Have you ever been the victim of the unexpected kiss, the overzealous lip lock or the invasive smooch? Do only thieves steal kisses? Do only scoundrels swoop down for an unwanted peck on New Year’s Eve or corner a woman under the mistletoe? My answer is “yes,” “no” and “no.” I have received forced kisses (quite often to my dismay), but cannot categorize every “pucker up pixie” as a lowlife.
The presidential election has thrust this topic front and center. Most of the allegations of inappropriate conduct against Donald Trump have to do with unwanted kissing. (He calls them fiction, by the way). A porn star says she was horrified ten years ago when Trump failed to ask permission prior to greeting her and her friends with hugs and kisses. A friend of CNN host, Erin Burnett, claims she felt violated in 2010 when Trump kissed her on the cheek, and a receptionist says the then-reality star held her hand, kissed her on the face and then inappropriately planted one on her mouth.
Admittedly, it is politically incorrect to approach this issue. Merely asking the question, “What qualifies as an assaultive kiss,” could be perceived as not believing a victim’s motives or story. This is a sensitive time. Our nation is still reeling over college campus rape accusations, revenge porn misogynists who post nude photos and assault charges against Bill Cosby. Victims need to be heard and taken seriously. They should not be silenced, marginalized, devalued or re-traumatized.
On the other hand, cultural inconsistencies regarding the “forced kiss” are glaring and in need of analysis. Plus, there are subjective elements that creep into play. Sweeping the matter under the rug does not bring clarification, or even progress. It leaves our society confused and prone to painful “trips and falls.” Culture is at odds with itself. It says, “Do as I say, not as I do.” In other words, we unconsciously promote the assaultive kiss—even idealizing and romanticizing it—while making it illegal in many states.
Regardless of whether you call it the “stolen kiss,” “the assaultive kiss,” or the “no-consent pucker up,” it has a prominent role in film, on television, and even in fairy tales. It is folded into scenes without fuss and caressed as acceptable, even coveted. There are scores of examples. Sleeping Beauty did not consent to the kiss that woke her from her hundred-year slumber, and Michael J. Fox was lip tackled by his mother in Back to the Future. In Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler grabbed Scarlett O’Hara (despite her disgust for him) and gave her a “smooch and dip” before saying, “This is what you were meant for,” as if she was as functional as a toaster oven. And who could forget the gay “forced kiss” scene in the Wedding Crashers, the unsuccessful “lip launches” by Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, or the spontaneous “face suck” by Emma Roberts on an unsuspecting stranger in the 2016 movie, Nerve. Of course, everyone remembers the most notorious “kissing bandit” of all time—Richard Dawson, who turned Family Feud into his bedroom, locking lips with every female contestant on the show.
Apart from cultural confusion over kissing, there is a subjective element to consider. The recipient has the power to decide whether the behavior is “pleasing,” “tolerable” or even “violating.” This is why a Trump accuser cannot be criticized if she defines a cheek peck as “sexual assault.” It is solely her decision. The acceptability of any kiss hinges on feelings, on a guttural reaction and on a hazy gray area. The caught-off-guard smooch at the end of a date is not okay if the “kissee” is grossed out. A “cheek smack” by an overzealous grandma is only appropriate if the youngster is receptive—a definition reinforced by the Women’s Resource Center, which states that any unwanted kiss is sexual assault.
I have had my share of unwanted kisses, especially back in the 1980s and 1990s when I spent a lot of time with entertainers. A quick smooch is a routine greeting in show business and in the fashion industry. Although I am expert at the well-timed, hypersonic head turn (thus, I have received hundreds of pecks on the cheek), I have been caught off-guard at times, and horrified to find a stranger’s cootie-filled mouth touching mine. Many of these were “gifts” from famous men or “assaults” by them—depending on my frame of mind at the time.
Singer Rick James forced his tongue down my throat as a “hello” in the 1980s for a dreaded few seconds of torture. And my long-time friend, Wayne Newton, greeted me in 2010 before his Las Vegas show with what he thought was an innocent peck on the mouth; I felt nauseous and violated, thus proving emotion is not always rational. I also received forced kisses from Tony Bennett and Frankie Avalon some thirty years ago (when I was on dates with them), but did not feel queasy; thus, I will not be calling Gloria Allred.
My friends have sustained unwanted kisses as well. Diana wandered onto “Ye Olde Kissing Bridge” at the Renaissance Faire and (to her shock and dismay) was lip-locked by a pirate in a cod piece. Bruce, a 28-year-old dentist, was the target of a “wet doozy” by a middle-aged patient after a teeth cleaning. Lisa, a married hair stylist, was lambasted by lesbian client with a passionate pucker up following what the assailant called a “sexy and stimulating henna rinse.” No one I contacted took their complaints to the cops. In fact, when searching the Internet, I could find only one report of an assaultive kiss that was not related to workplace harassment. A woman at a Canadian music festival filed a police report after a stranger gave her a peck on the cheek.
Mores are changing. Our culture is at an awkward place. The “lip latch” light is not red or green, but wears a confusing shade of yellow. Women’s voices are finally being heard after centuries of misogyny and victim-blaming, and no one wants to set the dial back. On the other hand, clarification is needed. Men need to know whether they should dive in for a kiss at the end of a date like a hawk seeking prey or hold back. Friends need to know whether a “hi there” smack on the lips will be greeted with receptiveness, anxiety or a call to law enforcement.
For my part, I think we should tread lightly, being communicative whenever possible. We should not think of ourselves as Casanova or Rhett Butler, grabbing at will. We should ask before we act, unless we are sure. A kiss is no longer just a kiss. It can be the big bad wolf. It can be sexual assault.