ill. The physical act of kissing is an inherently intimate gesture (not necessarily in the sexual sense of “intimate”) in a way that actions like a handshake are not. Discussions of the meaning of kissing (and such analyses can be found as early as the 1660s) focus on that ambiguity and on the kiss as a shorthand for a range of feelings and emotions ranging from platonic friendship to status difference to erotic love.
This article looks at the meaning and use of kisses within cheap, easily available, popular literature of the later 17th century, including texts specifically intended to instruct and guide people on proper social behavior. They explore the distinction between a “lawful kiss”--one that was appropriate to the relationship of the two individuals and approprite to the social context--and an “unlawful kiss” that expressed an inappropriate relationship or was itself an inappropriate act.
At one extreme, the most “lawful” version was the “kiss of peace” used within Christian ceremonies to express harmony and community within the church. This approved religious use meant that the use of a “kiss of peace” as a form of greeting between friends (regardless of gender) was an accepted and unmarked practice in some cultures, though not universally. Visitors to 16th century England commented on the frequency of kisses being exchanged as a casual greeting, suggesting that non-English people found it a bit odd.
[Note: It must be emphasized that this created a context where men could kiss each other on the lips without it being considered sexual, and similarly for women kissing women. This has consequences for interpreting same-sex kisses depicted in literature, art, and drama of the era. Such a kiss could be non-sexual, but it also could be sexual. And identifying ways to distinguish them is part of the purpose of this article. One could similarly consider how actions such as hand-holding have been sexualized in modern culture.]
Berry points out that filtering out modern post-Freudian interpretations of such activities is important for understanding the meanings of behaviors in the past. The kiss was “a physical embodiment of an ongoing negotiation of power between individuals that could inicate an unspoken range of feelings and intentions.” A kiss can indicate submission or domination, relative status, sexual desire, friendship, or as a physical signifier of agreement to a contract such as an agreement to marry or even a truce. In 13th century England, villages might hold a “love day” where people involved in disputes would reconcile, symbolized with a kiss which was blessed by a priest and witnessed by their neighbors.
Even into the early modern era, one can find references to this type of “kiss of peace” between individuals who were neither married nor blood kin, used to signify a contract or agreement. In a business letter of 1727, a businessman describes concluding somewhat fraught business and legal talks with a former rival, Lady Clavering, with “a hearty kiss.” The kiss was a formal acknowledgement of the resolution of their former animosity and, despite being performed between an unrelated man and woman, had no sexual connotations.
But such social kisses occupied an ambiguous territory, and conduct literature noted that inappropriate kissing could result in embarrassment, public censure, or suggest an illicit relationship. The problem was that the genre of conduct literature rarely gave practical advice on what the rules were. Religiously-based advice manuals tended to the conservative and focused on the appearance of sexual impropriety, suggesting that all forms of bodily contact should be kept only within marriage. Unmarried women, it was suggested, shouldn’t have to worry about the boundaries for appropriate kissing, because if it got to the point where she needed to deny a kiss, she had already allowed a man to get too close. And the advice directed at young people also railed against other forms of personal indulgence and “light” behavior, such as whispering, laughing loudly, wanton glances, and the like.
The lawyer Henry Swinburne offered advice in 1686 regarding kissing in the context of marriage promises. A promise of marriage was binding if accompanied by certain performative acts such as lying together, embracing, kissing, or exchanging gifts. In such a case, a promise of marriage was taken as a binding contract, and therefore such actions should not be done lightly.
While manuals overtly about conduct weren’t always helpful regarding kissing, this gap was filled by a new genre of popular literature that offered purportedly first-person narratives illustrating concerns of the emerging middle class. Social mobility was giving rise to anxiety, both about how to behave to social superiors but also how to avoid undesirable familiarity with one’s inferiors.
This new genre might appear in the form of “advice columns” in the ancestors of today’s tabloid periodicals. The questions posed included things like “Whether a Lady, at the first Interiew, may allow an humble Servant to kiss her hand,” or requests for advice on how to conduct a courtship and the part kissing might play in it. Too much kissing might turn a woman’s affections to aversion, but it might also weaken a man’s moral fiber and turn him effeminate. In exploring detailed and specific scenarios, these advice columnists found themselves arbitrating (sometimes humorously) the parameters of lawful kissing.
Though the discussions might be lighthearted, the goals were serious: knowing whom to kiss, in what circumstances, and when to refrain from kissing--all marks of “good breeding” that the emerging middle class was desperate to master. One exchange may have been intended to poke fun at a “country manners/city manners” divide when a man of rural origins noted that he had angered a wealthy citizen of London by kissing his wife--a woman to whom he was related--“with the usual Salutations of Kindness”. The matter was turned around in a letter from a country gentleman complaining that a “Town-Gentleman” newly arrived in the neighborhood substituted bows for kisses as a social salutation to women. This, the country gentleman complained, was taken for the more fashionable choice, “and there is no young Gentlewoman within several Miles of this Place has been kissed ever since his first Appearance among us.”
[Note: the satirical angle here is that, even though the Country Gentleman may be presenting such social kisses as a neutral form of saluation, it clearly appears that he resents the possibility that a less intimate form of greeting is edging it out. If kissing were truly neutral and non-erotic, the substitution should make no difference.]
Such discussions about social kissing were always also about ways of articulating and expressing sexual desire, even when they claimed to be policing such desire. Was it acceptable, a young man writes, to kiss a woman “in a Frolick,” suggesting a context where usual strictures might be loosened. Was it entirely too singular, another asks, for a woman to still refuse to kiss a suitor even after several years’ courtship? Was it ever lawful for a married man to kiss his neighbor’s wife “out of real respect and affection”? The answers given were rarely unexpected or daring, thus it seems the act of proposing the questions provided its own pleasure in exploring sexual topics.
Feminist literature of the era had its own considerations of the purposes of kissing in the face of misogynistic positions such as that published by the Athenian Society that husbands of outspoken wives should “stop her mouth with a kiss...if you can kiss her whether she will or no, ‘twill be a convincing argument atht you are still the stronger.”
Romantic relationships were not the only context in which appropriate kissing was discussed. The concept of platonic friendship between men and women was challenging the position that male-female relations were always necessarily sexual. Did kissing invariably introduce an erotic element to platonic friendship? Berry notes that the shift of “platonic” to mean a non-sexual relationship was a product of 15th century homophobic re-interpretations of Plato’s philosophy. It was no longer acceptable to believe that Plato’s love for boys was sexual, therefore a new, chaste definition of “platonic love” was constructed that then could be extended to relations between men and women as well.
Discussion and expressions of this new version of platonic love became popular in the court of Charles I in the early 17th century, and was revived later in the century after the Restoration. Within this context, the question of whether kisses could be acceptable within a platonic relationship was debated with varying levels of seriousness. Even writers who valorized the concept of platonic friendship as an ideal sometimes felt that kissing would invariably introduce an erotic dimension to the relationship, at least for male-female relations.
Within the realm of same-sex “platonic” friendships, public opinions seemed to avoid the suggestion that kissing added a sexual dimension. This can largely be ascribed to an assumption of compulsory heterosexuality, as there was a similar resistance to believing that male-female friendships could successfully be non-sexual. In addition to the basic assumption of unavoidble eroticism, the possibility that men and women could interact as social equals had potenatial consequences that many (men) wanted to avoid.
In terms of overall sociological trends, across the 18th century we see a decline in the acceptability of social kissing, driven by the manners and opinions of urban elites, and an increasing openness to discussing the social context of kissing, as well as an examination of the erotic and non-erotic dynamics of male-female relationships as signified by the presence and understanding of kissing within such relationshps.
[Note: Although this article spends very little time looking at the meaning of kissing within the context of women’s same-sex relationships, it provides a useful background to understanding the contexts that could signal an erotic or non-erotic interpretation to kisses, as well as contexts where “lawful kisses” could be a prelude to more intimate interactions.]