Why Do Men Think Unwanted Kissing Is OK?

The latest allegations against Gov. Cuomo show kissing is an often overlooked form of sexual assault.

Why Do Men Think Forcible Kissing Is OK?
Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

Like many others, when I saw the photo that accompanied the New York Times article detailing the third allegation of sexual harassment against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — the one with him cupping the face of a clearly nervous and uncomfortable Anna Ruch, then 30, in his hands — I felt like I could physically feel it. I could feel a strange man's palms on my jawline, the fingers at the nape of my neck, and the rising sense of anxiety in my gut. According to the complaint reported in the article, Cuomo had approached the young woman at a wedding and, when she removed his hand from her bare lower back, took hold of her face and asked, "Can I kiss you?" Then he leaned in. (The Times reported that Cuomo did not address this incident directly, but referred to the governor's earlier statement that some of his comments "have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.")

This situation is deeply familiar to not just me, but to many (or even most) female presenting people.

For all our awakenings about sexual harassment and assault, we are still far too apt to lump a forcible kiss, or attempted kiss, in the more passive "harassment" category, alongside a demeaning joke or an arm snaking around a waist. But it more accurately belongs in the "assault" category, with other active forced sexual contact like groping.

When I talk about kissing without consent, I'm not talking about a missed signal at the end of a date. I'm talking about a man in some position of power, even if it's just a physical advantage, grabbing your face as if on impulse and planting a kiss full on the lips, before you've even had time to register what is happening, much less demure or pull away or wriggle out of his grip or any of the other things you "should have done."

Kissing is more deliberate than a wandering arm, but less overtly sexual than an ass grab. And in this sort of middle space between "I'm just a touchy guy" and "I had too much to drink and deeply regret my actions," excuses and explanations for a forced kiss place at least some of the blame on the one who was assaulted. An unwanted kiss connotes romantic rejection more than it does assault, and so it's easy to brush it off as an embarrassing episode in which the man simply didn't realize she wasn't into it.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, treating a non-consensual kiss as some sort of flirtatious mishap not only implies that the woman appeared in some way down for it, but makes it seem like she's the one with the power when she rejects it. If a forced kiss is just a failed come-on, then the one who was assaulted is suddenly the dominant actor because she's the one who shut it down. That is, assuming the behavior does not escalate.

In actuality, the guy forcing the kiss is always the one with the power. Maybe he's the literal governor of New York State. Maybe he's an influential connection in your chosen career field and you don't want to blow an opportunity — what if he feels emasculated and sabotages your reputation in the industry out of pique? Maybe he's a patron at the restaurant where you wait tables, and you need him to tip you — not that your manager would throw him out anyway. Or maybe he's just bigger and stronger than you and he is literally holding you in place with his hands, physically forcing your face onto his.

No matter the specific situation, a guy who forces a kiss does it because he can, and he knows it. He's also capitalizing on a societal advantage as much as a literal one.

Even just the word "kiss" carries a whiff of innocence about it. In pop culture, a stolen kiss is romantic. The "surprise kiss" is a trope even when the two romantic leads have reached a breaking point in their relationship and the guy settles things by swooping in for a sudden smooch, overcome by emotion. I'm thinking of Michael interrupting Mia babbling at the end of The Princess Diaries or (also Anne Hathaway) when the sleazy journalist kisses Andie in Paris in The Devil Wears Prada. And while Kat rejects Patrick's attempted surprise kiss at the prom in 10 Things I Hate About You, it works in the movie's final, romantic scene.

In real life, an unexpected, forced kiss does not always happen in the context of a relationship. But our ingrained cultural associations with kissing offer plausible deniability for anyone who decides to just "go for it" with an employee, a waitress, a coworker, a stranger at a bar, or a fellow wedding guest. They can always just say, "I thought we had a connection and I was wrong." It seems less invasive to force a kiss on someone than it does to stick a hand down their shirt because we connote kissing with emotion, not aggression.

The absolute kindest possible reading of the motivations of the guys who behave this way is that they are acting on an easier-to-ask-forgiveness-than-permission principle. They've internalized both the romanticized view of the "surprise kiss" and societal expectations of masculinity, combined with the patriarchy's traditional view of women as prizes, not people. They're playing a game of Shoot Your Shot: XL. At worst, they're intentionally leveraging this cultural misunderstanding for personal gain. Either way, he's laughing at you.

In failing to see how forcing a kiss is an assertion of dominance, not tenderness, we allow the aggressors to skate by on the Shoulder Rub Guys' "innocent misunderstanding" excuse, with a side of implied "she's a tease" for good measure. And because women exist in the same world that men do, women have also absorbed the cultural messaging about kisses, making the emotional impact of a forced kiss confusing as well as distressing. We have not been taught to view kisses as assault, so even feeling violated and demeaned, the world around us urges us to forgive and actually pity the guy who assaulted us, the one we "rejected." Thus adding one more layer of shame and discomfort in the aftermath.

This is also probably why we don't talk about a forced kiss as much as other forms of assault. As long as we continue to subconsciously regard kissing as a form of supplication, we will never be able to recognize it as a form of predation.

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