Seth Brown’s first interaction with romance didn’t quite go as planned. At age 10, the Venice resident had his initial brush with true love with a girl named Nikki on his schoolyard’s blacktop.
“Her friend dared her to kiss me, but instead she head-butted me because she wasn’t comfortable with it yet,” he says of the swing-set encounter. “Then she ran away squealing, and that was the end of it.”
More than 20 years later, Brown has been strong on the dating scene in Los Angeles and is always on the lookout for good first-kiss potential (sans a head-butt). Rather than getting kisses from girls on a childhood dare, the 32-year-old documentary filmmaker is using dating apps such as Tinder as well as heading out on blind dates with women.
That was the case until the coronavirus entered the picture and stole the sweet magic of kisses from Brown and many of us.
From day one on Earth, we are hardwired to touch, hold and kiss one another. Be it the soft embrace of a mother and child, the caress of a new love’s hand brushing against your own or an utterly delicious (and necessary) hug from a friend after a difficult day, our need for skin-to-skin contact is one weaved into the very fabric of our being.
To show affection for those you love is a basic human desire that is perhaps needed now more than ever. However, because of COVID-19, it’s one we can no longer express without a bit of caution. The coronavirus pandemic has turned sweet kisses — the ones that give you flutters during date night or the precious ones from a mother or father to a child — into risky business.
In March, officials shutdown businesses in Los Angeles County and instituted stay-at-home orders, asking us to socially distance and forgo outings. This meant fewer chances for people to attend gatherings where they might greet with kisses on cheeks and where lovers might lock lips.
The abrupt end to physical meetings these last three months has done a number on our collective psyche and caused many to suffer from what experts have called “touch starvation.” As we start to reopen the economy, many are wondering what hand-holding, hugging and kissing might look like in the weeks and months to come.
According to experts, kissing isn’t going anywhere. Actually, they believe it will come back with a vengeance and become a significant part of our mental recovery. “We’re mammals. We love touch,” says Helen Fisher, a visiting research associate at Rutgers University in New Jersey who specializes in human sexuality, mate choice and romantic love, of why we love the feel of another human’s skin against our own.
“When you’re kissing, you get a lot of information from somebody,” Fisher says. “You’re seeing them clearly. You’re hearing them clearly. You’re tasting them clearly. All of the five senses become activated, and it can be quite thrilling.”
For now, Fisher says, there will be less lovey-dovey time between companions, hugs between friends, kisses hello, goodbye and everything in between, because there simply has to be for health safety. However, by no means does she believe this is the end of kissing.
“We will get back to hugging and kissing and the air kiss and slapping on the back, and the shaking of hands because we are touchy-feely creatures,” she says.
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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, in which 2,862 Californians on average have been diagnosed per day with the virus this week, we still can’t seem to escape our desire for love and affection. With restaurants, beaches and other public spaces reopening — and the start of a new season days away — the natural desire for summer romance and kissing will probably increase despite the virus.
Just ask Venice resident Diya Chopra, a former singleton who still found new kisses amid the current chaos. “We did a social-distance walk on the beach,” says Chopra, 33, who works in the L.A. tech startup space. “We didn’t hug hello or goodbye like we would have otherwise.”
After a second distance date, Chopra and her new match, whom she met on the dating app Hinge, decided it was time to go for it, albeit with a few new caveats. The pair discussed their level of comfort, how they had been isolating and their plans to not see other people during this time. Then they got to the good stuff.
“With the first kiss, we were really trusting each other,” she says. “I was really missing human touch. It all felt more meaningful.”
Kory Floyd, a professor in the communication department at the University of Arizona specializing in the communication of affection, doesn’t find kiss-seeking behavior all that surprising, especially in times like these, because the act is ingrained deep into our ancestral mind.
“Affection is a behavior that evolved in the human species because it does some really important things for our survival and our ability to procreate,” Floyd says. “As humans, when we’re born, we have zero ability to survive on our own. We are born in what I call a state of advanced dependency.”
Floyd says in the first few years of life we depend on “somebody else’s willingness to do things like protect us from the elements, to feed us, to tend to our medical needs and to calm us and comfort us in times of distress. And all of those activities involve touch.”
Floyd and Fisher point to the belief that some anthropologists have that kissing began as a parental behavior to help keep infants alive. As they explain it, many millennia ago, parents would chew food for their young (think birds feeding their babies) and feed it to the child to make it easier to chew and digest.
It was the first form of a kiss, which generation upon generation continued to use to show meaningful connections — first for parent and child and later for friends and romance too.
“[Affection] is such an important behavior in the development and also in the maintenance of our romantic relationships,” Floyd says. “Many people can remember the first time they hugged or the first kiss or the first time they had sex. Those kinds of affectionate behaviors are turning points in a relationship.”
As for what the future of kissing looks like to Floyd, he too doesn’t believe the act of devotion will disappear. “Kissing is a broader behavior. We kiss our kids. We kiss as part of some religious rituals. Not all kissing is romantic or sexual,” he says.
The coronavirus aside, “there’s always this awareness among humans to understand viral transmission or bacterial transmission,” Floyd adds. “We don’t go around kissing people when we’re sick and we don’t kiss people who are sick. Then, once we recover from those illnesses, we go back to interacting with people in our normal way.”
For Angelenos, including 40-year-old Kit John, a personal trainer who’s single, “normalcy” will likely come with a few more conversations than in pre-COVID-19 days.
“Anybody can have it,” John says of the coronavirus. “If you gotta be worried about coronavirus, you might as well be worried about all the other things that you can catch from somebody. So regardless, you want to know your partner before you take it to the next level.”
As for his own willingness to kiss new people in the future, John says, of course, he will. However, it had better be worth it. “I might as well make it a good kiss,” he says. “From that kiss, it could be a wrap.”
Fisher has more good news for those who’ve yet to find a special someone. She says first kisses are still going to happen between partners, and sealing the deal with one, which dates to the Middle Ages, may happen sooner than expected.
“People may very well start kissing earlier” in relationships, she says. Why? Because so many first, second and third dates have now occurred online. People are getting to know one another virtually before ever meeting face to face. It all leads to a modern version of a courtship-style of dating in which the kiss is just icing on the cake — just as it was for Chopra.
“It’s old-school. It’s like Jane Austen,” Fisher says. “People are getting to know somebody before they jump into the sheets.”
Kara McCafferty, an attorney living on the Westside, can attest to Fisher’s hypothesis. As a single woman, McCafferty decided to jump on the dating apps once the coronavirus hit. She says because of the pandemic, the way she could meet potential partners became extremely limited.
“I’ve absolutely never FaceTimed someone before,” McCafferty says of her pre-coronavirus dates. And now? “I’ve FaceTimed two guys and have spoken on the phone with another.”
Although she hasn’t made the leap to an in-person date, McCafferty says she’d be open to it as long as the phone conversations were promising.
“I don’t have anxiety about kissing someone,” McCafferty says, “because I think if we get to that point where I’m physically hanging out with you in an environment where we’re close, then we probably have a really good connection.”
The societal slowdown has been a welcome one for Donavan Sowell, a 35-year-old automotive presenter from West Hollywood. He says COVID-19 has forced a change in his dating style in the best possible way. Since the coronavirus began, Sowell says he’s taken to having longer virtual chats with potential dates, including one match whom he has connected with more than once.
“It’s been a positive for the LGBT community and specifically for men in general. It made us focus on one another for a change and actually listen to what we have to say to each other,” he says. “Now I know what you like to eat, places you’ve been, things about your family, things that I wouldn’t have necessarily known pre-coronavirus.”
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As for Sowell’s latest match, despite being several text conversations in, the two have yet to meet in real life. However, that long wait could lead to a kiss unlike any other.
“What would make me go into having that first coronavirus kiss would be having that connection, that attraction, that real human connection,” Sowell says. “I’m hoping that it’s received and given back. When I kiss, I can feel that I did it, and he gave it all back to me.”
Now, for families, friends and those who love to give the two-cheek French kiss hello (better known as la bise, which coincidentally fell out of fashion during the bubonic plague and became popular again after World War I), our way of life will continue too. Sure, it may not be now or tomorrow or the rest of 2020, but it will return because we are hardwired to love one another and smother each other in kisses.
“We’re seeing people tap each other’s elbow and wrists, just smile and wave and, and yes, people will adopt these greeting rituals for now,” Fisher says. “But you’d have to have hundreds of thousands of years of selection for people to not want to hug, not want to kiss. And that isn’t going to happen.”
There’s one more thing the coronavirus may be helping with. And that’s closure.
Right before the pandemic took hold, Brown and Chopra had been dating. They lovingly parted earlier this year. However, as Chopra explains, the fear of the pandemic had them checking in on each other again — not as lovers but as friends. “It helped us close the loop,” she says.
As for Brown, he’s back on the market and just “looking forward to people being comfortable with walks again so I can at least meet them in person.” And he’s on the lookout for that first post-coronavirus kiss — unafraid of what’s to come. He’s also ready to have the all-the-important quarantine health and safety conversations too.
“I hope to hell it’s a romantic and satisfying smooch,” Brown says of that future kiss. “I’m going a bit stir-crazy here.”
According to updated guidelines from the New York City Health Department issued this week, you should “avoid kissing anyone who is not part of your small circle of contacts.” That means you have to be creative in how you show your affection. Therefore, we asked Andréa Demirjian, the kissing expert and author of “Kissing,” to share her tips for alternative quarantine kisses.
The first-date kiss: Just wear a mask
You can still enjoy the feel and pressure of someone’s lips through the mask on your arm or hand. Granted, it might not be the most sensational way to enjoy a kiss with a new romantic partner, but it can be kind of sexy. Just think of how memorable your first-kiss story might be. (Just remember to wash your hands often.)
The family kiss: Try the elbow kiss
Thinking of an Inuit greeting, rub or gently bump elbows instead of nose to nose or nose to cheek. With the virus passing from our hands to our face and mouth, “elbowing” might be the new Inuit kiss. Also, you can have fun making up little routines around it.
Kissing a pet: Go for a rub instead
While the coronavirus primarily spreads through human-to-human contact, there is a rare chance of passing it to your pet. So go for a good belly scratch or rub instead. Bonus points if you use a back scratcher to scratch your fur baby from a proper social distance.
Kissing a sick loved one: Blow kisses
There’s no real alternative here other than kissing from a safe distance. However, this is why blowing a kiss was invented, right? Send them a smooch from far away and let them know how you feel by verbalizing your love as well.
La bise (kiss on both cheeks): Do so while wearing a mask
Until there is a vaccine, kissing friends and acquaintances hello becomes risky for you and them. When you finally do it, perhaps make it a little more meaningful by kissing four times instead. Or try it as quick air kisses on both cheeks.