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Our Lips are Unsealed: Exploring the Science & Culture of Kissing

An illustration of two people with brown skin kissing. One person is sitting on a pink and green moped, with pink-framed glasses, a blue shirt and yellow shorts. They're holding on the handlebars of the moped with the second person in their lap facing them, wearing a yellow jumpsuit and white-framed glasses. The background of the illustration is purple.
Charnel Hunter

Kissing-like behaviors exist across the animal kingdom. But why? A scientist explains why humans are so drawn to each other's lips, and a photographer documents the power of a kiss.

Among the many “firsts” we experience in our lives, a first kiss is one of the most memorable.

In addition to being a novel experience, our brains receive pleasure and information from kissing. Our lips are the most exposed erogenous zones on our bodies, and a good, consensual kiss triggers hormones that give us a rush of desire and love.

Science communicator Sheril Kirshenbaum talks with host Anita Rao about these physical effects of a kiss and how they help us measure compatibility with a potential partner. She also describes the cultural history of kissing, including how locking lips has enforced power structures and how kissing is interpreted differently around the world, all topics discussed in her book “The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us.”

Kadar Small, a photographer, director and filmmaker based in New York City, also joins the conversation to share the inspiration behind his photo series “PDA.” Kadar photographs moments of kissing and intimacy between Black and brown queer folks in public and at home, exploring what this kind of connection looks like through his work.

Anita also talks about the cultural milestone of a first kiss with a group of current and former WUNC youth reporters. High school students Parys Smith and Donna Diaz, along with college student Chris Williams, share the stories of their first kiss, how they think about boundaries and what constitutes a good kiss.

Thank you to Caroline, Jeanine, Caitlin, Kristin, Lawrence and Steven for sharing with us for this episode!

Remembering the First Kiss

How Old Were You?

 A word bubble over the outline of lips that features these words: 7th grade, PreK, 8th grade, middle school, 17, 16, 15, 6, 13.
Kaia Findlay

We gathered together stories of first kisses from our listeners, guests, and colleagues … and we had such a wide range of experiences!

What Was that First Kiss Like?

 A word bubble over the silhouette of two people kissing featuring the words: nothing special, making out, exciting, wet, 4 out of 10, awkward, gentle, clumsy, cringey, physically uncomfortable, inconsequential, anticipated, embarrassing, sweet, public, eager, unexpected, playful, nice, awkward, traumatic, simple, naive, biggest letdown of my life.
Kaia Findlay

Who’s surprised that the most common adjective is “awkward”?

What Can a First Kiss Teach Us? (from former/current WUNC youth reporters)

“My first kiss, there were no boundaries. And even though I was young, it made me very strong, in like, what I want and not letting people come into my space.”
-Parys Smith

“There doesn't need to be tongue all that, like, it can just be sweet for a couple seconds.”
-Chris Williams

“It has to be the right moment. Kissing in general, I think it should just be energy”
-Donna Diaz

Why Do We Remember Our First Kisses So Well?

“Novel experiences can spike all sorts of different neurotransmitters and hormones in our bodies … But we're using that kiss to tell us more about the situation, how we're feeling: Are we comfortable? Are we stressed? So that memory is powerful.”
-Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of “The Science of Kissing”

Stay Connected
Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.