Writing a first kiss in the age of #MeToo

Writing a first kiss in the age of #MeToo
Couples kissing
Background photo via Canva

The first kiss is rarely just a kiss. It’s the grease on a lightning strike of undying attraction. All roads to sexy times lead from that first peck.

A Twitter discussion on forced first kisses sparked this guest post from Ainslie Paton. Ainslie is a flack by day and a romance hack by night. Shes written a bunch of books both indie and traditionally digitally published. Her characters often have trouble getting that first kiss off the ground, but watch out when they do. Her latest release is The Love Coupon, book 2 of Stubborn Hearts. www.ainsliepaton.com.au

The function of the first kiss

A first kiss between the hero and heroine in a romance is a pivotal scene and it should be delicious.

Done well, it’s that hug the book to your chest moment. Exciting, involving, satisfying. Memorable.

Done well, early in the narrative, it’s a signal of the emotion to come. You want to read on, learn more, see what unfolds.

Done well, later in the narrative, it’s the accumulation of wanting the characters to get together come to fruition. It’s thank goodness and about time and bring it on.

The first kiss is rarely just a kiss. It’s the stopper yanked out of the lust bottle. It’s the grease on a lightning strike of undying attraction. All roads to sexy times lead from that first peck.

It can be a real first kiss, as in never before, a renewed first smooch for lovers parted, or a refreshed first lip lock for second chance characters. Regardless, it’s a foreplay milestone on the romantic journey to the happy ever after, and no story worth smiling, sobbing, laughing over or reading again makes light of the significance of that first lip to lip touch.

It can be cheeky, sweet, heartfelt, forbidden, anxious, experimental, surprising, angry or desperately passionate.

It can happen between virtual strangers who like what they see and signal they’re going for it.

A first kiss can also be bad, in that noses bump, teeth clash, coffee tastes better from a cup, that’s not what I was expecting way. Even a bad first kiss can be delicious and make us want to keep reading.

Here’s Lily Malone’s kiss that didn’t quite go to plan in The Vineyard in the Hills:

The Vineyard in the Hills by Lily Malone - A woman's face superimposed on a picture of a vineyard
Amazon | Book Depository | Booktopia | iBooks

As kisses went, Remy thought later, it wouldn’t have won a prize for finesse.

Her jump was overeager and he wasn’t ready, and really, she was lucky his arms were strong and his body was built to take flying leaps from eager women because if he’d been any less solid, she’d have knocked him into next week. As it was, he let out a kind of oomph, and stumbled until his backside found some support on her kitchen countertop. Her nose bumped his cheek. Her hair was in her face, in her eyes. Her knee bunted his shin and she thought her tooth might have cut his lip.

‘Don’t you fuckin’ dare kill me before I get this kiss,’ he muttered against her mouth, and that started her laughing, until the midnight gleam in his eyes ignited a yearning in her belly and all her giggles died, like he’d robbed them of air.

Once upon a time it was common for a first kiss to be forced.

We accepted that a kiss could be pressed on an unwilling pair of lips, a response coerced. Sometimes that response was unlooked for delight, sometimes it was confusion, guilt, fear, revulsion and loss of agency.

Kiss and consent

In the age of #MeToo when we’re saying consent matters, women’s experiences matter, time’s up for the consequence free forced kiss.

Time is up for grab-ass, entitled alpha heroes who take without asking and don’t face the heat for it.

Time is up because we want our heroes to be good guys who care about what their love interest’s want and we know our heroines deserve that consideration and give it too.

Time is up because the best romances deliver a better reality than the one many of us live day to day.

That’s not to say that there’s no place for the fantasy of being swept away by an unexpected kiss forced on an unsuspecting character. It’s virtually a romance staple. It has a place in historical narratives, often ‘stolen’, and dark romances, ‘demanded’, and in consensual role play, ‘negotiated and agreed’.

The best forced kisses are purposefully written with that reader fantasy experience in mind.

This is the blurb from Meghan March’s Savage Prince. It clearly signals a cracky dark romance where you shouldn’t be surprised if consent isn’t front and centre. It’s written on the tin.

Savage Prince by Meghan March
AmazonBook DepositoryBooktopiaiBooks

I do what I want and who I want. I don’t follow anyone’s rules—even my own.

I knew I shouldn’t touch her, but it didn’t stop me.

Didn’t stop me the second time either. Only made me want a third.

My lifestyle suits the savage I am, and she doesn’t.

But Temperance Ransom is my newest addiction, and I’m nowhere near ready to quit her yet.

I’ll have her my way, even if it means dragging her into the darkness.

Hopefully it doesn’t kill us both.

A kiss can still be unexpected without being forced or abusive.

You see this done well where characters have an explosive hook up without exchanging names. Most often they’ve exchanged meaningfully explicit looks, if not had an outright discussion about their intentions in three words or less.

Like this from Alexis Hall’s Glitterland:

Glitterland by Alexis Hall
Amazon | Book Depository | BooktopiaiBooks

“Just . . . touch me.” It came out somewhere between directive and supplication. But what did it matter? What did any of it matter? I’d never see him again. Nobody would ever know. All sense, all judgement, overthrown by an h-dropping, glottal-stopping glitter pirate, and I didn’t have to care.

And he could think whatever he wanted, as long as he kept his hand moving against my cock. Suddenly, he caught my chin and turned me to face him.

“S’ahwight to kiss me,”he said. “I ’aven’t got nuffin wrong wif me.”

I didn’t need to see him to hear the smile in his voice, rich as honey. I had just enough time for a sound of protest before he kissed me.

Oh God. It was beautiful, the softness of his beard and the rasp of the stubble that had gathered beneath his jaw. My mouth opened under his, inviting the flood of heat that followed, the sweet-slick entanglement of tongues and breath. I reached up to pull him closer, my hands sinking into his hair. Which was rather akin to sticking them into a swamp, he had so much product in it.

My eyes snapped open at the damp crackle of gel beneath my fingers, my startled cry half smothered by the kiss. “Careful wif that, babes.”

The dim light gleamed on his cheekbones. Up close like this, it was distractingly easy to lose myself in the mysteries of his face. I shut my eyes and tried to find something to do with my sticky hands. But then he was kissing me again, driving me back against the wall.

A great kiss should suck, not blow

There are a lot of ways to accidentally blow a delicious consensual first kiss in a contemporary romance in the #Metoo age. Here are a few:

  • Hero snatches a kiss from a heroine he does not know while she’s going about her business utterly independent of him, having not given any indication she expects or welcomes lip on lip contact. That’s the ‘I don’t ask, I just kiss’ defence, and it’s assault.
  • Hero is in a position of power over the heroine, backs her into a corner, tells her he knows what she needs and kisses her without waiting for consent. That’s assault and an HR nightmare.
  • Heroine is underage. Hero is a trusted parental figure and old enough to know better, but he kisses her with tongue. That’s child abuse no matter how romantically the kiss is staged.
  • Either party answers no to ‘May I kiss you?’ That one should be dead obvious. Alas that negative is often taken as a challenge and if acted on in the moment without further persuasion to change the situation it’s assault once again. Bullying a kiss isn’t great romance either.
  • Characters have a long-held animosity and kiss before ever discussing it or enjoying any verbal sparring. Really? That’s a wasted shot of love to hate you.
  • Characters are exes and have not seen each other for a decade after an egregious split. They kiss passionately with no preamble at the first new meeting. This might work if there was regret and longing preceding the kiss, otherwise it’s lacking in motivation and asking us to believe in feelings not on the page.
  • Characters barely know each other and there’s been no evidence of any spark between them, but they kiss. That’s a kiss forced on the reader. It’s asking the kiss to do the heavy lifting of the romance and act as catalyst to emotional and physical responses rather than deriving from them.
  • One character has feelings for the other, but we don’t have any information about how the second character feels. That’s an easy way to make a kiss purely mechanical. At worst it’s predatory. It also sets up a coerced physical reaction as a proxy for an emotional one.

Special mention of a dicey first kiss scenario: The kiss happens immediately after a discussion about an ex. This might work if the intention is to set up a bad first kiss; a sympathy or consolation kiss, but when a character’s mind is on a third party, they’re not likely to be securely the moment so it’s not the best way to ring the romance bell.

These examples were taken from anonymous submissions from emerging and aspiring authors to RWAs First Kiss Contest from 2014-2018. Authors submitted the kiss scene and a scene setup to establish target market and context. 

Consent is not a desire killer

Consent for a kiss can take many different forms, with just touch me at one end and a dozen heart-in-mouth chapters where the characters consider kissing before they get around to it at the other.

Like this from Charlotte Stein’s Never Better:

Never Better by Charlotte Stein
Amazon | Book Depository | BooktopiaiBooks

Now, she was not only more inclined to do something extremely stupid, she was close enough to do it. His body was practically pressed against hers. His mouth was barely three inches away. All she had to do to kiss him was go up on tiptoe, and even worse: the urge to do it was much stronger than she’d anticipated. His lips were parted; he was breathing hot and hard. He wants you to, her mind whispered, like some snake in the grass. And then she simply had to do something to kill it dead.

Setting aside tropes that play with power differentials like boss/employee, billionaire/trailer trash, guardian/ward where consent is a more complicated beast and writing characters who can negotiate it successfully is a considered skill, consent for a kiss does not need to be a bring your lawyer negotiation.

It doesn’t need to include specific words, be a fully fleshed out road map of every caress or take half the book to establish. It’s a tiny permission slip that can be as subtle as a smile, as game-on as a popped button, as bring-it as a heated look, or touch or as playful as banter.

Consent is about mutual respect and its tango with lust. It can’t help but be oh so sexy and make our pulses thrum because we know before lips finally lock that both/all our characters want it to happen—hard.

It’s worth noting that the most explicit permission for physical contact often happens in well-researched erotic BDSM-styled romances. And since the heat level of erotic romance is set to scalding, the argument that the need for consent slows the pace or cools the moment simply doesn’t hold water.

Romance writers long ago learned to deal with the notion of responsible sex. We’ve worked out how to get information about contraception conveniently into our stories. Importantly, amongst all the writers of all the words in the world about lust and sex and love, romance writers understand how to deal with power, agency and consent.

But perhaps more than ever, it’s time to ensure we’re purposeful about which side of the consent line our characters are walking to make sure our kisses and every hot and heavy moment that follows them are the most engaging and happy-groan inducing they can be.

There’s a lot more to be said about consent in genre romance, about boundaries and how we negotiate them, about fantasy and how we delineate it, and like waiting for characters I love to finally snog, I’m excited for that.

Meanwhile here are some examples of damn fine consensual first kisses to hug.

From Beginner’s Luck by Kate Clayborn:

Beginner's Luck by Kate Clayborn
Amazon | Book Depository | BooktopiaiBooks

She leans back in her chair, crossing her arms over her chest, leveling me with a big, black-eyed stare. Holy shit, though, that tank top. That tank top is my Everest right now.

“Depends on the question,”she says, and my mind just—stutters. If she’s thinking about work right now, then it’s 100 percent fact that Kit has scrambled my sex radar forever, because there’s something about the way she’s looking at me, something about the way her voice has pitched a little bit lower. I feel like I’m about five minutes away from fucking her on this table, three from getting under that tank top.

I stare right back at her. I watch as a pink flush creeps onto her pale cheeks, right under where the edge of her glasses rest. But Kit—despite the tears before, despite the fact that she’s had a lousy go of it today—Kit is tough as hell, and if she means the way she’s looking at me right now, she’s not going to back down.

I set down my phone and stand from my chair. She tips her head back to follow my movements, to look up at me from where she sits, arms still crossed, eyes still challenging.

“I’m asking,”I say, once I’m standing right in front of her, and she likes that. The right side of her mouth quirks up in a half smile.

“Well,”she says, reaching up to slip off her glasses, setting them on the buffet that’s behind her. “I’m answering.”

I’m on her so fast, lifting her out of her chair to set her ass up on the table, and she instantly spreads her legs to let me step between them, and it’s this hot, unbearable pause where our faces are inches apart, where I know we’re both thinking about how easy that was, how quickly we got to a place where my crotch is pressed against hers.

But then I’m kissing her, my hands coming up to cradle her jaw, to tip her face just so, and holy shit, kissing Kit is hot, and sweet, and the way she opens her mouth against mine and slides her tongue across my bottom lip—I’ve got to stop myself from clenching my hands, from grabbing fistfuls of her hair to bring her closer to me.

From Dirty Dancing at Devil’s Leap by Julie Anne Long:

Dirty Dancing at Devil's Leap by Julie Anne Long
Amazon | Book Depository | BooktopiaiBooks

He moved closer, nearly closing completely the remaining distance between them. “Listen, Avalon. I know I’ve given you a little shit about it. But you created a virtual world, something that had never before existed, from just an idea. As far as I’m concerned, you’re like Hermione Granger with a wand, conjuring something from the ether. No matter how you feel about it now, I’m convinced you can do anything you want. You’re kind of a sorceress.”

He was a little embarrassed that he’d pulled out a word like sorceress. But her face was turned up toward his, luminous and unguarded, close enough for him to count her freckles. She was listening, softly enthralled, her eyes brilliant, intent, in that way he remembered from when they were so hungry to touch each other. And just like that it felt like someone was playing racquetball with his heart. His hand closed around her arm.

He tugged her up against him. Her mouth was there to meet his, all softness and yielding hunger. Everything he knew her to be—the sweetness, the ferocity, the fearless pleasure seeker—was in her kiss, and any plans he had for finessing it were swept under by a greedy panic of want.

From Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai:

Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai
Amazon | Book Depository | BooktopiaiBooks

“Liv—”was all he had a chance to say before she was in his arms, shoving him back. It was dark, the only light coming in from the crack between the dingy curtains. Her lips pressed against his, and he inhaled the scent of her, each drugging kiss making his head spin.

She crawled up him like he was a pole, her arms and legs clutching for balance. It took him only a second. One second of having those red lips devouring his hungrily, one second of that hot sinner’s body pressing against his own, and all semblance of rational thought flew out of his brain. Who cared about tomorrow? He was too enflamed to wonder about anything but the here and now. Too excited to even consider this a bad idea.

He kissed her back as if he would die if he didn’t get her mouth, licking and sucking and memorizing the very taste of her. He slid his hands over her ass, gripped her luscious cheeks tight, and spun her around, pushing her up against the door.

He ripped his lips away, holding her from him when she might have forced her way back. “How do you want it?”he growled. He had an inkling, from the signals she was broadcasting, but it had been a while since he’d had to read those signals.

“Hard.”She scraped her nails over the back of his neck. “Use me. Make me feel it tomorrow.”

From Playing By Her Rules by Amy Andrews:

Playing by Her Rules by Amy Andrews
Amazon | Book Depository | BooktopiaiBooks

She moaned, low and needy, turning in his arms as if she knew the pressing enormity of his need. Like he was going to die if he didn’t kiss her right this second. She didn’t talk, she didn’t even really look at him, just at his mouth as she slid her hands around his neck, raised herself up on her tippy-toes and yanked on his neck.

Tanner didn’t need any more encouragement, meeting her mouth halfway, their lips clashing with an intensity to rival the storm. His hands, thanks to his earlier ministrations with her skirt, slid onto the cheeks of her nearly exposed ass, and he dragged her in close and tight, lifting her a little so he could grind the hard press of his dick against the almost exposed apex of her thighs.

The kiss was wild and out of control as he strained to breathe, forgot to think. Their heads twisting, their mouths devouring, their tongues hunting. Tilly—his Tilly, her taste, her smell—filled up every breath until Tanner was dizzy with it. The imperative to possess her echoed in every frantic beat of his pulse.

From Baby, Come Back by M. O’Keefe:

Baby, Come Back by M. O'Keefe
Amazon | Book DepositoryBooktopia

“What do you want?”he asked, baffled.

“You.”

“Like this?”

His voice broke like the idea was impossible, that a woman would want him blood-splattered and praying in a club bathroom. “Like this?”

“Like this.”

“You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me.”

“So,”I breathed, “show me.”

And he broke. He broke so hard. So perfectly. He put his hands at my waist and took one step forward, pushing me back against the hallway, lifting me up off my feet. I was hung there suspended by his strength, and then the hard press of his body against mine. And then his mouth. His kiss.

From Anticipation by Sarah Mayberry:

Cover for anticipation by Sarah Mayberry - Headless, shirtless man with abs and tattoos on his chest and upper arm
Amazon | Book DepositoryBooktopia | iBooks

“You’re shaking,”he said.

“So are you.”

His hand acted as a conduit, relaying his body’s reaction to her own. His gaze dropped to her mouth, the barely-restrained demand in his eyes the hottest thing she’d ever seen. “Tell me what you want,”he said.

Was it really that simple? She knew it wasn’t, but she was so far gone, reason and common sense left far, far behind. All she could think about was the man looking at her as though he wanted to consume her and the need making her sex ache for fulfillment. “You. I want you.”

The words came from her soul, the most honest she’d ever uttered, and the moment they were out of her mouth the world got crazy. The hand on her neck tightened and she dropped her head back instinctively, excitement kicking in her chest as his face descended toward her own. Then his mouth was on hers, the fierceness of the contact tilting her head even further. His tongue swept into her mouth, brushing her own, and she forgot how to think.

How to breathe.

How to stand on her own two legs.

From Pretty Face by Lucy Parker:

Pretty Face by Lucy Parker
Amazon | Book Depository | BooktopiaiBooks

Honestly, he was such a bastard, and she’d never felt more like giving someone a hug. Which would have been fine, if she hadn’t actually done it.

It was one of the most awkward moments of her life. One moment she was standing there like a sane professional woman; the next, her nose was buried in his chest and she was hugging a human ice lolly.

He’d frozen into cadaverous horror, and she was really glad she couldn’t see his face. She couldn’t seem to let go. She wasn’t sure where to go from here. Step back, clear her throat, give his hand a brisk shake, and sprint back to her room to die quietly? Seemed like a plan.

Before she could put it into action, she felt a tentative brush against her back. And then his touch settled there, his palm wide and reassuring. God, she was trembling.

Slowly, she pulled back and looked up at him. Lily was a perpetual onscreen love interest. She knew how this played out. Eyes met, breath hitched, minds said ‘no, no, we shouldn’t,’body language said ‘hell yes, we should.’Heads tilt, lean in, lips meet, snog, return of sanity, regretful dash from room.

She knew the whole bloody cliché. Everyone knew the cliché. It never ended well. And no fleeting moment, no matter how romantic or sexual, was worth risking her career. Or his.

So why was her own hand sliding around his ribs to splay against his belly? Why was she feeling him breathe, feeling his warmth? Why was he slowly reaching out, his thumb coming to rest under her chin, nudging up, just a fraction? Why was she arching up on her tiptoes, and why was that palm on her back helping her?

They breathed with their lips millimetres apart, staring into each other’s eyes. His, usually professional and distant, were hot and turbulent.

It was entirely her fault. She kissed him first. She pushed forward across a distance that was minuscule in reality and a minefield in the potential repercussions.

His hand tightened almost painfully on her back, gripping her as he continued to stand still for an extended moment. Then his lips were parting, his other arm was sliding around her, lifting her, turning her, his tongue was rubbing against hers, nipping, licking, abrasive, soothing. She was down on the desk and his weight was heavy on top of her, hard between her legs.

From The Love Experiment by Ainslie Paton:

The Love Experiment by Ainslie Paton
Amazon | Book Depository | BooktopiaiBooks

He shifted closer to Derelie, one hand to the wall behind her, the other to her cheek. He brought his forehead to hers so they were sheltered in each other. Her eyes went to his mouth and her chest rose with short, quick breaths, and all the blood in his brain took a fast train south. He was vaguely aware of a car pulling up, men’s voices, but the whoosh of his own heart was louder than the city.

“Are you going to kiss me?”she whispered.

“No.”

“Oh.”

He thought her earlier head shake might have meant he was going to need to explain how he’d ended up mauling her in the name of a story to Madden or some flunky in HR. Her “oh”left no room for misunderstanding, it simply dripped with disappointment and landed in his gut like a barrage of fists.

He kissed Honeywell, being as gentle as he knew how, touching his lips to hers as softly as possible. He meant it to be brief, playacting, something she was prepared for because she’d sensed it, because of what happened earlier, but now he caught her flavor and one of her hands brushed over the nape of his neck and into his hair and that, that did things to his body, revved his engine in the same way as preparing to enter the pit did. But no, this was different, this was a liquid heat that spread right through him, loosening his muscles from his bones.

Nothing hurt anymore, not the bruises on his ribs, not the strain in his shoulder and forearm. Jesus Christ, she was like sunshine. She was warm and pliant and molded to him as if she was cast for his weight and height, as if she was specially fitted to his physical form and the carnal desires he spent most of his time ignoring. He wasn’t capable of ignoring them now.

He took that kiss and lit it on fire, angling his head to connect with her better, increasing the pressure and slapping the wall in triumph when she opened her mouth to his on a helpless groan. The first tentative touch of her tongue was a new shock, but he was nothing if not a guy who could roll with the punches. He dragged her hips a little closer and they both groaned. She’d feel how hard he was. She didn’t care, this was sudden and out of order, he felt fingernails in the side of his neck and the inside of her knee against his thigh. That dress had a split, he could get his hand under her thigh, and when he did, she clamped down on his bottom lip with a satisfied hiss.

It was the blare of car horn close by that brought him back, the laughter of people spilling from Elaine’s that made him pull away from Derelie’s lips. She was lost to the moment still, body pressed to the glass, fingers pressed to the back of his neck, eyes closed, lips wet and parted, and he was in a world of hurt beyond anything Madden could stir for him.

Got a great example of a first kiss or the way consent is established between two characters? Let us know!

2 comments

  1. Sheree says:

    What a fantastic perspective! Thank you so much for sharing this piece, it’s really not something I’d thought about until now. I don’t think we should ever underestimate the sexiness/romance of being told “I want to kiss you” (with an opportunity to demur), or asked “May I kiss you?”. There are some fantastic examples right here, very illustrative. So much food for thought, and so many reads to look back on with a #metoo lens…! Thank you!

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.