Why the Surprise Kiss Must Go

Korra surprises Mako with a kiss

A typical surprise kiss includes interrupting the target while they were speaking. Because shutting someone up is soooo romantic.

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

Seven of Nine looking irate

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

Kristoff lifting Anna up playfully.

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.

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  1. Tyson Adams

    Need a version of this article for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Just need to replace kiss with groping.

  2. Foxcalibur

    You Mythcreants guys are super good at proscribing things to write about it. Which is on its face the absolute worst advice to give writers. I’m a loud and proud Social Justice Warrior, but this is such milquetoast cabbagewater nonsense.

    No, characters on romantic adventures do not need to stop what they’re doing and lay out detailed terms of consent, establish safewords, discuss their triggers, and then experiment with hand-holding. There are ways to write spontaneous kissing that are clearly not even a little rapey, such as when two characters express through indirect dialogue and body language they’re interested in one another. Which is how non-raping humans have known to advance to the kissing portions of their relationships since the dawn of humans.

    No, authors are not going to have every character ask other characters if they would please like to be kissed now if that’s okay and if it doesn’t violate their safe space. The reason all your friends defended surprise kisses is because there’s nothing wrong with a good surprise kiss. Nor is there anything wrong with someone misreading cues and trying it only to be rebuffed. That’s how human interaction works.

    Sheezus, the digital ink you wasted proscribing a perfectly fine trope when you could’ve described the difference between a positive and toxic use of it. Makes a man wanna go complain about ethics in videogame journalism. I’m not gonna, because yuck, but this was some ol’ strident silliness.

    • Tyson Adams

      I think you have missed Chris’ points completely and appear to be putting forward an argument that wasn’t made.

      I take your point that there are ways to portray mutual attraction and acceptable physical contact without bashing readers or viewers over the head with overt establishing of consent (show don’t tell). But that is one of the points being made: the physical romantic gesture is often forced upon a character before they are wanting it. Just because they are happy with it later – usually because they are swept off their feet by the fawning, or worn down, or worse – doesn’t make it better. It makes it toxic storytelling that in a small way perpetuates bad sexual relationships.

      • Foxcalibur

        I read the article.

        “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.”

        The article presupposes that both parties must discuss the act of kissing before kissing can take place, or the act perpetuates rape culture. Talking beforehand can be very romantic or it can be hopelessly, irredeemably twee (like that bit from Frozen, for example.) Kissing spontaneously can be a stand-up-and-clap moment or it can creepy.

        It’s all about execution. Yes, the world is largely over, “Come here, you saucy wench!” “Oh you brute!” *ineffectual beating on chest becomes willing embrace, roll credits* But, say, a girl working up the nerve to kiss her companion and going for it is not rape culture. Without looking at statistics, I can say with some certainty that the vast majority of people who kiss a potential partner without express written permission would not assume it is therefore okay to have sex with them without permission.

        This is the 40 oz. coke ban of writing articles. It forbids a perfectly innocent trope rather than discussing its healthy and toxic uses.

        • Cay Reet

          As a former girl, I can tell you one thing, though: most women don’t enjoy a guy they hardly know, don’t really like (instant dislike leads to love trope), or have seriously argued with suddenly grab and kiss them.

          The article doesn’t state your characters need to make a written contract before the kiss, but if the kiss results in a first reaction of ‘oh no, why is he/she/it kissing me,’ then it’s a bad kiss.

          If you’re good enough at it, you can work with body language beforehand. You can use gestures, glances, or other small signs to show both parties are willing. And, of course, you can make the reaction of the kissed character one which shows he/she/it likes being kissed, even if they were supprised a little.

          And, yes, a kiss on the mouth is much more of a sexual act than a kiss on the cheek (exchept for cultures where it’s perfectly normal to kiss a stranger on the mouth, too).

          • JT

            Thank you cay! Exactly. This is something I find particularly startling:

            “The article presupposes that both parties must discuss the act of kissing before kissing can take place, or the act perpetuates rape culture. ”

            Not only is that NOT what the article is literally “presupposing” (because you make it sound, by use of the term “discuss”, as if they’re literally talking about verbal discussions in all cases), in actual fact the thing they’re decrying IS a literal, clear-cut example of Rape culture.

            No, look – bear with me here, okay? I can explain exactly how!

            Unless you get an indication of Direct Consent to the act, you can’t KNOW they will want it. You can’t. Without literal mindreading, unless you’ve gotten an indication not just of what you THINK are feelings for you, but outright an indication that they overtly want THAT act…that’s not consensual. Because you could always be misreading what you “think” they want!

            And you misconstrue this – I almost don’t blame you, since you’re quoting a badly-worded section referencing “body language isn’t enough” – to mean nonverbal forms of indicating consent aren’t included.

            But that’s not at all what the article actually argued, because though it was badly worded, I still managed to understand that what they really meant was body language isn’t enough to know AHEAD of time if they will want a kiss.

            Body language PROPOSING a kiss though…and allowing a turn-down? That’s different. Which the article acknowledges!

            Let me point out: the article actually DOES allow for non-verbal forms of Consent – they don’t do a great job of referring to it as such with that particular word, and they potentially come across as contradicting themselves later due to poor choice of wording in the “body language is not enough” bit, but reread it, please: they LITERALLY state outright that if one character leans in, and PAUSES, waiting for the other also lean in/otherwise indicate they would yes please very much like this kiss…then that isn’t the kind of kiss they’re talking about!

            As in, the ONLY kind of Surprise Kiss referred to here as a trope that “needs to go”, is literally one where it’s genuinely a surprise (hence the name), where the second party has NO OPPORTUNITY TO STOP IT, and which is, in particular, on the lips, which is considered a Very Intimate Act in our culture.

            Here’s the thing I have an issue with in your critique, Fox: You’re overlooking the very SPECIFIC type of act they’re explicitly describing. They’re talking about a literal forced kiss that MAY OR MAY NOT be reciprocated or even appreciated, because NO opportunity is given to REJECT IT until the act is already happening. I know I said that already, but it bears repeating: they don’t have the opportunity to turn it down! They don’t have the ability to stop it, until it is already happening! That by default means you can’t be certain of their desire to consent to it.

            This obviously isn’t a problem with “lean in slightly” body language – the person they want to kiss can then, having been given a blatant hint, choose to lean in (indicating they want it, yes please!), or pull away, (indicating they do not want it). Boom. Opportunity to consent, option turn it down!

            But to just…kiss without giving the opportunity to stop it? On the mouth?? No option to turn it down before it happens?

            That is, in fact, literally and legally, sexual assault.

            LEGALLY in the USA that is sexual assault. I am not joking, that is not hyperbole: forcibly kissing someone on the mouth without being able to even TELL you have Consent, let alone not letting Consent be requested at all, not even by implication requesting it… is sexual assault. Full stop. Period, no debate: it’s outright sexual assault.

            No, it’s not as bad as an outright rape, but it’s still a sexual assault. Literally. LEGALLY.

            Which means it absolutely IS, in the very most literal sense, “supporting rape culture” to keep portraying it as an okay thing for multiple protagonists to do. Because you’re suggesting, repeatedly, that an act that literally legally qualifies as sexual assault, is “okay” because “it’s romantic”.

            And you may say “psh! yeah, but it’s only a kiss, it’s not like it’s THAT bad -”

            To which I would say:

            Let me tell you a story.

            A very personal story.

            I once had someone who was head over heels for me, without me realizing. I thought we were just “good friends”, and wasn’t good at recognizing whatever “signals” he was sending. He in turn, misinterpreted the emotional intimacy of friendship, for the emotional intimacy of something else entirely.

            One day, when we were in an isolated office (oh yeah, we were technically coworkers too, so this was doubly unexpected!), he tried to kiss me…without asking, and without so much as a hint or warning that he was going to. In other words, EXACTLY the kind of Surprise kiss talked about here. Just grabbed, and tried to kiss me.

            It was not ~romantic~.

            It was TERRIFYING.

            And it WAS NOT FUN. I freaking panicked, are you kidding me!? I wasn’t expecting that, I didn’t want that, and I didn’t think of him like that, and I just…I did not want it!! Even though I liked him as a person, I didn’t! I didn’t!!

            I wound up reflexively not just pulling away but slapping him, TWICE (even though, again, he was a good friend) because I WAS FREAKED THE HECK OUT.

            That’s how scared I was! How alarmed I was! It felt like the level of trust and comfort we’d built over the course of months, the casual, physical sense of de facto safety I had previously had around him – as I would for any good friend I could relax and Be Myself around – had been ripped away and set on goddamn fire, replaced by confusion, fear, a sense of Violation.

            Thankfully, he apologized immediately. He didn’t even blame me for slapping him in my panic.

            But things were weird between us ever since. And to this day I don’t LIKE kissing on the mouth and I can never tell if it’s because of that, or some other reason (did I mention that would have been my First Kiss? Yeeeeeah).

            Now, I ultimately forgave him, because he really did Love Me, in the sense not just of “wanting” me but liking and caring about me, and he felt bad, and he had immediately apologized, and we were still…friends?

            But it was really unsettling. REALLY unsettling. And it took me years to be even close to emotionally open again, especially with guys, and even with him, because it was a huge shift. I had thought were Just Friends, how could he try to make it THAT? How could he mistake me for Having Those Feelings?! I became almost paranoid of not “leading a guy on” (even though I hadn’t “lead him on” because that implies conscious intent. I didn’t have that, he just…misunderstood what my feelings were or behavior meant).

            THAT is what a Surprise Kiss can turn into in real life. The kind, specifically, that article is saying we shouldn’t endorse anymore. THAT is what it looks like IRL.

            It was a “minor” sexual assault, but it was still a sexual assault. I forgave him, but it was still a sexual assault. It was still done without my consent, and it was TERRIFYING, and slightly traumatizing/life-altering in a bad way, because of that. Even if it was “just” a kiss, it was still a violation of my boundaries, because he didn’t bother to actually check what those boundaries were, and that was…that was not healthy for either of us.

            And I’m going to point out: if he had done the “lean in and pause” method? I would have picked up on it quick enough to stop him and it would have been…awkward, because again I didn’t have those feelings for him, but it would have been less FRIGHTENING. I would have pulled away, but we would have had a normal talk about feelings and crap, instead of, you know, me having a freaking panic and slapping him in said panic because he SCARED me and freaked me out!

            There’s your difference.

            THERE is your difference, between “spontaneous” decision to kiss (lean-in method)…and the Surprise Kiss that the article is describing as bad to endorse.

            If you care about a person, that means you should care about their boundaries, which means you SHOULD also care about making sure you know FOR CERTAIN when it’s okay to cross them.

            The version of Surprise Kiss decried here, IGNORES boundaries. It means the character kissing the other makes assumptions about them, at best, which aren’t necessarily accurate and in some cases are flat-out wrong. Yet, it’s portrayed as not morally wrong, and as outright romantic, even in some cases where the recipient didn’t want it when it happened!

            It is LITERALLY romanticizing, and making excuses for, sexual assault. And that is, again literally, the very definition of Rape Culture: a culture in which sexual assault is excused and/or allowed, even endorsed in some cases. This is the most clear cut case of Rape Culture I’ve seen outside of crap like “50 Shades”, to be honest, because you can, again, LITERALLY, define the act it’s endorsing, as one of sexual assault.

            It’s a bad thing to keep propagating. It is TOXIC to keep propagating. I’m sorry you didn’t seem to pick up on the exact thing they were describing, Fox, but please realize, from the perspective of an actual person who went through such an act on the receiving end, that it IS sexual assault, and that it’s not good to encourage it and romanticize it in the way that the stories this article is discussing, do.

            No, consent doesn’t have to be outright verbal. But the Surprise Kiss doesn’t ALLOW for Consent, by definition. It doesn’t allow, most importantly, for the recipient to turn it down, to say “no”.

            And that’s why it’s wrong to encourage it.

    • Inkris

      I understand what your talking about but the surprise kiss has to go.

      It doesn’t matter if the two parties show romantic feelings with body language but the thing is, consent matters first.

      The person who received the surprise gift may not want it. If someone want to kiss the other and it’s obvious they have feelings for each other, they should ask first. It might seem weird and anti-climatic but if you do ask, you are respecting that person’s morals, and body.

      The fact that the surprise kiss can be done right or wrong really rub me the wrong way. The surprise kiss violates the person receiving it, even if they want it because again you may not respect their morals or their body.

      • Inkris

        I apologize


  3. Foxcalibur

    First, “express written permission” was hyperbole.

    Second, yes, I’m up really late.

    Third, I’m definitely not discounting your lived experience, and indeed I agree with it: being grabbed and kissed by a stranger or someone you barely know or someone with whom you’re disagreeing is skeezy on the part of the smoocher. In fiction, such a thing highlights a person taking liberties or badly misreading social cues or both.

    MY lived experience (yes, cis het white male privilege is a thing I unironically understand I possess) is that I have never in my life asked anyone if I may please kiss them. In those words or any other. I’ve kissed people on the mouth when they weren’t expecting it at that very moment. Because I read the social cues and body language like a responsible person.

    But, like, Aang kissing Katara because he’s going off to possibly die, and neither of them have worked up the nerve to discuss their feelings is NOT creepy. It’s sweet and sad and very fitting for an action-adventure or war story. Her reaction is initially surprised (not terrified or affronted) and she clearly returns the kiss, even if her actual feelings are in turmoil.

    Literature is full of effective, powerful surprise kisses. Looking at cartoons alone, see Elisa kissing Goliath in Gargoyles, or Harley kissing Batman in “Harley’s Holiday.” Goliath has unspoken feelings for Elisa. Neither dude feels violated.

    And their not feeling violated is not a “contrivance.” Bad critics call narrative events they don’t like contrivances. It’s CinemaSins bollocks. They’re character-driven reactions. Katara has feelings for Aang but is too choked up in the moment to express them. Goliath loves Elisa but is, y’know, a gargoyle. Batman has no attraction to Harley but is flattered at the rare appreciation from someone he’s actually trying to help. They’re all nuanced, characterful reactions.

    My point is: It’s a complex trope that can be played for good or ill. It can be used poorly to glorify eliminating someone’s agency or played well to highlight a character’s boorish attitude toward consent. It can represent characters breaking through a social barrier to acknowledge their feelings. But it’s not like, say, the trope of playfully spanking a nonconsenting woman because gosh-golly she needs a lesson!

    Telling people “never use this because rape culture!” is utterly alarmist. And then saying the only way to write healthy kissing is by having people ask for verbal permission, and if you can’t do that, don’t write kissing? Beyond condescending. I like Chris’s work in general, but an exploration of the trope would be more useful than an outright proscription.

    • Cay Reet

      This is where we will have to disagree.

      I don’t like this trope at all, even if, in some cases, it is a way to finally have people admit to their feelings (Aang/Katara, Elisa/Goliath). It’s very much up to the situation, too. Still, kissing someone of whose feelings you aren’t sure, because you could be dying, isn’t that good an idea. In the case you list (Aang/Katara), it works out, because there are feelings. It’s okay, because it’s in a series and the whole audience has worked out those two are going to end up as a couple ages ago. The same goes for Elisa and Goliath, who clearly have feelings for each other, but are weary, because they’re not even the same species.

      Portraying the suprise kiss over and over in movies and on TV, however, also means a lot of people who see it think it’s a valid thing to do in real life, since everyone is doing it. But in real life, quite often, there might be no apprechiation on the other side. And, unlike Seven of Nine, most women who get kissed without wanting to be can’t throw the man who oversteps his bounds through the room. Especially movies or TV series aimed at a younger audience (like Avatar or Gargoyles or the animated Batman series) should be careful with such tropes, because the audience has little experience in that kind of social interaction and still is in a phase where they try to figure out how life works. Different for adults who should know better (but might have been taught it’s okay by movies and TV series as kids).

      No, a kiss isn’t the same as being raped, but it is overstepping the bounds. If the other person is okay with it, there’s no harm done, but that is the point: how to know whether or not the other person is okay with it? Most TV series or movies give little to no indication beforehand – at least when seen through the eyes of the one doing the kissing. Yes, the audience knows about the mutual attraction, but the characters are still angsting about ‘does he/she love me or not?’ To them, it’s not clear whether or not the other person wants to be kissed. So Aang, to stay with him, just wants to kiss Katara once before he dies, for his own feelings. That’s not exactly romantic and shouldn’t be portrayed as being romantic. That’s a young boy acting on his wishes. And Aang, despite being the Avatar, still is a relatively young boy.

    • Sophie the Jedi Knight

      I don’t think Aang kissing Katara because he could have died counts as sweet. What would have been sweet is him confessing his love for her instead – not by kissing her without permission. He could have just said, “I love you.” That would have been cute and would have gotten his feelings across without anyone being violated.
      Also, your logic is that if two characters have feelings for each other, then a surprise kiss is okay because it makes them acknowledge those feelings. How does the person initiating the surprise kiss know that the other person likes them? From a viewer’s perspective it makes sense, but when there is no way for someone to know that the other person likes them a surprise kiss is creepy.
      In real life, few relationships start with a random kiss. This just seems like a speedy way for them to get together by skipping all that ridiculous stuff like asking them out.

  4. Indigo

    I agree with this. It may be different in a world with aura-reading, where the aura colors change due to emotions that you feel, as well as the ability to use telepathy (even then, usually consensual telepathy). In that world it would be easier to guess how someone might feel. But we humans only have our verbal voices and body language. As you clearly outlined, body language is highly subjective.

    Hell, even just dancing around the subject or attempting to flirt with someone subtly when they’re not used to picking up those cues will also go flat. Speaking as someone who’s regularly doubted whether the cues I’ve gotten were indeed what I thought it could be, flirting, or if I was making too much of it and should just assume a safer, mundane reason. I usually assume the safer, mundane reason. I don’t know how much of the flirting I therefore missed due to my assumptions and pure cluelessness with the changing “trends” in how to flirt in this culture.

    I was glad that my boyfriend was such a darling as to confess his wanting to court me, and then listen and respect when I said I wanted to see how well we worked as friends first before potentially taking it further. We discussed how we felt with each other (cutely, shyly, but earnestly) and he actually DID ask me if he could kiss me. It was adorable, I was amazed at being asked, and it really helped me to be more interested in being kissed in the first place. So I said that I was interested in seeing how that felt and he then kissed me and it was great.

    Whoever said that consent isn’t sexy simply does NOT have imagination, truly.

    To someone raised in this rape culture as a girl (even though I am a man now), seeing consent asked for and then given at all is an amazing thing. (Said to say, but true.) I thought the scene in Frozen was so amazing, literally one of the first I’ve ever seen in media (and I’m over two decades old) and thereby thought the whole exchange was adorably cute and awesome. I loved now, having watched it over again, how she pecked him on the cheek and then said he may kiss her. She showed with BOTH body language and verbal consent that she was willing, and showed with the body language with a kiss in a more neutral area (the cheek) instead of having accidentally forced herself on him as well. The way he stammered that he wanted to kiss her was adorably sweet and endearing. It is certainly something that would make my heart melt and my nervousness about my safety with a man go down and allow me to relax.

    To return back to where I started this from, even in my world of aura-reading and telepathy to complement the body language and verbal speech, even there I have people asking for kisses first before getting them. Even if they go with body language only, they go in very slow, maybe nuzzle someone’s nose, search their eyes, and let the other person decide if they want to lean in the rest of the way and kiss them. I’ve had some do the slow leaning in, then after they nuzzle the noses they ask “May I…?” in a hopeful whisper and look down at the lips. It’s really quite exciting and engaging that exchange, somehow. It usually makes me hold my breath too (both as the writer and reader) as I wait for the answer to come.

    Some other cute ways people have asked for kisses ranged from the stammering adorable awkwardness of Frozen fame, to what I described above, as well as this: Person one gently holds the other person’s hand, looks at them through lowered lashes while blushing, and asks, “There’s something I’d like to do…” (Sometimes, if they’re really a gentleman they’ll brush a kiss slow and lingering over the back of the person’s hand.) Then the other person asks, “What?” and blushes a bit in return. Then the first person’s response is “May I kiss you?” And it’s somehow sweet and sexy and a slow burn all at once.

    Hell, there’s several places where people did ask for consent to kiss, and got a “no,” then backed off immediately. They may ask for the “why” behind the no, just to understand what is motivating the other person so they can be sure of how to be more respectful to them in the future. Then when they discuss it, the first person promises not to make the other person uncomfortable that way again in the future and usually backs off in their courtship and stays as friends until and unless the other person finally decides to take it up another level. Then when the other person goes in for the kiss themselves in a consenting way, it feels all the sweeter because you KNOW the first person doesn’t want to and won’t take advantage of the other person. They already proved themselves by respecting the no and finding out what they can do in the future to make the other person more comfortable and safe. So that adds a whole ‘nother level of romance and sweetness to the scene that just makes me swoon with happiness. ~

    Truly, whoever said that consent isn’t sexy simply does NOT have imagination.

    As writers and creators of media and new content, imagination should be the standard tool of our trade. So why not use that imagination of yours and come up with ways that consent is romantic and sexy, especially with a nice slow burn of dramatic tension as the audience waits for the other character’s answer. Go out, go forth, and create!

    • Cay Reet

      Well said, Indigo.

      Consent is immensely sexy and makes a scene a lot more romantic, because it shows the potential kisser respects the person he or she wants to kiss. They’re not just going for something they want, they make sure the other person wants it, too.

  5. GeniusLemur

    It strikes me that the problem with the surprise kiss is like the problem with beating information out of people: something that in real life is dubious at the very best and yields good results in 1% of cases or less is consistently portrayed in fiction as being just fine and practically always yielding the results you wanted.

    • Bronze Dog

      That’s a good comparison. Had torture on my mind from catching up on Daredevil on Netflix, since it got used in the episodes I watched. It worked once out of three times.

  6. roger

    When did people start using “okay” and “that’s all right” to mean “no”? Why don’t people mention the ambiguity? Dictionaries don’t seem to mention the ambiguity. Why not?

    “That’s okay”
    “That’s not okay”
    “No, that’s okay”
    “No, that’s not okay”

    “May I buy you a drink?”
    “That’s okay, my boyfriend is coming.”
    “Um, that raises a whole bunch of follow-up questions…”

    It also happens in contexts with no romantic element.

    While a cashier is ringing up items, the customer asks for the price of one item, learns the price and then says, “That’s okay.”

    How does one respond to ambiguity? Reciting dictionary definitions?


    • Cay Reet

      By erring on the side of caution, I’d say … taking “That’s Okay” to mean ‘no.’

    • Chris Winkle

      In storytelling, you can choose to avoid ambiguous statements. In real life, you can ask for clarification. “So you’re saying you don’t want me to buy you a drink, right?” If you feel awkward and don’t want to follow up with a question in a situation like that, I think Cay Reet is right in that the best policy is to assume no.

      • GeniusLemur

        Alternative to the surprise kiss:
        BOY: Well, I’d better get going.
        GIRL: …yes, I guess so.
        *Both stand there being sexually tense*
        BOY (impulsively): Kiss before I go?
        GIRL: …Sure
        *They kiss*

  7. AceOfLances

    It’s different if a character leans in, there’s a pause, you lock eyes, move closer, pause, then go to it…maybe that’s where people are getting hung up. But that’s not a surprise kiss. Each character gets a chance to pull away.
    When you’re little girls come home crying because some pervy kid grabs them and kisses them on the mouth at school, believe me folks you’re tune changes.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree … in this case, the other person has a lot of time to remove themselves from the situation. I wouldn’t call it the surrpise kiss, I’d call it the shy kiss or the slow kiss instead.

  8. Melissa

    I agree with the article, there are some valid points of advice. But since we are talking about clear communication here, then I think a few more examples of good and bad uses of this type of scene would have clarified the distinction between innocence taking the next step and Trump-esque groping. One great example is in the movie ‘The Sound of Music’, and though musicals tend to be over-romanticized, I think this one defines the difference well. After the song ‘I am 16, you are 17’, Rolph finally plants one on the eldest Von Trapp daughter’s lips, but it’s only after they have established that a sweet and innocent relationship has been brewing. The song is basically the couple playfully talking about her future and if other men besides him, will be in it. A subtle way to influence Rolph to take the next step. We were quickly made aware by her body language that she would welcome a kiss, but times and propriety say that she’s not allowed to do this. At the end of the song he finally makes his true feelings known by acting in the moment of spontaneity and kissing her. It’s a surprise to her, but it’s not out of the blue so completely because they have known each other for a while.

    This is the big distinction between two people who really like each other but are too worried or awkward to take the next step, and two people who barely know each other and someone steps in to dominate the other in an ‘I know you really want me’ sort of way, regardless of the other’s feelings. That sort of surprise kiss usually shows a disregard for the other’s wants, and is off putting because of its selfish nature.

    As a lover and writer of fantasy that usually has a strong romantic element, I understand that certain tropes define certain genres. But even in the genre of romance it’s overdone and overused, and though it was once thought of as acceptable in the bodice-ripping era of masculine dominance in romance, times have changed, and our clichés need to change with them.

  9. Siderite

    I find it strange that I cannot find a side I want to be on. Certainly it makes logical sense to have a preexisting protocol for human interaction agreed upon by both parties. Not very romantic, but logical. It implies respect, the desire to achieve a goal through cooperation, both important aspects of any possible relationship.

    On the other hand, forcing one’s hand may be the only way to go over the awkward moment when both people don’t want to “cede” their position of power. Admitting a desire to kiss implies opening up for rejection. Admitting to agreeing to a possible kiss is in the same category, the responsibility of the act now passed on, or at least shared, to the other person.

    Now, imagine for a moment that the “surprised kiss” is not a manifestation of force applied on an unwilling subject, but rather a way to assume full responsibility for the act. It’s all or nothing. Asking for forgiveness rather than permission and all that.

    I find it funny that this discussion would have sounded silly a mere decade ago. Society would not have considered a “stolen kiss” as something akin to sexual assault. My conclusion after all the thinking about it is that it is a numbers game after all: if the cost of the act, even in the worst case, it lower than the gain, then people will do it. It just happens that we now live in a very sensitive society where anything can be (mis)construed and the possible cost is greater. Too bad that the imagined reward of a perfect kiss with a possible perfect match will always be immense.

    • Cay Reet

      The point we all have been making is that in a story this usually works out (apart from rare cases like that of Seven-of-Nine), because the surprise kiss will be between two people who feel for each other.

      Unfortunately, the real world does not adhere to the rules of fiction where everything happens as by the writer’s (or at any rate the story’s) will. In the real world, in many cases, you will force a kiss on someone who doesn’t wish to kiss you at all. You will misinterpret actions, because you want them to feel something for you, too. You might simply misinterpret actions, because you have a different social or cultural background.

      Having the surprise kiss in so many different stories all over the media, from movies over TV into books and comics, makes some people think it’s a way to resolve such feelings in the real world, too. And would you really want a random person you don’t know very well and perhaps even dislike to sudden launch themselves at you and force you into a deep, intimate kiss? Because that is what would often happen in the real world and it rarely happens in fiction.

    • Katie

      “Not very romantic, but logical.”

      You going to provide any support for this claim, or…?

    • Katie

      ” the responsibility of the act now passed on, or at least shared, to the other person.”


  10. GeniusLemur

    “Admitting a desire to kiss implies opening up for rejection.”
    “a way to assume full responsibility for the act. It’s all or nothing.”
    Doesn’t this mean that if you want something (in this case, a sexual, intimate act with another human being) and might not get it, you should just take it? Isn’t the whole point of the article that it’s wrong to force someone to participate in an intimate act without any regard for their views on the matter?

  11. Cay Reet

    *blows dust off the comment thread* I actually found a surprise kiss I fully approve of this weekend: when Evie kisses Imhotep to destroy his concentration in “The Mummy” (the one from 1999). There is no love involved (at least not between the kissing parties), Evie does it, because she sees it as the only way to make sure the guys coming to rescue her will not perish in the sandstorm Imhotep conjured up. You can see her working up the courage and you can see his truly surprised face when she grabs his head and kisses him.

  12. Dragonborn

    If some leans forward and makes a clear kissing motion leaving the other the option to reciprocate or decline, is that consent?

    • Cay Reet

      It’s a little ambiguous for me, to be honest. It depends on the situation, since it also might be a joke of some kind.

      • Dragonborn

        Have you seen Hitch? It’s a lot like what Will Smith’s character teaches Kevin James to do.

        • Cay Reet

          a) No, I haven’t seen Hitch.

          b) It’s not a good idea and I wouldn’t rely on something which is taught to a character in a rom-com or suchlike. Those are the usual perpetrators when it comes to giving bad advice for the surprise kiss and other creepy romantic topics.

          What about something like ‘how about a kiss?’ Or about ‘I’d like to kiss you?’

          • Dragonborn

            I read the description and it said lean ins are fine.

          • Cay Reet

            Lean ins are fine, but most women will laugh at you or run in terror, if you also make kissing sounds or motions.

            Also read this in a thread on a similar topic, for those who think ‘can I kiss/touch/whatever you?’ is too tame and not interesting enough. How about ‘I’m gonna tie you up and have my way with you, okay?’

  13. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    I have a question regarding the surprise kiss. This is a trope I’ve seen quite a bit recently – two characters confess their love for each other, but “something” is keeping them apart. Then, in some different situation (usually when something very romantic has happened between them or they are obviously having a moment) one of them without warning kisses the other.
    What vein does this fall under?
    On a similar note: is “I love you” consent enough for the other character to go in for a kiss?

    • Chris Winkle

      I would consider a previous confirmation of romantic feelings a step up from a surprise kiss between friends, but having romantic feelings still isn’t consent to sexual activity, just like being turned on isn’t consent to sexual activity. The way someone feels is generally involuntary, whereas consent by definition must be voluntary. People choose not to engage in sexual activity for numerous reasons, some people just don’t like kissing regardless of feelings. So it’s best not to assume that because they harbor romantic feelings that they also want to kiss.

      With a confession of “I love you” and a kiss right after it gets more blurry, because of current cultural standards, wanting to kiss might be implied in that statement. If I were watching it on a screen I would judge based on body language. But surprise kisses in stories are designed to feel spontaneous. If someone has just confessed to being in love, it’s not spontaneous. So if you’re writing a scene like that, there’s no reason not to do a lean-in that gives the receiving character time to dodge if necessary.

  14. cheese

    The surprise kiss is, like user JT said, a very specific act. Two people who aren’t a couple/haven’t kissed are with each other, doing whatever. Person A wants to kiss Person B, but Person B has not expressed a desire to kiss Person A, so Person A “darts in and plants one”. They don’t lean in, indicating their intention and giving Person B a chance to reject the kiss. They perform a sneak-attack. That should not be romanticized. I love Avatar probably 50x more than the next person, so I’ll use examples from it. Sokka and Suki are talking, and Sokka kisses her, which surprises her. This is not, however, a surprise kiss. Earlier that episode, Suki clearly expresses that she wants to kiss Sokka, and she is surprised when he kisses her because he had previously pulled away. The kiss between Aang and Katara, and Korra and Mako, as mentioned in the article, are examples of the surprise kiss. I adore Aang and Korra, and I mean adore. They are excellent role models in any other sense. But you can plug them in as Person A.

    Note: A kiss can be spontaneous and mid sentence without being a surprise kiss. An example of that would be Tony and Pepper’s lip lock in Iron Man 2. Those characters had established interest between them, you could cut the sexual tension of that scene with a knife, and the kiss was mutual. Pepper saw Tony lean in, so she closed her eyes and tilted her chin upwards.

    • cheese

      And such a quick lean-in like that is only acceptable if the characters know each other well enough to read each other.

  15. Saumya Kulp

    Would you consider the Sokka/Suki kiss as problematic? I mean, they almost kissed before, but did that count as willingness?

  16. Annie

    I politely disagree. Surprise kisses are fine long as the person who is kissed has been harboring affections for the kisser. It is not, however, fine, if the kisser is kissing someone who is clearly not interested.

    • Cay Reet

      But that is the problem, isn’t it? Most surprise kisses in movies or TV shows are between people who might be harbouring affections, but haven’t shown them so far. They’re not between the members of a couple who is together, has met after a time apart and one of them simply grabs the other one and kisses them as a ‘hello’ or a scenario like that. Within the narrative, the kisser doesn’t know the kissed is harbourting affections, even though the audience knows. And that means for the kisser every surprise kiss includes the chance of the kissed not wanting to at all.

  17. DawnDove

    Yes 100% to this. As someone who has been surprised kissed (I mean surprise too, leaning in slowly is not surprising) more than once in real life, I find it completely unromantic. I’d go so far to call it a turn off. It felt like I was tricked/played and my character was diminished into an object for their fantasy of romance. Yes, we where on a date. But why couldn’t they have just asked or made it obvious instead of sneakily kissing me? Its degrading. It makes you wonder if you’re even allowed to say no since it’s meant to be romantic. They asked you out and paid for your meal, thus they’re entitled to a kiss, right? No. Another person should never feel entitled to your body. If I read this article a few years ago, I probably would think it’s an exaggeration and not something to be worried about. I’d probably even be one of those people who think surprise kisses are romantic. But, I’m older and have more experience. Maybe if I was taught that surprise kisses where not okay it wouldn’t be such a rude wake up call.

  18. November

    Eugh, not only is it awful in fiction, but far too many of my romantic partners thought this was an okay thing to do because “it works in the movies”. Friends: IT IS NOT.

  19. Innocent Bystander

    There’s another example of the surprise kiss not being wanted in “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.” In that instance, the girl had a crush on the guy doing it, but him not asking permission is a major turn-off for her and she tears into him for it. He ends up turning into a jerk over her not wanting the kiss and they don’t get together at the end and it’s shown as a good thing. In fact, the girl standing up for herself gets her mother’s respect and trust.

    Not the greatest movie, but a rare example especially in a kids’ film.

  20. Mona

    Your short clip from Disney’s Frozen isn’t available anymore. You might need to fix that.

    However, this article does a great job explaining my own thoughts on why another forced/surprise kiss in another franchise was bad. The kiss between Lie Ren and Nora Valkyrie in RWBY Volume 7 was bad for this exact reason. Ren was unsure of himself and clearly had some issues going on. Nora tried to solve it by kissing him. Cue more relationship drama that nobody cares about.

    Thank you for explaining this so well.

  21. Jeppsson

    Really late to the party here, but… There will always be people getting angry over consent discussions, so that’s unavoidable. But I think this part “body language will never be sufficient to communicate consent between people who are hooking up. It’s simply too subjective.” does come on a bit too strong.
    Or, maybe one should put it like this: Mere body language in the sense of just trying to read someone else’s “signals” will never be enough, but there are ACTIONS that are pretty easy to read.

    When I was young and swinging and hooking up with people all the time, I’d say verbal asks where rare, and we didn’t quite have this whole consent discussion yet. But the normal way to kiss someone you’d never kissed before was the “slow lean-in” that some people mentioned higher up the thread. Would-be-kisser slowly leans in, giving person-to-be-kissed time to either also lean in to meet their lips, or lean back instead. In the latter case, would-be-kisser also leans back, and have a short moment of awkwardness before everyone moves on and in most cases pretend like nothing happened. This is a far cry from “it’s so complicated we’d basically need telepathy to get it right”.

    I think that it might actually give sexual predators too much leeway and excuses to pretend like a culture where verbal asks are rare is SO HARD to navigate that pure innocent mistakes will happen all the time. If someone does plant surprise-kisses on other people, or make out or even bang people who’s just stiff and non-responsive on their side, this person is a predator or outright rapist, even in a culture where verbal asks are rare. They’re not someone who made a perfectly innocent mistake because non-verbal consent is SOOO hard as to be nearly impossible to navigate.
    You can STILL say that a more verbal culture is BETTER because it minimizes room for actual innocent mistakes compared to a more non-verbal one, and makes it more difficult for predators to come up with phony excuses.

    • Cay Reet

      I think a big problem with the surpise kiss in fiction is that it’s usually depicted as working. There’s often (even in visual media, where you can see the body language) little to no evidence that the other person wants to be kissed. The only reason why the audience knows is because they have other sources – mostly what the other person has said and, depending on the media, even thought. We know that person B is in love with person A as well, because we’ve had scenes from person B’s viewpoint where they wrote it down in their diary, or told person C about it, or looked at person A with some glitter effect around them. Person A, however, does not have this information. So the audience knows this will will work and they’ll finally get out of their shells and have the chance for a relationship. It’s fiction and in fiction, few things happen without reason (none at all, if you’re a good author).

      In real life, even though we’re generally good at reading body language, there’s also such a thing as thinking that the other one likes you as well, even if they’re indifferent. You want them to like you, so you interpret every sign that could be interepreted that way to come across as ‘yes, they like me.’ It’s human, I’m afraid.
      That is where the surprise kiss becomes a problem. We already have a culture where consent is often pushed aside, where people think something is implied by what a person is wearing or how a person is failing to act in a way they think would imply the opposite (the whole ‘what were you wearing?’ thing which only comes up when it’s about sexual harassment or assault and not, say, when it comes to a guy having his nose flattened by another). Media is shaping our outlook on the world (even if the extent may be unclear) and the surprise kiss which almost never fails makes some people in real life think that it’s okay to just invade someone’s personal space and kiss them on the mouth (which is a pretty intimate act). Just as the whole ‘persistent suitor’ trope makes people think it’s okay to continue to pester someone who already told them ‘no’ and are then surprised when they get a ‘cease and desist’ court order instead of a relationship.

      Slightly leaning in works in real life, because it gives the other person a chance to get away, but it’s already an invasion of someone else’s privacy. It works well among teenagers, normally. It works less well, once you’re past your teenage years and someone leans into your personal space and expects you to be all excited about it and you’re not. Then, the awkwardness of someone pulling back can quickly turn into a potentially dangerous or humiliating situation, when the leaner gets angry at the leanée’s refusal and either attacks them verbally or even physically to cover their own feeling of shame. Even though it usually was the leaner’s wrong impression of the situation, they’re also often accusing the leanée of mixed signals – which is always a danger with body language alone, because body signals can often be interpreted in more than one way and are, to a degree, also personal. That usually happens less among teenagers, for whom such awkwardness is daily business, more or less, but can very well happen among adults. If you’re Seven of Nine, that’s not much of a problem, but most of us lack her strength.

      • Jeppsson

        I’m in agreement about the surprise kiss. My disagreement was a pretty small one.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, the body language part.

          However, the lean-in does also have its problems.

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