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A brief guide to public displays of affection

by Archives January 13, 2009

Like millions of other commuters, I was on the subway at 7:30 a.m. on my way to work. I was tired, I needed coffee, but on this particular morning I also felt nauseous. The unusual cause of my sickness was a young couple sitting on top of each other on the seat in front of me, kissing like two 16-year-olds in an unsupervised movie theatre.
Quickly glancing around, I could easily see I wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortably trapped in their moment of intimacy. Being subjected to a full-on make-out session was too much for a subway car that morning, but I began to wonder if I would have found it rather romantic on my way back that night.
Public displays of affection, often abbreviated to pda, are a popular catchphrase meant to describe two people physically demonstrating their attraction for one another in the full or partial view of others. It can refer to anything from demure handholding to all out groping.
While the line between the acceptable gesture and pure exhibitionism is a matter of personal taste, every society has its unwritten guidelines, and some countries even go as far as having laws regulating several forms of pdas.
In North America, public perception of public displays of affection varies greatly depending on the particular type of offence, the time and location, and even by the type of couple.
Few Canadians balk at a couple holding hands or quickly kissing goodbye, but even something as seemingly innocuous as verbal pdas might raise a few eyebrows. Loudly declaring your love might seem romantic in the moment, but it’s sure to make everyone around either feel uncomfortable for intruding on your moment, or used as a prop in the great backdrop of your life.
In order to further delve into this topic, I decided to consult a revered panel of experts, i.e. my friends. It’s a consensus: nothing makes eyes roll as fast as too cute pet names. For Vincent, 21, the audio limit is people “verbally expressing their sexual desires.”
Vincent has been in a relationship for over a year now and admits he occasionally indulges in mild forms of pdas. The boundary, he says, is when others start feeling uneasy. “You can exchange a few words, but you’ll make people uncomfortable if you start French kissing intensely or inappropriately groping each other.”
The time and day of year also has to be factored into the pda equation. The morning subway make-out session proved a challenge for commuters’ stomachs mainly because it was unexpected. Waiting until the sun starts to go down is usually a safe bet, since the incidence of dates proportionally begins to increase, taking along with it people’s tolerance levels.
And as for time of year, Valentine’s Day is always touchy, as most singles are forced to retire to their layers and shield their eyes from a heart-breaking epidemic in loving gestures.
Location is also crucial, according to Marie-Eve, 21. Marie-Eve has been in a on and off relationship for four years, and has been known to take part in a pda or two. “If a couple is in a public space, but further off, maybe in an alley or the back corner of a park, it’s going to bother fewer people if their level of intensity suddenly increases,” she explains.
My single friend Eric disagrees. “I don’t care if people want to have sex on the subway car’s floor. If I’m bothered, I’ll just change cars at the next stop,” he says. “I just don’t want them to start giving me oblique glances because I have the nerve to sit next to them.”
The feeling is shared, “The problem is that you don’t want to intrude on their privacy, but at the same time, you can’t stop looking,” says Marie-Eve.
It’s also common knowledge that pdas are much more tolerable in parties, bars and nightclubs than at school, the office or church, unless preceded by the words “You may kiss the bride.”
And even though North America is considered a relatively open society, people may still harbour prejudices against public displays of affection between interracial or homosexual couples. According to a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania in 2003, “interracial couples are less likely to exhibit public displays of affection,” unless they are in a specific context where people may be less judgemental of their actions. The study also notes homosexual couples are less likely to share pdas because of intolerance.
Other countries have stricter rules of behaviour when it comes to pdas. Indonesia proposed a law in 2005 sentencing all couples caught kissing in public to a maximum of 10 years in jail and a fine of US$33,000. Kissing is also frowned upon in India, where protestors set fire to effigies of actor Richard Gere in 2007 when he publicly kissed television personality Shilpa Shetty at a rally. In stricter Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, public displays of affection are banned in all their manifestations.
So it seems that no matter where you live, there is always a golden rule to pdas. Don’t do unto others what you would personally feel uncomfortable watching. Or try to find an alley or a park. Whichever is easier.

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