Howard Jacobson: It's no fun being a man, having to master the intricate rules of the kissing season

It is easy to mistake the faint inclination of the face, the merest tic or twitch or gesture for an invitation to a kiss
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Can't speak for anyone else, but I seem to have been kissing more this Christmas. I believed I was kissing more last Christmas as well, but this Christmas beats that one, so maybe it's a year on year trend. Kisswise, more is being asked of one.

I can't say I am comfortable with it. Not simply the amount of kissing, but the number of new directions kissing's going to and coming from.

Once upon a time you kissed your girlfriend, full stop. If you were going away for a long time you kissed your mother, but that was different. Kiss your mother and all you are really kissing is yourself. Same with kissing your father, only no one kissed their father when I was growing up. No boy, anyway.

You kissed your girlfriend until your jaw squeaked, until you knew the topography of her mouth better than you knew your own, until you could recreate the sensation of it with your tongue even when she wasn't on the end of it, and that was enough. Kiss another mouth and you were an adulterer.

Kisses mattered then. We didn't embark upon them lightly. Dante sends the lovers Paolo and Francesca to hell for a kiss. When we read of Paolo kissing Francesca's mouth, all-trembling, "la bocca mi baciò tutto tremante" - we understood the seriousness of the crime.

To men of my generation, nothing in life, literature or the movies beat a trembling kiss. Body hair, beach volley-ball, sado-masochism - you could keep them all. Far hotter than Marlon Brando buttering up Maria Schneider from behind was Ann Blyth frontally kissing Fernando Lamas when she should have been kissing Howard Keel.

Rose Marie I'm talking about, if you do not recognise the allusion. Lamas the renegade trapper, Keel the upright Mountie, the kiss therefore a leap into lawlessness.

Remember Kisses Sweeter Than Wine - the song that brought us to our knees in the 1950s? "When I was a young man and never been kissed/ I got to thinking it over what I had missed./ I got me a girl, I kissed and then, and then,/ Oh Lord, I kissed her again."

In that pause between the first and second kiss - "and then ... and then" - we heard ourselves falling to perdition. Now everyone's kissing everyone. Last year we were kissing people we'd just met at a dinner party.

Dessert, coffee, exchange of email addresses, and then the kissing. So much kissing we sometimes forgot to thank the host who'd engineered the social miracle that had brought us all together. This year we haven't even waited for dinner to start. Barely do you cross the threshold - So-and-so, this is So-and-so - than So-and-so is offering you a cheek.

You can't always be absolutely certain, either, with people you are meeting for the first time that you are reading their bodily intentions correctly.

There's so much forward movement in gatherings now, people inclining Europeanly towards you where once they would have fallen Englishly away, that it's easy to mistake the faintest introductory inclination of the face, the merest tic or twitch or gesture of unease, for an invitation to a kiss.

It is of course embarrassing to take someone in your arms who has no desire to be there, let alone to smother them in unwanted kisses, but isn't that better than asking a new acquaintance who has all but fallen on you in expectation of a Tolstoyan bearhug to make do with a distant "Pleased to meet you" followed by an Arctic handshake?

So far, so awkward; but what about - to make matters more awkward still - the person of the opposite sex to your own who comes looking for a kiss, not of the right cheek, left cheek, muah muah, ozone sort, but, "tutto tremante", smack on the lips?

How well do you have to know a woman - I present the problem in the form I, as a man, have to face it - before you can kiss her on the lips? Socially kiss her, I mean. Not kiss her in order to taste her tonsils or count her fillings, but civilly, with all the lights on and everybody looking, and by way of amicable acknowledgement not erotic exploration, yet still, plainly and unequivocally, on the mouth.

Why it is that women are presenting their mouths for salutation more brazenly than they once did, I am unable to say.

Feminism? The Sexual Revolution? Women challenging men as men once challenged them? Showing men what it was like? How hard it was to be forever dodging solicitation? Or just enjoying the freedom, once denied them, to make the running when they feel like it?

Whatever the explanation, no woman to whom I have been, as it were, sensually accountable, has ever expressed the slightest doubt about the etiquette which should prevail in these instances. You do not kiss any other woman on the mouth, full stop.

Since this accords exactly with the way I felt when I was a boy, loyal only to one mouth at a time, I have no argument with it. In principle. But what if you are not master of the occasion? What if sparkling wine-sweet lips are presented to you in full and innocent expectation that you will meet them with your own?

Do you turn away? Do you fake a coughing fit? Do you explain that you are of a generation that takes kissing very seriously, that you find the word "mouth" every bit as arousing as the word "inner" or the word "thigh", and that you cannot press lips to lips without imagining a fiery descent to the Second Circle of Dante's Inferno?

My own preferred way is to go for the mouth then slide away from it in the final picosecond before contact, and head for the side of the face instead.

If the woman is smart she will know you for a coward, perhaps laugh hot breath in your ear, revert to right cheek, left cheek, muah muah mode, then release you to whoever wants to tease you to the soul of your masculinity next.

But if she is uncertain what you're up to and stands stock still and waiting, you might have to resort to the shoulder-pivot to access her cheeks, in the process kissing far more of her face than it was ever her intention you should - an action there is every likelihood she will find invasive.

Thus, from wanting less intimacy have you initiated more. Thus will an act of exquisite delicacy and restraint be misconstrued as battery and assault.

Let no one tell you, especially in the season of parties and goodwill, that it is easy, or fun, being a man.