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How Much Public Display of Affection Is Too Much?

How Much PDA Is Too Much PDA?

Public display of affection (PDA) isn’t for everyone.

There is a delicate science to knowing when it’s OK to engage in public displays of affection with your partner. 

I’m going to be straight with you: I’ve never been a fan of PDA. Holding hands and the occasional kiss are fine, but anything more than that is vom-worthy. My friend recently sent me a (40-second long) Snapchat video of her friends eye-gazing and giving each other Eskimo kisses at a local cafe, and I immediately wanted to throw my phone against the wall. It’s not just that I’m salty because I’m single. I find it disrespectful to basically rub your relationship in people’s faces. Some couples save the touchy-feely stuff for the heat of the bedroom or the comfort of the sofa, away from prying eyes, no witnesses to yucky pet names and absentminded stroking. Some lovers, however, want the world to see.

Couples create their own boundaries on how to express their love for one another in public, but some people seem to find PDA offensive or unnecessary.

First of all, consider the concept of “public” – what does it mean? If you can’t be seen, does it matter? Does the place you choose to be affectionate make a difference? If you feel the urge to reach out and touch your lover’s hand, or anything else you can lay your mitts on, you must scout out your surroundings. 

And I have to wonder why someone might be overly affectionate with their partner in public. While some people find it difficult to keep their hands off each other in the beginning phase of a relationship, others participate in PDA as a result of how comfortable they feel with one another, says sociologist Alicia Walker, Ph.D. “However, sometimes one partner engages in PDA because of insecurity in the relationship,” she explains. “They may also be signaling (consciously or subconsciously) to others that the person is ‘taken.’” 

Josh, 29, believes public affection makes people come across as lacking confidence more than anything else. “When I see people all over each other, I actually question their relationship,” he says. “Why do you need to convince others of how you feel about each other? When my wife and I are out with friends, we go our separate ways and don’t sit on each other’s laps. We have nothing to prove.” 

Of course, there’s no universal agreement on what is and isn’t appropriate, but there are a handful of guidelines you can follow to respectfully navigate PDA with your Significant other.

1. Figure out where you both stand.

Keeping in mind that your partner may be far more or less inclined toward PDA than you, have an honest conversation with them about how comfortable you are being physical with each other in public. “Willingness to participate in PDA is highly personal,” says Alicia Walker. “The reality is that someone’s comfort with it isn’t likely to change very much, but it’s important to understand where your partner stands.” So try not to take it personally or assume they’re ashamed of dating you if they’d prefer not to kiss in front of their friends. “While it can be frustrating to have a partner who refuses to even hold your hand in public, forcing or demanding that your partner participate in PDA will create friction,” Walker adds. 

Jake, 28, experienced incompatibility with his ex in this area. “She thought I wasn’t into her because I didn’t parade her around. She made me feel like my affection didn’t count because others weren’t witnessing it, which was annoying,” he says. “I didn’t want to have to put my arm around her or hold her hand [in public] just to validate ourselves — especially when I’d go out of my way to tell her how into her I was.”

If your and your partner’s preferences are misaligned, consider how important PDA is to you and whether or not it’s an area in which you’re willing to compromise. “If you’re someone who highly values PDA and your partner is completely opposed, the relationship isn’t necessarily doomed,” says Walker. Only you can decide if a mismatch matters enough to call it quits, but she warns it’s a red flag if someone pushes you to engage in public acts of affection that make you uncomfortable. “That tells you this person lacks respect for your boundaries and feelings. It’s really a matter of consent.” 

“If you’re someone who highly values PDA and your partner is completely opposed, the relationship isn’t necessarily doomed,” says Walker.

2. Consider the context. 

Veronica, 25, believes the appropriate level of PDA depends on the setting. “I think hand-holding, hugging, and kissing are fine, but no making out unless it’s a late night at a bar or club and everyone’s drunk,” she says. “That’s what I’m comfortable with in my own relationship.” John, 26, agrees that it’s important to consider your surroundings but feels most PDA is OK as long as your partner is on board. “I wouldn’t go shoving my tongue down my girl’s throat in front of small children, but at the bar, if she’s into it, why not?” 

There’s a time and place for everything, including intimacy. “Being aware of the context and expectations of the space you’re in matters,” says Walker. For example, it’s far more acceptable to sit on your partner’s lap at a bar than in a church. Still, I personally find it annoying to squeeze past a couple who can’t pull away from each other for 30 seconds when I want to order a margarita. Kevin, a 30-year-old bartender, confirms I’m not alone. “Nothing is worse than two people hooking up at a full bar,” he says. “They usually make everyone around them uncomfortable and ruin the vibe.” A quick check is often all it takes to avoid coming across as impolite or inconsiderate to a room full of people.

3. Respect others’ feelings about your behavior.

“In North American culture, holding hands and small pecks are generally acceptable in public spaces,” says Walker. “Making out, groping, and the like fall under behaviors that tend to make others uncomfortable.” It’s not a tried-and-true rule, but no matter where you are, you want to be mindful of how your behavior might affect those around you and respect the fact that it could be offensive to some people. 

“My college boyfriend and I made my roommate extremely uncomfortable when he put his hand in my back jean pocket at the mall,” says Jen, 28. “Once we got home, she sat us down like she was our parent and told us that how we acted in public was disrespectful.” Although Jen didn’t agree, she learned an important lesson. “Looking back now, I think the biggest thing to remember with PDA is it’s not so much what you accept but how you may be offending others around you.”

Short of completely keeping your hands to yourself, there’s no guarantee that any form of PDA won’t make someone uncomfortable. All you can do is scan the environment to make your best guess as to what’s appropriate then attempt to respect everyone’s feelings and boundaries. After all, it’ll probably only be a few hours until you’re home and free to do as you please. 

Public displays of affection: a guide on when it’s OK to get off in public

PDAs and farewells
At moments when you’re set to be parted – train stations, for example – you would be forgiven a modest display of affection. In fact, when punctuated by devastated sobs, some may find your tongue-wrestling on platform one quite endearing. Also, when sharing the majesty of a great spectacle, such as a firework display or front-row seats at a Beyoncé gig, some kind of affectionate touching is pretty much expected. Hand-holding, a doting head on the other’s shoulder, a hug of jubilation – all fine!
PDAs on an outing
Out walking together, yes, you’ll be seen by the members of the public, but you are very much in your own world, so there’s no shame in stopping for a peck on the lips atop a big hill or a snuggle next to a duck pond (with the latter, please ignore your Instagram gene and avoid giving them bread. It’s bad for them). If you’re holding hands on a busy street, make sure you’re not blocking the path of anyone behind you, because wars have started over less. We’re thrilled you find yourself swathed in romantic bliss but we need to get a sandwich and we have only 20 minutes of lunch break left. You can, I have it on good authority, be spellbound by your lover and cognisant of people trying to get the hell past you.
PDAs in enclosed spaces
When situations get intimate, it starts to become uncomfortable: the more artificial the light, the lower the ceiling, the closer the pals, the worse it is for onlookers.
In a club, when you’re drunk, high or just in the moment, then, absolutely, go for it – it’s practically a by-law. The cinema, however, may be in darkness and, yes, perhaps you’re even in the back row, the scene of many an urgent teenage frotting, but it’s a no. When the sound drops and the music stops we don’t want you to be the soundtrack. At friends’ parties too, if you really must get up close and personal, find an airing cupboard or, better still, an Uber – but, for the sake of your driver and his upholstery, keep your hands where we can see them.
PDAs in eateries
In restaurants people are eating. Some may have stronger stomachs than most, but very few will be thrilled with their unrequested side order of your passionate kisses or the sight of your tongues flicking against each other like two lizards trying to get the last of the yoghurt out of the pot. And that’s before we even start on the fumbling under the table; it is never as subtle as you think. If you think I’m a spoilsport for requesting you avoid anything but the most superficial attempt at digital penetration while I grapple with my own linguine vongole, then I’m sorry. But I’m only paying for dinner, not a floor show.
PDAs: what As are permissible?

Can we also talk about how far you should go? Please, please spare us the arse-grab. Naturally the successor to the fairly inoffensive hand-holding, the arse-grab is the ultimate statement of ownership. It’s most popular in queues and “best” viewed from behind, as your audience watches in horror as your hand graduates from cupping the buttock of your beloved to the spidery wanderings of a finger searching for somewhere to hide. The palpitations of your partner are nothing compared to your poor rear spectator, frightened they’re about to witness something that will be seared into their retinas for decades to come. Cup if you must, but don’t prod in public.

Also popular, especially among the young or those whose teenage years were the “best years of their lives”, is the mobile arse-grab: walking down the street with your hands tucked into the back of each other’s jeans. Fine for undergraduates desperate to flaunt their sexuality as an achievement – in lieu of any decent marks for their coursework, usually – but perhaps best to give it a rest if you have any kind of responsibilities such as a career, children or a toaster’s crumb tray to clean. A general rule of thumb should be that if it’s light enough for you to see your own hand in front of your face, then everyone else can see where it’s going too.
What people see when they see PDAs
Why do people hate being subjected to PDAs so much, you may wonder? Is it all seething envy, or bitterness, from never knowing the gentle caress of another human on a packed train? Maybe. But for some it goes deeper than that. It’s worth remembering that there is a political side to the public display of affection – a PDA is a privilege not available to all that could, when exercised by minorities, lead to violence.
It’s unlikely anyone will tell you to knock it off or “get a room” if you’re straight and cisgender, so if this is you, acknowledge your entitlement. Be aware of how kissing in public can be a show of defiance, but don’t equate your clumsy thumbing of one another in the “Free From” aisle in the supermarket with the powerful image of a queer couple bagging off to make a point.
Until everyone can kiss in the open air without retribution, maybe none of us should. That way, we’re taking a political stance and satisfying the prudes on the morning commute who tell themselves over and over that they’re not envious.
*Narrative Names has been changed.

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