A while back, I made a list of creepy things we oughta stop romanticizing. In response I got mostly nods all around, except for one item: the surprise kiss. Unlike everything else, people kept defending it. Rather than arguing with every commenter, I decided to expand on why the surprise kiss should not feature in our stories.
First, I’ll need to define it. The surprise kiss starts with two people who don’t engage in smoochies on a regular basis. One of them wants to kiss the other. Instead of asking whether a kiss would be okay, they dart in and plant one before their target has the chance to object or even dodge. If they lean in slowly, it’s not a surprise kiss because the other person has the chance to pull away. However, it’s still not as good as clear communication.
Surprise Kisses Are Forced Kisses
A peck on the cheek might be innocent, but mouth-on-mouth kisses are a sexual activity. The target of a surprise kiss does not have the option to refuse this sexual activity. What choice they would have made about the kiss doesn’t matter, because they didn’t get one. The person kissing them might as well have held them down; it has the same practical effect.
If you doubt this, think about how it feels to be groped from behind when you’re out in public. Public groping also uses surprise to circumvent consent. Just because it relies on speed and stealth does not make it cool.
We have a name for non-consensual sexual activity, in any form. It’s called sexual assault.
Yet it’s romanticized in otherwise fantastic stories. In both Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra, the main romance starts with a surprise kiss. In both cases, the target character expresses unhappiness with the kiss they did not consent to, but they later end up in a romance anyway. This sends the message that non-consensual kisses are a valid way to court someone and that the target’s indignation will disappear later.
Now, if you’re a fan of Aang, Korra, or another protagonist who uses the surprise kiss, you’re no doubt ready to pull out all the contextual excuses for their behavior. But every one of those excuses is a contrivance created by the storyteller for the purpose of justifying behavior that is wrong. It’s not real life.
In real life, people don’t enjoy being forced to kiss anyone who wants to kiss them. But when real people are continually shown stories with non-consensual kisses presented as sweet and romantic, they might think it’s okay for them to force kisses on people they’re attracted to.
That doesn’t mean everyone who’s planted a surprise kiss is a bad person. We’re all dancing to a cultural tune that’s difficult to hear. But that cultural endorsement doesn’t erase the harm, especially when we consider all incidences across a highly fallible population. So regardless of whether or not you’ve been lucky with your previous surprise kisses, next time you or your heart-throb should ask.
Consent Requires Clear Communication
The idea behind the surprise kiss is that, somehow, everyone knows when someone else wants to be kissed without talking about it. In the Voyager episode Body and Soul, an alien captain gets friendly with Seven of Nine. He mistakenly thinks Seven is romantically interested in him, so he decides to get Seven alone on his ship’s bridge and force a kiss on her.
This is a rare example that shows us why the surprise kiss is bad. Seven didn’t want to be kissed, and she’s very upset that some dude put his tongue in her mouth without asking. Fortunately, she’s strong enough to throw the alien across the room; a different person might have been too scared to resist the advances of a much larger man. Every surprise kiss can lead to this result, but fiction insists on showing us a world where kissers magically know their target wants a kiss.
Regardless of cultural expectations, body language will never be sufficient to communicate consent between people who are hooking up. It’s simply too subjective. Nonverbal signals are incredibly easy to misinterpret or exaggerate, even for people with strong social skills. Add in the people with compromised social skills and people who are part of a different culture or subculture, and mistakes are guaranteed.
If we want to reduce the occurrence of rape in our society, we have to get over the idea that romance happens through some magical mental connection. The last time I checked, the human race didn’t have telepathy.
This means that in real life or in stories, if anyone wants to kiss someone new, then they should ask. It may seem cumbersome or scary at first, but we’ll have to get over that, because it’s not fair to put the burden of refusing sexual contact on potential victims. The person initiating contact is responsible for getting a free and informed “yes” before they reach each base on the field.
Think about it: If we can’t ask for consent for one little kiss, how will we ask for consent for sex?
Consent Is More Romantic Than Sexual Assault
Like many other storytellers have done, you can depict sexual assault as romantic using any number of invented justifications in your story. But there will always be some people who see through this guise, and over time, that number will grow. Stories can last a long time. Twenty years in the future, do you want people to cringe during your romance scenes?
Consent doesn’t bother anyone and won’t become embarrassing in another generation. If it seems out of place in your romance scene, it’s only because you aren’t used to it, not because there’s anything unromantic about it. It can be unromantic if implemented poorly, but that’s true for any other line of dialogue.
If you want to see an example of consent implemented well, just watch this short clip from Disney’s Frozen.
Writing romance is about adding tension and affection to even the most mundane things. Consent involves two people talking about kissing each other; it’s giving you a head start. If you can’t make that romantic, then you should put those romantic plotlines aside and focus on other things for a while. Or simply leave sexual activity out. There’s no kissing in Pride and Prejudice.
It can be difficult to see the harm in something that’s both ubiquitous and widely treated as innocent. But the logic defending surprise kisses falls apart with the slightest glance. That’s because it’s the same logic that justifies rape.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?