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I remember the first time a boy tried to kiss me. We were teenagers on a walk in a park, one of us was mid-sentence when he leaned in. I was so surprised by the gesture that I instinctively pulled away. I was so young that I didn’t recover gracefully, either. The date ended quickly after that moment, and I avoided him thereafter in embarrassment.

Why didn’t I want him to kiss me? I pondered that question in my early dating days.

Time went on, and I grew into womanhood. I got much better at direct communication and understanding body language. Over the course of my dating years, I can count on more than one hand the number of times a man wanted to kiss me and I knew it, but I didn't let him. There was the man who didn’t lean in, but his eyes showed me his desire. There were a few men who got my carefully turned cheek when they went to embrace me. And there was the man who asked for permission, and I said “I want to, just not yet.” That “not yet” moment never happened.

At some point in my dating life, I’d waited so long for that first kiss that I started to hold onto it like a prized possession, not to be given carelessly to a man I was only casually dating.

But the question of why I hadn’t kissed anyone yet lingered. Most of my friends don’t know; I haven’t shared the fact for fear they’d see me as someone who doesn’t possess desire. It’s awkward, to be nearing thirty and never to have been kissed.

So recently in therapy, I finally got the nerve to talk with my counselor about it. After prefacing my disclosure with statements like “I’m embarrassed to tell you this,” and, “I can’t believe I’m admitting this,” I told her: “I’ve never let a man kiss me, and I’m just not quite sure why. I like men. I’m attracted to them. Many have tried to kiss me. But I shy away from this form of physical affection.”

She replied promptly: “It’s not weird to me. You’re secure now, and it just hasn’t happened yet.”

“How do you know?” I asked her incredulously.

“Would you like to hear what I think about kissing?” she replied. “Perhaps it will help you understand.”

I consented, and her response almost instantly gave me confidence and clarity that helped me to shed decades of bad messaging surrounding kissing and physical interactions between women and men.

When you kiss, she explained, you’re vulnerable to someone with your body.

Vulnerability and trust with men is something my therapist and I have talked about a lot, so I immediately understood where this conversation was going.

Her comments also brought into my mind years of mixed-messaging that I had received about physical intimacy from different parts of my world. On one side of the spectrum, it recalled well-intended but deeply flawed Christian dating messages that I had grown up with. Messages like, “Guard your heart,” “Kiss dating goodbye,” and “Every kiss is a promise” had been repeated to me time and time again as a way of cautioning me to stay away from the hook-up culture that permeated my college years.

Yet, from the opposite end of the spectrum, I’d received years of cultural messaging and images communicating messages like: “Sex is no big deal,” “You can have a one-night stand and move on unscathed,” and even tamer messages like, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.” Such messaging had led me to believe that my failure to have been kissed meant I lacked a desire for sexual connection.

My therapist helped me to reframe both of those sets of messaging into an understanding that affirmed my experiences in romance and kissing while liberating my healthy sexual desires. Through our conversation, I learned that not only did my past behavior in dating make sense for me and my history, but I realized I don’t need to cling to my first kiss with such fierceness.

The truth is, every kiss is not a promise, but it is an expression of trust in another person. I don’t need to guard my heart, I just need to be wise in discerning when it’s okay to trust or not. But I can trust more than one man (though probably not at the same time, to be fair).

Looking back on my previous dating experiences, in some instances, I think I did trust the men who desired to kiss me enough to let them—if only I had understood the true meaning of kissing for me. Had I let some of those men kiss me, I may have strengthened our trust in each other, instead of signaling an uncertainty that ultimately shooed many of them away.

Make no mistake, I’m not advocating for kissing every man who wants to kiss you, nor am I advocating for shying away from every man who tries to kiss you (or holding back when you decide you want to kiss a man first!). What I’ve learned is that when it comes to kissing, it’s worth checking in with yourself to determine what a kiss would mean to you. For me, it signals trust and affection, and I desire both feelings to be there before I’m vulnerable with my body in that way. 

Dating Unscripted is a Readers Write column. Share your own story here.