As a sex worker who has done in-person work for a decade, I’ve kissed a lot of frogs. So many, in fact, that I have a theory about why call girls of old had the “no kissing” rule, a rule that is unfortunately uncommon among contemporary escorts: It’s not because kissing is more intimate than other acts, but because it’s uniquely cruel to have to endure bad kissing. And bad kissing is a guarantee.
Now before you try to claim every man who’s ever paid for some sexual service must obviously be a bad kisser, let me assure you that I’ve kissed off the clock as well. This epidemic is not confined to age or income brackets or whatever other categories into which one might like to slot sex consumers. I think it’s safe to say that all mouth-havers have been guilty of this sin at one time or another: when we were sloppy drunk, or a little surly, or just didn’t care what that other music-festival attendee thought of us afterwards. Most stints of bad kissing, though, can be attributed to being young, shy, and radically inexperienced. Some of us grow out of it, but many don’t. The end result is that we’re all in this ugly boat together.
And who wants to have to tell someone that being on the other end of their mouth feels like being a pie in a pie-eating contest? Criticizing someone’s sexual skills is usually reserved for the aftermath of a bad breakup, primed to be acutely painful while also giving the dissed party an opportunity to reassure themselves it isn’t true. Who wants to break it to an otherwise ideal mating partner that their kissing is crumple-face-emoji-worthy?
Like all physical intimacy, kissing is highly personal, and different people like different things, so the following advice should be taken and molded to the mouth of your chosen kissing-mate. It’s feasible that some folks enjoy the things I’m about to rail against, but my research has shown they’re not in the majority. So if you’d like to tighten up your lip game—and everyone can use a brush-up now and then—here’s my advice.
(Speaking of brushes, if you don’t already know that having a thoroughly clean mouth is the basic starting grounds for any type of lip-to-lip interaction, go sit in the corner with this tube of toothpaste and take a hard look at your life. No, chewing gum doesn’t cut it. No, not only mouthwash, either; it tastes awful second-hand. You need to regularly be brushing and flossing your entire oral cavity before you can read any further. This is about better kissing, not remedial kissing. You don’t get to do drills if you haven’t even mastered putting on your helmet.)
Cool it with the Shark Mouth. You should never approach another person’s face like you’re preparing to bite off as much of it as possible—at least, not if you’re trying to turn them on. And yet I’ve had more than one man go in for a kiss like he was bobbing for enormous apples. Whoever you’re kissing is unlikely to hope that you’ll slip their entire mouth inside of your own, let alone their mouth and their nose. Take a moment to evaluate how large your partner’s mouth actually is, and remind yourself that you’re trying to fit your lips to theirs. That means the lips are nesting against each other, or touching along their borders. It doesn’t mean the other person wears your mouth like it’s Hannibal Lecter’s mask. There are other ways to convey your excitement. Speaking of which ...
Let your tongue be a gradual reveal, not the over-eager surprise party guest who jumps out too early. It’s a fantastic feeling to kiss someone who is thrilled to be kissing you. Urgent desire is incredibly sexy. But immediately jamming your tongue as deeply into another person’s mouth as it will go should be reserved for special circumstances, like hate-fucking an obnoxious work colleague, or spring break. Kissing feels good because there are so many nerve endings in our lips and tongue, so why not play on that sensitivity with a little delicacy? Take your time. Tease. Do a tongue fan dance; introduce it and then take it away. Make your partner want more than you’re giving. Because it’s not only urgency that’s sexy; it’s having confidence that the kissing will last long enough for you to take upwards of 60 seconds to introduce the entire length of your tongue. Muscular and relentless tongue-thrusting is like drone metal: It works if it’s done well, but it’s not right for every occasion.
When I say to “take your tongue away” ... I don’t mean that you should dart it in and out like you’re a starving anteater dabbing up insects from a dead tree trunk. Nor do I mean slash it back and forth like your tongue is a machete hacking through a forest. (The sideways slash is eternally baffling to me, so much so that I feel like a lunatic even acknowledging it. But it exists.) You should gently but firmly extend your tongue before withdrawing with similar care. It should have some rhythm to it, and that rhythm should not be staccato. No one goes back to their friends and says, “Wow, you would not believe who I met last night … they had the hardest and fastest tongue that’s ever been in my mouth!” I know kissing someone is exciting, but you’re going to have to calm down a little, or at least just long enough to focus on not spazzing out.
Be selective with your tongue from there. Far and away, most kissing complaints come down to bad tongue-work. That’s because a tongue has the ability to be much more intrusive and just plain gross than lips do. And the single most important piece of advice I could give to almost every man is more lip, less tongue. Lips are soft, nerve-filled, and really fun, so it pains me that they’re so neglected. They also don’t present as much room for error. But since I know you’re going to insist on still going HAM with it, let’s at least tide up the technique.
The tongue has a lot of muscles inside of it—eight, if you’re curious—which means there’s a fair amount of variety in how it can behave. You can make your tongue hard, which I already touched on before: Test this out for yourself by holding the back of your hand close to your mouth and stabbing your tongue out with as much force as you can. Kind of punchy, right? The inside of my mouth is a soft and unsuspecting place, so I don’t need a tongue thrashing around like the Incredible Hulk in there.
Then there’s a totally slothful, flaccid tongue that feels mostly like dead meat. Rest your tongue on your bottom lip, go completely slack there like you’re Homer Simpson, and then touch the back of your hand to it. Gross, right? That’s the type of tongue employed in what I call the Heave and Leave, where someone shoves their tongue into my mouth, apparently thinks, “Welp, I did the kissing!” and then leaves it there while they contemplate how good they are at making out. One of my friends called this “a tongue like a sea sponge that’s decided life just isn’t worth it.”
So what we have here is a Goldilocks situation, with our best tongue in middle ground where it can keep some softness to it while also being firm. PRACTICE IT ON THE BACK OF YOUR HAND. No one is watching except your cat, and everyone in your lips’ future will be ecstatically grateful.
You’re not at the dentist. I don’t know why some men feel like their lips should kept out of the way, but I suspect (again) it’s because they’re so tongue-fixated. We’ve established you probably want to put your tongue inside your kiss-ee’s mouth, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean your lips can’t get involved too. At no point should your mouth seem like it’s being propped open by a plastic dentist’s tool.
Non-face parts can also get involved. You know another appendage you have besides a tongue? No, not that one—your hands! Holding or stroking whoever you’re kissing, wherever your hands might naturally fall (shoulders, back, neck, waist) is an ace move, just as long as that doesn’t turn into a death grip on the head designed to force your tongue even further in before your partner can pull away.
Easy does it. Your lips are capable of creating suction, and there are a lot of arenas where that’s a great asset. But I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who likes it when someone sucks on her tongue. It’s uncomfortable, just generally weird, and way too slobbery. Come on.
Do not ignore what your partner wants. This should be a given, and we’re getting into a pretty heavy consent-related discussion if we go much further, but I want to end on a note that should be obvious, yet apparently isn’t: If your partner likes the thing you’re doing, they will make it easier for you to do it. It’s natural for someone to want making out to continue yet want their partner to change tactics, and try to signal that non-verbally so there’s no interruption in the smooching. If you’re trying to put more tongue in and they’re closing off their mouth, it means “back off.” If their teeth are closed and you’re pressing your tongue around those teeth like someone thrown out of a club looking for a back way in, you are not kissing well. And the single quality uniting all the above kiss crimes is probably that the person executing those moves is acting like kissing is something they do to the other person rather than something they do with them. For a kiss to be good, both parties need to be alert, responsive, and into it. Go forth with that simple guideline, and together we will revolutionize American tonsil hockey.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.