The Catholic Thing
Kissing and Communicating Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 16 January 2014

Real communication is often more difficult than we imagine, especially when it comes to difficult topics such sex or romance.

Early on in graduate school, I argued with my friend Ed one day that he shouldn’t be romantically kissing a woman (as opposed to a simple kiss of greeting, such as one gives one’s grandmother) unless he was open to marriage with her.  Note, I wasn’t arguing that he had to be ready for marriage, merely that he had to be open to it, and that if marriage with this particular woman was unthinkable or impossible, then he shouldn’t be engaged in this sort of kissing.  My friend had never heard anybody make such a radical claim before, and at the time, he found it mostly ludicrous. 

“I’m from Northern California,” he insisted to me, “and young people in California have a sophisticated understanding of sex, so we can engage in mutual sexual entertainment,” (as he called it), “without it having to mean anything romantic.”  He could, he insisted, “make out” with “a friend,” and it would be “just for fun.” Nothing else. 

Admittedly, different people are different, but I wasn’t so sure.

A few weeks later, Ed brought a friend of his over to my apartment to have the same discussion.  “Hey, Smith,” he said laughing, “tell Chris that same thing you told me.”

So I did. 

“This is unbelievable,” was Chris’s response. “I mean, it’s completely out of the Dark Ages.”   “I’m from Southern California,” Chris told me (I was beginning to see a pattern developing), “and we make-out all the time, and it doesn’t have to mean anything.”

California, it seems, had become the Land of the Meaningless Kiss.

There was only one problem for Chris.  Unfortunately, he had brought his current girlfriend along to our little discussion.  And although she sat quietly through the whole affair, within a week, they had broken up.  When she and I became friends sometime later, I recounted that evening to her one day, and she told me: “Yeah, I was sitting there thinking, ‘What?  Kissing doesn’t mean anything?  Well, it meant something to me!”

       A smile is just a smile, but a kiss . . . well, that's different.

It wasn’t so much that Chris was immoral, as he was simply young and foolish and, of course, from California.  And Lord knows, I was certainly no more “moral” then he was in terms of possessing the relevant virtues. It’s one thing to know that you don’t know how to communicate effectively with women about romantic matters, and another thing to learn how to do it wisely and well.  On that score, I still have very little advice to give young men except this: persevere and pray.  

It’s precisely because I know how little I know about what women are thinking that I find it strange when other men presume they do.  Chris presumed he knew what his girlfriend wanted; he assumed, without having discussed it with her, that she shared the same attitudes toward their physical relationship that he did. The culture he was from had convinced him that everyone thought the same way about physical intimacy. Worse, he came from a culture that had convinced him that all women think about physical intimacy the way rakish men wish they would.

If you think what you do with your body has no intrinsic meaning, then ask yourself why smiling is a universal expression of happiness among human beings. There is no group on earth that expresses happiness with a frown. Indeed, even newborn babies react positively to a smile and cry at the sight of a frown. Babies can even recognize the difference between a real smile and a fake smile.  Saying that kissing doesn’t have to mean anything is like saying that smiling doesn’t have to mean you’re happy.  The point, rather, is: it usually does. And people who see you smile thus have good reason to ask: “Why so happy?” If at that point you were to reply: “Why does smiling have to mean I’m happy?,” they’d probably wonder what planet you were from.

So too, doesn’t the person you’ve been kissing have at least a good prima facie case for thinking that it might have meant something to you?  When we see two people kissing in a movie, do we generally say: “Look, two friends”?  No. We usually say: “Oooh, they love each other.”

Saying that kissing doesn’t necessarily mean anything is as foolish as trying to insist that a woman who is cooking you dinner every night isn’t necessarily interested in a long-term, romantic relationship.  You think I’m kidding, but I once knew a young man who thought this. “We’re just friends,” he insisted.  The fact that this young woman was cooking for him didn’t suggest a long-term commitment to him, so he simply assumed it couldn’t possibly mean that for her either. He was like the child who puts his hands over his eyes and says to the adults around him: “You can’t see me.” 

Young people who are thinking about any kind of physical intimacy might turn the question around and consider not merely what do I think (or assume) is going on here, but how might the other person be interpreting this physical act?  Am I presuming that the act “means nothing” because that’s what I want, not necessarily what she wants?

We live in a pluralistic, multi-cultural world (or so people say) in which young people are supposed to be sensitive about different cultures.  And we all know that certain totally innocent gestures in the United States might be interpreted very differently in, say, Italy (don’t make certain hand gestures there unless you want trouble). So people of good will try to be careful. 

Being careful about other people’s feelings and not presuming everyone interprets kissing as “merely for entertainment purposes only” might be a good start when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex.

Unless, of course, you really want to be a jerk.

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, January 16, 2014
Doctor Smith,
A beatiful reminder in a numb society!

I never saw intamacy as you describe growing up And yet
I was very aware they were in love.

My parents raised seven children at a time when your home
was still "Holy",No Swearing EVER!
No saying the lords namein vein!

No trophy for the A"! (It was exspected)

Bedroom door open when your "Girlfriend" was over!

You see what I mean....

Today I find myself sounding more and more like my old man,

You reminded me of a time when it was so different in America.

Years ago things in regards to the "Topic" were SLOWER!
Things seem to happen 100 miles an hour today!
"Public Displays Of Affection, (PDA) seems to be a norm
and pandemic!
I read your argument and I imediatly think of all these "teens" and PDA and with the relization None will

A refreshingly Sweet Article to start our Day,Thanks
written by Judy, January 16, 2014
I bet there is scientific evidence regarding the physical responses to a kiss that would back this up!
written by Ted Seeber, January 16, 2014
In Southern Oregon, there's a near cultural slur you often hear: Californicator. The reputation California has for immoral behavior is off the charts.

You shouldn't even be dating a girl if you don't want to marry her. And she shouldn't be cooking you dinner, doing your laundry, or anything else if you don't want to marry her.

But likewise, young women, the converse is true.
written by Davin, January 16, 2014
"Persevere and pray" best advice a man could get.
written by James Miliken, January 16, 2014
I've taught High School for more a quarter century, and it makes me so sad that marriage isn't held up as an ideal for them anywhere, at least not in the popular culture. The young woman cooking dinner for her boyfriend may not even realize what she's looking for. More proof that the "Sexual Revolution" has not, on balance, been a good thing for women.
-James Milliken
written by Layman Tom, January 16, 2014
Please don't take this the wrong way. I want to make clear that I am not condoning anything, just pointing out a well-established observation. If you want to get and keep the girl, becoming a Jerk might be a better approach than being a nice guy.

I have prepared sandbags and am wearing my flak jacket and helmet, so I am prepared for the firestorm I just unleashed upon myself. I fully expect all the stories of happy decades-long marriages to all the wonderfully nice men out there. However much anecdotal evidence is heaped against this theory though, I challenge anyone to say that they have never heard it, or thought it themselves. As detestable as it may be; nice guys make good friends, but bad boys get girls. That being said, your last sentence will probably have as much impact as your original point on those engaged in the dating world. Tis a pity too.

written by Athanasius, January 16, 2014
Layman Tom, I know what you mean. Especially in high school, girls seem to be drawn to the hunky jerks. It takes awhile for them to grow up and appreciate the nice guys.

But on the otherhand, it took me awhile to notice more than just the popular pretty girls, and that maybe the "okay" looking nice girls were maybe better catches. I guess we all have to mature to the point where we notice beauty at a deeper level than the skin.
written by Rich in MN, January 16, 2014
@Layman Tom,
Well, I've got too many logs in my own eye (both base-10 logs and base-e logs) to cast aspersions. However, I would point out two things:
1. The fact that "jerks" get (and keep???) girls just goes to show you that men are not the only ones whose jugdments are compromised by Original Sin.
2. I doubt if "getting girls (regardless of method used)" is very high on St Peter's checklist at the Pearly Gates. It might be high on the checklist at another eternal gate, though....

Peace, Sir!
written by Layman Tom, January 16, 2014
Ha! Levity! Another great thing about TCT. Ok Rich, I will play along with you. 1) Yep, Chicks are messed up too. 2) I think it all depends on the sense of the word "get" you choose. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure St. Peter will be very interested in cap feathers. Much like a cop is interested in a rap sheet. But if the only feather is the girl you married and stayed with, It think he'll be impressed. I mean, God wants us to get the girl, doesn’t he? I mean as long as we make an honest woman of her?

Now, as to the math joke...ok, but just remember,You started it! There're 10 kinds of people in the world, those that understand Binary and those that don't. There! Geek challenge met, with predjudice.

Peace brother!
written by Patti Day, January 16, 2014
Athanasius, even high school girls need to mature, but eventually they do and that's when the good guys begin to have more appeal. Bad boys generally remain boys, and what woman, notice I said woman, wants to raise her husband along with her children?
written by Randall B. Smith, January 16, 2014
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Aside from the issue of whether "nasty" guys "get the girls" --- an interesting topic in its own right --- there is the prior question of whether someone who engages in mere "recreational making out" is engaging in an activity that is, well, to put not too fine a point on it, "nasty."

Many of today's teens are not inclined to think so. This, I think, will lead to some very serious misunderstandings and heartbreak.

In every life, there will be some heartaches. That's the nature of human emotion. But there are honest heartaches that result from the heart "overreaching." And then there are heartbreaks that result from lies and mendacity --- from feeling betrayed.

I suggest that kissing someone romantically without being open to a long-term relationship is a species of what Pope John Paul II once described as "lying with one's body." It's like saying "I love you," but not really meaning it. It's like accepting someone's engagement ring, but never really intending to marry him. It's like smiling and shaking someone's hand, not because you're happy to see him or her, but only because you want to sell the sap a used car.

There are many ways of being mendacious. Recreational kissing is one of them. You are "lying with your body." With your body, you communicate one thing: emotional commitment. But the truth is often enough quite the opposite. Claiming afterward: "But I never meant anything by that," is like saying: "I know I promised I was marrying you for better or for worse, but I didn't really mean the 'for worse' part."

"Honesty" and "integrity" means that there is a faithful correspondence between what one communicates and the truth of things. Start down the path of lying, and the truth of things will be harder and harder to find.

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