The first-date kiss has been built up to a degree that I’m not entirely sure what it represents anymore. Once upon a time, it indicated interest in a prospective partner. It still does today, of course, but it has steadily collected nuance over time. For instance, kissing on a first date can be done out of courtesy (I do it often) and, in extreme cases, in an attempt to save an awkward date. 

Kissing on the first date may seem inconsequential, but it is actually a complex act that triggers all sorts of sensations that cause feelings of warmth, sexual excitement, motivation, and outright ecstasy. It also exchanges important data about your mate — far more than a surface-level conversation. How, you ask? We’ll get there. But, to start, let’s talk about why we kiss in the first place. 

The Evolution Of Kissing

Kissing may have evolved from the way primates feed their offspring. Eventually, it became a way to determine romantic chemistry. “Saliva is good medium to be tested for hormones,” says Mikhail Berman, M.D., who practices hormone replacement therapy. “The [hormones in saliva] are active hormones that have direct effect on the body and brain.” Once saliva is exchanged through a kiss, the brain immediately analyzes it. The more harmonious someone’s hormones are with your own, the more pleasure and attraction you experience when kissing. This is the “chemistry” you often hear about in the movies.

Kissing also causes a cocktail of chemicals including dopamine and oxytocin that are known to govern human stress, motivation, social bonding, and sexual stimulation to flood the body. In other words, we kiss because it makes us feel good.

But there’s more. A study published in “Evolutionary Psychology” suggests the reasons we kiss differ by sex, deducing men kiss to advance to the next level sexually, whereas women kiss to advance to the next level emotionally. Researchers explain that women kiss as a means of both initiating and maintaining a relationship, meaning the act remains important as it informs them of the current status of emotional compatibility with their partner.

The First-Date Kiss

Since kissing tests for chemistry, it makes sense that smooching on the first date became an established gesture in dating culture. But it didn’t start that way. Leading up to the 1950s, kissing on the first date was more of a formality. “You could expect a first date to include a fancy dinner paid for by the gentleman,” Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., LMFT, says. “As such, [the first-date kiss] was a formal token of appreciation and good etiquette.” 

Beginning in the 1950s, it developed a more romantic connotation, in part because kisses were introduced into and became a staple of pop culture. “Kissing on a first date arises from impulse, and with all the depictions in movies, in romance novels, and on TV, it’s come to be expected,” Tessina says. The climactic first-date kiss is now recognized as an indicator of interest in taking things further either sexually or in the direction of a second date. In fact, for many, a date is only considered successful if a kiss is exchanged. 

“After a date, people head back to their friends and are met with, ‘How’d it go?” Tessina says. “Typically the answer is, ‘Well, they kissed me goodbye.’ When you see and hear that all the time, it just becomes part of your thinking.”

Still, as dating has evolved, the first-date kiss has become, in some cases, a matter of obligation.

“I’ve definitely kissed someone at the end of a first date, because I felt it was expected and I didn’t have the heart to let them down,” Cody, 28, says, admitting that he will then tell the person there was no spark over text. “I know it’s cowardly, but sometimes it’s gentler than doing it in person.” 

Kiki, 27, does the same, opting to kiss then cut them off via text. “I almost feel guilty in a sense; I figure I can throw them a bone.”

Some will kiss to let their date know they had a good time, even if there was no romantic connection. 

“We were having a great time and, while I didn’t feel there was anything romantic to come, I still wanted to be friends, so when the date came to an end, I was fine with a kiss,” Adam, 29, says of a recent first date. 

Ben, 27, has done the same thing. “Maybe it’s a bit misleading, but a little goodnight kiss doesn’t mean a whole lot to me,” he says.

Chris, 29, once went as far as to use a kiss as an emergency measure. “I just wanted — no, needed — to make the date less awkward,” he says. “We both knew there was zero chemistry, and I did it just to make the date end on anything but the dull note we were on.”

“These are all bad reasons for a first-date kiss,” Tessina says. “If you kiss someone who is not really attracting you, you can leave a false impression and have an even more awkward time on a second date — or saying no to the second date.”

Still, these “bad reasons” are a result of society shaping first-date expectations. Sometimes dates are total shit, and we shouldn’t feel obligated to do anything in particular. Like men paying the bill on a heterosexual date, the first-date kiss is mostly an outmoded tradition that some still adhere to and others don’t. What you choose to do is completely up to you.