Kisses That Changed The Course Of History

Today, about 90 percent of the world's population takes part in the fascinating ritual of kissing.

According to NPR, kissing first originated as a way of passing food mouth-to-mouth between mothers and babies. Or, in an alternative theory, cavepeople used kissing as a way of judging the health of prospective mates through the smell and the taste of their saliva. Whatever the purpose, kissing caught on. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, such as equatorial and sub-Saharan cultures like the Hazda, the Turkana, and Maasai, who simply don't have the practice of smooching, per researcher Shelly Volsche. But in most cultures, kissing serves as a greeting, a sign of comfort, and a form of developing intimacy.

Kissing is so widespread, in fact, that some iconic kisses are seared into the public imagination. Alfred Eisenstaedt's capture of a sailor kissing a nurse on V-J Day in Times Square or Auguste Rodin's sensual statue The Kiss might come to mind. But some kisses are less about romance and more about making a statement. What about those indelible lip-smacking moments that forever changed the course of history? Here are the top kisses which altered lives, laws, and pop culture for better and for worse. Sometimes, a kiss isn't just a kiss.

Judas' kiss of betrayal

No other kiss in history is as infamous as Judas Iscariot's treacherous kiss of Jesus Christ. Judas' kiss of betrayal was a catalyst for the entire Christian faith. It led to Jesus' arrest, crucifixion, and eventual resurrection. Motivations for Judas' betrayal aren't clear, but in the Gospel of John, per History, Jesus informed his disciples at the Last Supper that one of them would betray him.

After this, Judas went to the priests of the Temple and promised to identify Jesus for the price of 30 pieces of silver. Judas led the authorities to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he kissed Jesus to point him out to the arresting mob. According to Bible Verse Study (Matthew 26:48-50), Judas told the mob, "Whomever I kiss, He is the One; seize Him." Judas greeted Jesus as "Rabbi" and then marked him with a kiss.

Later regretting his betrayal and responsibility for Jesus' arrest and crucifixion, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Judas returned the money to the church authorities and hanged himself. Despite Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection leading to the salvation of humanity in the Christian faith, Judas' kiss is still depicted as a traitorous act. "The grand irony, of course, is that without [Judas' kiss], Jesus doesn't get handed over to the Romans and crucified," argues religious historian Robert Cargill.

The Law of Kissing

What's an appropriate penalty for bestowing an unwanted kiss? A fine, a stay in jail, or, perhaps, if you were a citizen of Victorian England, a chunk of your nose? At Artichoke Public House, a London bar, on December 26, 1837, Caroline Newton bit the left nostril off of a man named Thomas Saverland after such a kiss, as told by iNews.

Initially, Saverland (also spelled "Saviland") claimed that Newton had attacked his nose after he had made a joke about her sister being prettier than she was. Saverland pressed charges against her. However, when Newton was tracked down, she claimed that Saverland had repeatedly tried to kiss her, and when she rebuffed him, he becamne violent. Newton said the two had fought, and she'd bit his nose in an act of self-defense.

The jury acquitted Newton. Lana Citron records in A Compendium of Kisses that the Chairman overseeing the trial later told the jury, "Gentlemen, my opinion is, if a man attempts to kiss a woman against her will, she has a perfect right to bite his nose off, if she has a fancy for doing so." This "Law of Kissing," as it was later called, gave legal grounds to punish street harassment and assault in 19th-century England. This set precedent for fining and imprisoning men for "annoying women" and launched a debate about whether "no" means "no" when it comes to stolen kisses.

The tragedy of the Kissing Case

"The Kissing Case" is one of those incidents where a kiss, mixed with racial prejudice, led to a gross miscarriage of justice. As reported by NPR, in 1958, James Hanover Thompson, age nine, and David Simpson, age seven, two Black boys, were playing in their hometown of Monroe, North Carolina. They were approached by a young white neighbor girl, who kissed them both on the cheek.

The girl told her parents of the event, and fueled by prejudice, they reported the incident as a rape to authorities. Thompson and Simpson were arrested, charged with molestation, beaten, and held in jail for six days before being allowed to see their families. They were sentenced to life in a reformatory school until age 21 — a strict punishment for preadolescent boys. News spread of their case, and at the behest of Eleanor Roosevelt and the NAACP, Governor Luther Hodges of North Carolina offered the boys clemency after they had served three months. Thompson's family recalled burning crosses in their yard from racist demonstrators and having to sweep bullets off the porch. The boys never received a formal apology from the state.

To this day, James Hanover Thompson, who has spent most of his adult life in prison for robbery, feels that one kiss, and its mishandling, destroyed his entire life. "I always sit around and I wonder, if this hadn't happened to me, you know, what could I have turned out to be?" Thompson said.

Star Trek's galaxy-shattering kiss

On November 22, 1968, Star Trek featured an interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura, played by William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols, respectively, that had a lasting imprint on American culture. Coming just a year after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the legality of interracial marriages in Loving v. Virginia, Star Trek challenged norms of representation at the time.

Only, this galaxy-shattering kiss almost never happened. The showrunners anticipated that some of the show's Southern viewers might protest the interracial lip-lock. So, for the episode "Plato's Stepchildren," they filmed two kisses, one offscreen and one onscreen. Nichols recalled that she and Shatner purposely flubbed their lines so that the network had to choose the original onscreen take.

The kiss made waves and pushed the envelope, per National Geographic, but the executives never got the backlash they expected. Nichelle Nichols told the Archive of American Television that, instead, Star Trek got the most fan mail it had ever received for a single episode, as reported by NBC News. Filmed amid the civil rights movement, this interracial kiss, set roughly 300 years in the future, "suggested that there was a future where these issues were not such a big deal," said television critic Eric Deggans.

Every kiss is a revolution

Public displays of affection might be thought of as mundane or even passé, but for the LGBTIQ community, the right to kiss on the streets was hard-won. That's why the pride slogan "Every kiss is a revolution" has caught on, from Rome to Montevideo, as a rallying cry.

In Italy, Roma Pride in 2010 adopted the manifesto of "Every kiss a revolution," stating that "we will take what is ours and belongs to us as women and men of this country and of the European Union," as told by Global Voices. This is from a country that, as of 2019, does not recognize gay marriage as legal and where attacks on LGBTIQ citizens still occur. 

Osvaldo del Valle, writing for the Windy City Times, remembered how being gay in the era of George H.W. Bush and the peak of the AIDS crisis felt like a subversive statement. Del Valle said, "There was this sense in the air that we were defying authority. [...] Every kiss was a revolution! With every hug and every caress we were saying to the world that we were who we were."

Today, the slogan still represents the push to fight cultural taboos in countries where gay relationships are either not legal or public displays are banned. Per CNN, as of 2019, 70 UN member states criminalize same-sex relationships among consenting adults, with the punishment ranging from imprisonment to execution. With state-sanctioned homophobia still prevalent, every kiss is indeed a revolution.

The socialist fraternal kiss

It may be considered unheard-of today, but at the height of the Soviet Union's power, it was incredibly common to see socialist leaders share a fraternal kiss. As Radio Free Europe explains, this bit of Communist affection was usually given on the cheek, but as enthusiasm for the state diminished, the kisses got bigger, wetter, and more impassioned.

The most famous of all these brotherly kisses took place on October 4, 1979, when General Secretary of the German Democratic Republic Erich Honecker and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev met to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the GDR, per I Heart Berlin. East Germany and the Soviet Union had just made a ten-year trade agreement to exchange machinery for fuel. Honecker and Brezhnev shared a passionate, open-mouthed kiss — again, totally customary for Communist leaders of the time. 

Only, a photograph of this kiss went viral, getting wide newspaper coverage, and graffiti artist Dmitri Vrubel painted the pair on the Berlin Wall, titling it God Help Me Survive This Deadly Love. This satirical depiction, now restored on the Berlin Wall, recalls the deadlier side of Germany's division, namely 140 people who died in attempts to cross the border between 1961 and 1989, as recorded by the Berlin Wall Memorial. For many, the socialist fraternal kiss signified something a lot more foreboding than two wrinkled diplomats smacking lips.

A not-so-harmless peck

What's the harm of a little peck on the cheek in the schoolyard? That was the question facing Lexington, North Carolina's, Southwest School after six-year-old Jonathan Prevette stole a cheek kiss from a classmate in 1996. After the episode, young Jonathan was suspended from school for a day, missing the holy grail of first-grade events: an ice cream social. According to the school's administrators, Jonathan was pulled from class because he violated the school's sexual harassment code, per The New York Times.

In the weeks that followed the suspension, Jonathan Prevette was interviewed by The Today Show, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Rush Limbaugh. The nation and the Prevettes were all wondering if the accusation of sexual harassment for a small kiss on the cheek was a bizarre overreach of PC culture. ”That's my baby they're talking about,” Mr. Prevette told NYT in 1996.”He's not an adult. They're 6-year-old kids, two babies kissing each other.”

After that incident, in March 1997, the US Department of Education changed their guidelines defining sexual harassment, giving examples of sexual harassment in schools and creating some common-sense laws regarding the age and maturity of the student. The Department even went so far as to point out, "A kiss on the cheek by a first grader does not constitute sexual harassment," as The New York Times reported. Without the peck of a tiny boy with Coke-bottle glasses, schools might still be splitting hairs about what's appropriate.

The kiss that could land you behind bars

The Mexican city of Guanajuato boasts the Callejon del Beso, or Alley of the Kiss — a location where legendary star-crossed lovers shared their last kiss before death. The legend says that Ana, a rich Spaniard, lived on the left balcony in the alley and fell in love with the poor miner Carlos. One night, Ana's cruel and domineering father caught the couple kissing in the narrow strip between the balconies and stabbed Ana in the chest. Carlos jumped in an attempt to protect Ana, landing on the third step of the alley's stairwell and breaking his neck, as the BBC tells it.

Because of that tragic romantic tale, the third step in the alley's stairwell is painted red to signify romance. Now a tourist attraction, it's said that visiting couples who kiss in this famed alley will have 15 years of good luck (or seven years of bad luck if they fail to swap spit). But in 2009, Mayor Eduardo Romero Hicks of Guanajuato released an anti-obscenity law, with penalties of up to 36 hours in jail and fines of up to 1,500 pesos for offenses like touching in public, as reported by the Latin American Herald Tribune. That put a damper on the whole Alley of the Kiss attraction. After outrage from the citizens of "the kissing capital," Hicks backpedaled on the legislation. According to KGO-TV, he later denied that he'd intended to ban smooching in the alley.

A kiss that launched a video game

In 1999, an unplanned kiss between two of The Sims' background characters put the video game on the map. Designer Will Wright had intended to create a social simulation game that was something of a virtual dollhouse but did not initially have plans to include same-sex relationships in the game's code, as described by The New Yorker.

Patrick J. Barrett III joined the programming team during The Sims' development in 1998, unaware of a decision to nix gay relationships. Barrett's supervisor went on vacation, and the new employee was accidentally given an old design document to code with. Thinking nothing of it, Barrett programmed same-sex couples into The Sims. His bosses made no comment — expecting that the game might be killed by EA, its publisher.

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, to the shock of the developers, two female Sims spontaneously fell in love during a demo of the game. The Sims had been wedding guests and, unbeknownst to the coders, decided the festive event was a perfect place to display their virtual love. It was an impromptu kiss that changed the fate of the game. It became a hit at the Expo. The Sims was published to great success, and it became the first social-simulation game to feature gay characters.

A kiss heard 'round the world

If you were alive to see it, the August 28, 2003, MTV Video Music Awards performance featuring Britney Spears and Madonna is etched permanently in your mind. As the reigning queens of pop for two different generations, Britney and Madonna made history with their steamy, surprising onstage kiss. Lasting all of three seconds, the iconic smooch came in the middle of a medley featuring the pair, Christina Aguilera, and Missy Elliott. While Madonna swapped spit with Christina Aguilera as well, it was the smooch with Britney Spears that brought the fanfare. As Vice noted, the moment was particularly loaded for one audience member, Justin Timberlake, who had broken up with Britney Spears and released the diss track "Cry Me a River" in 2002.

People still talk of the moment years later. It might not retain the same shock factor now (after the Miley Cyrus twerking incident in 2013), but it proved that the spectacle of live television award shows was still relevant. The kiss was seen as a symbol of Madonna passing the pop torch to Britney. The pop titan lip-lock also said something about how same-sex public displays were treated in the early 2000s, as writer Jill Gutowitz pointed out. While the moment was certainly exploitative, "when Britney, Madonna, and Christina collided on stage, on live TV — it was memorable. And it was hot," Gutowitz wrote. "Problematic undertones aside, it actually blazed the trail for future sexy gay TV moments."

Marching for the right to kiss

Would you march in the street for your right to kiss in public? In October 2014, "Kiss of Love" protests began in Kerala, India, in response to the country's moral policing of kissing and hugging in public. These nonviolent protests were a direct response to violence toward PDA, including a mob attack on a North Kerala coffee shop after a news channel broadcast a video of a couple kissing each other in the parking lot. As The Times of India explains, the Kiss of Love protests were launched via a Facebook group that gained a following of over 150,000 people from across India.

Moral policing is common in India, as kissing in public may be seen as culturally obscene. In fact, actor Richard Gere learned the hard way after he kissed actress Shilpa Shetty at an event in New Delhi in 2007. According to Reuters, Hindu vigilantes burned effigies of Gere, and an arrest warrant was issued. A court later decried the charges as "frivolous" and cleared Gere, per BBC News.

In the wake of the continued protests, vigilante attacks on so-called immorality have erupted, led by right-wing groups such as the Shiv Sena, Vishva Hindu Parishad, and Bajrang Dal. The Huffington Post, for example, reported on a 2017 incident in which Shiv Sena activists wielding canes chased protesters away from Marine Drive in Kochi.

A Pope's kiss for peace

There's no kiss quite as dramatic as a pope kissing your feet, prostrated before you with his blessing. In April 2019, in an incredibly rare gesture of peace, Pope Francis knelt to kiss the feet of the warring leaders of South Sudan to promote their reconciliation. After five years of bitter civil war in South Sudan, where an estimated 400,000 lives were lost, President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar met at the Vatican for a healing retreat, per Reuters. In a move that surprised everyone in the room, the frail 82-year-old Pope knelt down — with the help of his aides — and kissed the shoes of Kiir, Machar, and several others in the room.

The kisses came before South Sudan was due to form a unity government after years of bloody dispute between the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and its opposition. "In front of the people, hold hands united. So, as simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation," Pope Francis told the warring leaders, as reported by The Washington Post

In February 2020, Riek Machar was sworn in as vice president for Salva Kiir. So, perhaps that papal kiss had some staying power.