As an adult, I had to relearn how to kiss. When I was 25 years old, my partner noticed my kissing had changed a lot in the past year or so. I, too, noticed that kissing had become harder. My mouth was frequently exhausted in a way I had never felt before. A few months later, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disorder in which your immune system attacks your nerves and can result in various disabilities. One of my symptoms was (and remains) partial facial paralysis on the right side. When the disease is active, my eyelid, cheek, and right half of my mouth twitch and jerk uncontrollably. I also can’t move the right half of my lips on my own, whether the disease is active or not. While disease-modifying therapy has dramatically slowed the spread of my MS, it can’t undo the damage already done. Part of that damage is my ability to kiss. Since I can’t move half my mouth, I’ve had to relearn how to kiss with the facial muscles I still have.
I no longer believe that my inability to pucker my lips is the death knell of my romantic and sexual life.
Puckering my lips? Forget about it. If I try really hard, I can do something halfway between a pucker and a lip smoosh. But I’ve picked up some new techniques out of necessity, like different flicks with my tongue, more teasing and licking than deep Frenching, and moving my lips in less of a fish pucker and more like a “catfish eating fish food” motion. Kissing around the mouth and nipping the lips are also some workarounds I’ve discovered that I hardly even consider workarounds because they just feel awesome. Five years after my diagnosis, I no longer believe that my inability to pucker my lips is the death knell of my romantic and sexual life.
I’m continuing to explore what I can and can’t do with my mouth and what feels good for my kissing partners and me. As a result of my disability, I’ve had to sit and think, what is kissing? What do I want it to feel like? Now, I enjoy kissing more than ever because I kiss with intention for the first time in my life.
You're not out of the kissing game. You just have to figure out how to kiss differently.
At its core, a kiss is an action where we press our lips against something. That something can be other lips, a neck, other body parts like hands and cheeks, or even inanimate objects like pillows and trees in the case of horny prepubescents like my own child self. Anatomically, the muscles responsible for kissing are the orbicularis oris, a muscle around the mouth that is how we pucker our lips, and the buccinator, a muscle in the cheek responsible for chewing and creating suction. These muscles might be responsible for kissing, but if you’re like me and these muscles don’t completely function, you’re not out of the kissing game. You just have to figure out how to kiss differently.
Making a kiss a great one is not so much a matter of mastering technique as it is about getting the “vibe” right, according to Safiya Darling, Los Angeles-based sex and kink educator. “Did you feel good after that kiss? Did you feel the sparks, the butterflies, all the good things floating around in your body, your heart, mind, spirit, your belly?”
A small move takes the kiss from good to scorching hot because it makes me feel it down to my toes and deep in my brain.
To get that vibe, a good kiss is about more than just the mouth-to-mouth action. How you use your hands and your tongue, how your bodies press together in different places, and strategic use of eye contact are equally important factors as what our lips do to each other. For example, sometimes eyes-open kisses can actually be super hot and not just weird because they can heighten your awareness of an already sexy moment. Or, like with my partner, I love when he holds my face and lets his thumbs lightly touch my mouth while we kiss. It’s a small move that takes the kiss from good to scorching hot because it makes me feel it down to my toes and deep in my brain.
I would have laughed in your face if you had told me five years ago that it’s okay to “mess up” a kiss. You either kiss well, or you die alone. But, of course, that is silly. “I think the number one misconception about kissing is that it needs to be perfect,” says Darling. “You can certainly bump teeth and have a laugh.” Kissing, like sex and like any other activity, is something that gets better with practice. Practice doesn’t just mean middle schoolers pretending to kiss each other so they can do it right when it comes time for the real thing. Instead, practicing kissing with your kissing partner means figuring out what your bodies are like together and finding out what you both like in the kiss.
This is something that I didn’t realize myself for basically the first 30 years of my life (I’m 30). To be clear, this doesn’t mean that you always have to kiss the way your kissing partner wants or that they have to do it the way you want. It’s more about finding the balance between what you both (or all, if it’s a kiss with more than two people), like if you are compatible. The “back-and-forth dance,” as New York City-based sex writer and educator Niki Davis-Fainbloom calls it.
Since my symptoms started, I’ve had to ditch “correct” in favor of... “what is physically possible and what turns me on.”
Since my diagnosis, I’ve learned a lot about what I like in a kiss. I now know that I like having my tongue sucked. I don’t mean a French kiss; I mean I stick my tongue out, and my partner literally sucks on it. I discovered this because it’s a physically easy thing to do with my mouth, while my symptoms make it hard to tangle tongues when they’re inside our mouths. I never before thought that was the “correct” thing to do in a kiss, but since my symptoms started, I’ve had to ditch “correct” in favor of “what is physically possible for me,” and then that turned into “what is physically possible and what turns me on.”
Although my symptoms make it harder to French kiss, I’ve nevertheless come to appreciate a wet kiss more than I ever did before. Sloppy kisses for me started because I don’t have complete muscular control, so sometimes they just turn sloppy, even if I didn’t intend for that to happen. Sure, a sloppy, saliva-drenched kiss is not for everyone, and there’s definitely an art form to it. But for a kiss that will turn into sex, I sometimes love a sloppy kiss because it introduces the sensation of tongues into the play; you’re generally lubing up your bodies, starting with your faces.
One problem I have with my mouth muscles is stamina. My mouth gets tired after a while, and “a while” can vary from seconds to minutes. So I’ve had to learn how to slow down. Which, coincidentally, has been great for pleasurable kissing. Slowing down can mean moving our lips more slowly when they touch, and it can also mean taking more time between the mini-kisses of a longer kiss. That allows for more teasing. More whispered sweet nothings. More dirty nothings. More opportunity for the anticipation to build.
There’s something in the anticipation that can make it so hot when you finally get to that moment when your lips touch.
“I often like to let the energy build for a really long time,” says Davis-Fainbloom. “I find that the kisses that build over, like, an evening of talking are often very connected and passionate.” Of course, not every kiss has to have an hours-long buildup to be an A+ kiss. But there’s something in the anticipation that can make it so hot when you finally get to that moment when your lips touch.
In this way, letting the anticipation do much of the work in making a kiss powerful, kissing is not unlike kink, according to Sunny Megatron, sex educator and editor-in-chief of the kink-focused magazine Zipper. Sure, there is a world of difference between a BDSM scene and a “vanilla” kiss, but at their core, they are about the same thing: “we want to feel like things are mysterious, unknown,” Megatron says. She describes kink as smoke and mirrors, a “co-creation” of space and circumstance to make us access a deeper part of our physical and mental selves. And isn’t that precisely what a kiss is? It’s us pretending like we are not just swapping spit but engaging in a pleasurable act of intimacy–and it is intimacy, whether we’ve known the person(s) for years or minutes and whether we will know them for minutes longer or a lifetime.
Some days, kissing is still hard. There are days when I wish my mouth worked “properly,” that my lips were symmetrical and moved in the ways I want them to. Most days, however, I feel liberated from the ideas of what I should be doing. There are still times that I warn a new kissing partner about my mouth, but I no longer do it out of shame or to let them know about this negative trait before they find out by kissing me and hating it. When I tell a new partner about my mouth muscles, I do it because I want them to know what is going on in my body when we kiss. I do it to create the best kissing experience for us both in that moment together.