It started with a kiss: now even Dr Who's at it

After 40 years of time-travelling, Dr Who is finally to enjoy his first kiss. But what makes the meeting of the 'mucous membranes of the lips of two people' so special? Jonathan Margolis puckers up for a brief history of a popular pastime
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Sigmund Freud is not generally known for his irony, so it is unlikely he was playing it for laughs when, in 1905, he described kissing as: "A particular contact between the mucous membranes of the lips of two people concerned, held in high sexual esteem among many nations in spite of the fact that the parts of the body involved do not form part of the sexual apparatus but constitute the entrance to the digestive tract."

It started with a kiss: even Dr Who's at it

Sigmund Freud is not generally known for his irony, so it is unlikely he was playing it for laughs when, in 1905, he described kissing as: "A particular contact between the mucous membranes of the lips of two people concerned, held in high sexual esteem among many nations in spite of the fact that the parts of the body involved do not form part of the sexual apparatus but constitute the entrance to the digestive tract."

Ironic or not, Freud was right, in a sense. Kissing is a very strange activity, so strange that in more than 40 Earth years and countless aeons in his own eccentric time zone, not one of the various Doctors Who has ever been tempted to make contact between the mucous membranes of his lips and those of his gorgeous, pouting female assistants.

Until tonight, that is, when, in the last of the Christopher Eccleston/Billy Piper Doctor Who series, the doctor kisses his horny sidekick-ette, Rose Tyler.

The BBC spin machine was already in full dampener mode yesterday, when it claimed that the Who/Tyler clinch was, in fact, artificial respiration administered by the Doctor. "Their lips do touch and there is a kiss, but it is designed to rescue Rose from death," said the series spokesman.

"Tell that to the Daleks" will doubtless be the response of the waiting Who fans, the children for whom the kiss will be construed as a snog and nothing less than a snog. It is even possible to envisage a Sunday tabloid "Who In Sex Storm" scenario tomorrow, as some parent somewhere is bound to complain to the BBC about inappropriate sexual content not merely before the watershed, but some time before tea.

For the genuinely prudish, such a complaint would be quite right, too. There's no getting away from the fact that kissing (Frenchies, that is, not mwah-mwah cheek pecking) is sexual. Always has been, always was, probably even before humans got up on their hind legs. For those who wonder how kissing was ever invented - and it is at first thought a mystery almost to rival the discovery of cheese - look no further than the bonobo ape, a cutesy and highly endangered pygmy chimpanzee existing in small numbers in the Congo and believed by naturalists to be the closest animal to humankind, partly because they have sex not for babies but for fun.

When it comes to sex, bonobos do it all: experimental positions, cunnilingus, fellatio, masturbation, bisexuality, group sex and, unlike any other animal, lots and lots of long, passionate, open-mouthed, with-tongues snogging.

Extrapolate that and imagine that lots of now extinct primates possibly also French-kissed, and we know where our Neanderthal forefathers and mothers got the idea from. Many evolutionary thinkers believe our unusual face-to-face sexual position developed because we liked to look at one another's face while having sex and, of course, to kiss at the same time. This enhanced the practice of sex as a social, intellectual activity as well as being pleasurable and necessary to maintain the species.

By biblical days, kissing was already in the forefront of humankind's sexual armoury, as well as subject to codification and newly minted moral imperatives. The American rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of the popular book Kosher Sex, remains a theological supporter of face-to-face sex and the kissing that accompanies it.

"According to the ancient rabbis and the Kabalists, in the missionary position, a couple can kiss and exchange the breath of life. They can whisper in each others' ear, and thereby unite their spirits and they can hold one another, their bodies becoming one flesh," says Boteach, who points out that French kissing is not the only kind allowed in the Jewish tradition.

He points out that the medieval rabbi Maimonides wrote: "A man's wife is permitted to him, and therefore, whatever he and his wife wish to pursue sexually, they may do. They may have intercourse whenever it pleases them and he may kiss any organ he wishes, and he may have intercourse in a natural or unnatural manner." The ancient Greeks also revered kissing. The second-century romantic novelist Longus of Lesbos wrote about two horny shepherds, Daphnis and Chloe, who just could not stop doing it. "Against love there is no remedy, neither a potion nor powder nor song," complains one of these children of nature. "Nothing except kissing, fondling and lying together naked are of assistance." The idea of kissing being the midway point between dinner and sex was already established by this time. Another soft-porn novelist, the fifth-century Achilles Tatius, writes: "When the sensations named for Aphrodite are mounting to their peak, a woman goes frantic with pleasure, she kisses with mouth wide open and thrashes about like a mad woman."

Hans Licht, a 1920s Greek classic professor in Switzerland and author of the seminal Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, got excited describing the Greek path to sexual bliss. "Lips pressed against lips, the two lovers long remain in tender embrace, the lips open and the tongues fondle each other, while the hands of the youth clasp the breasts of the girl and wantonly touch the plump apples; kisses are followed by tender bites, especially on the shoulders and breasts, from which the youth has pulled down the clothes with feverish hand." Etc, etc.

In the Islamic world, kissing, along with all healthy sexual expertise, was not just encouraged, but demanded, and in India, the Kama Sutra and Anaga-Ranga were as hot on kissing as intercourse. The ancient Chinese also could not get enough of it. The seventh-century author of The Art of Love, Li Tung-Hsuan, describes compellingly how kissing helps one thing to lead to another. "The man sucks the woman's lower lip, the woman sucks the man's upper lip," he writes. "They kiss each other, feeding on each other's saliva. Or the man softly bites the woman's tongue or gnaws her lips a little, places her head in his hands and pinches her ears. Thus patting and kissing, a thousand charms will unfold and the hundred sorrows will be forgotten."

As part of their drive towards "modernity" and moving on from "animal ways", early and medieval Christians began to revile kissing, although frustrated erotomaniac nuns such as Mechthild of Magdeburg and Margaretha of Ypern graphically describe being kissed by Christ. Veronica Giuliani, who was beatified by Pope Pius II, once ended up in bed snogging a live lamb.

The troubadour poets were less hung up about kissing, and their code of courtly love considered "true love" to be kissing, touching and fondling, but never sex, which was known as "false love". But St Thomas Aquinas stood out bravely against kissing, saying that to kiss a woman with pleasure, even without thought of sex, was a mortal sin.

No wonder in some Christian cultures in the 16th and 17th centuries, for a man under the age of 20, licentious kissing (without emission) was punishable by eight days of fasting (10 days with emission). In 1656, an unfortunate Captain Kemble of Boston was put in the stocks for the "lewd and unseemly behaviour" of kissing his wife in public on a Sunday after three years at sea.

More liberated souls than the Boston colonists had regained the delight of the early cultures. John Cleland, author of the 1748 bestseller Fanny Hill, does not overlook kisses in his priapic exploration of 18th-century London. "Phoebe grew more composed, after two or three sighs, and heart-fetched Ohs! and giving me a kiss that seemed to exhale her Soul through her lips, she replaced the bedclothes over us."

Although the kiss has remained an artistic icon (think only of Rodin's eponymous statue and Robert Doisneau's faked 1950 photo, Kiss by the Hotel de Ville) in the modern age, we have started to acknowledge that it can be sexual even without sex as a concomitant.

A pioneering American doctor in the late 19th century, Elizabeth Blackwell, explained that it is not sex itself that women crave, so much as "the profound attraction of one nature to the other which marks passion, and delight in kisses and caresses".

Modern Western women often complain that the ease of getting sex has downgraded the joy of kissing. "I've had an orgasm by just kissing someone," a friend told me when I was writing a book on the orgasm. "It was the most amazing thing I've ever experienced. Kissing is fantastic and way underrated by men." This woman's experience was far from unique. One website, since defunct, eloquently publicised the enjoyment not just of clitoral orgasms as a result of kissing, but an actual "mouth orgasm".

"The mouth orgasm happens at the peak of stimulation of the mouth, may begin in the mouth and/or throat and may expand from there," it explained. "This type of orgasm appears to be more widespread than previously suspected and has been largely ignored by researchers. With the growing interest in oral sex, the incidence of mouth orgasms can be expected to increase.

"The mouth orgasm appears to be triggered by the various component parts of the oral cavity: the lips, tongue, roof of the mouth and the throat. What part, or combination of parts, triggers the orgasm depends on the individual. With some, the orgasm begins with highly pleasurable sensations in the lips, while others feel them in the roof of the mouth, etc. Some women climax while kissing; others view the mouth orgasm strictly as an hors d'oeuvre before the main course. Still other women experience a month orgasm while performing oral sex on a man."

Mouth orgasms or not, kissing remains the basic ingredient of erotic fiction. As the erotic author Mitzi Szereto puts it: "The kiss is an integral part of it all. It's a preliminary for the steamy bits that come after. In literature, as in film, once that kiss starts revving up, you can anticipate where it's leading. And anticipation is half the fun."

As Doctor Who has presumably been discovering these past 40-odd years.

'Dr Who' is on BBC1 tonight at 7 o'clock. Jonathan Margolis's book, 'O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm' is published by Arrow