Opinion: Do's and Don'ts of Public Displays of Affection

Crystal Jackson

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There tend to be two camps of people when it comes to PDAs and relationships. There are those who are all for it and those who think it’s seriously inappropriate. There aren’t many who fall into a middle camp.

To understand why this subject is so divisive, we need to talk about what a PDA is and some general etiquette for use.

Public Displays of Affection (PDA) Meaning

Public Displays of Affection, or PDAs, occur when a couple gets intimate in public. If that definition makes you uncomfortable, you’re likely not a fan of PDAs. However, intimacy in public doesn’t mean doing the deed on a city block in full view of passing schoolchildren. The intimacy referred to here includes any evidence of affection.

If you can look at a couple and know that they’re together based on body language, they might be engaging in PDAs. While holding hands is usually a fairly acceptable PDA, there are other acts of affection that might make some people uncomfortable, such as kissing in public.

In fact, if you’re a cis-gendered straight person, you might even take many of your public displays of affection for granted. Alexander Cheves points out the following PDAs that are likely to be treated differently when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. They include the following:

  • Holding hands
  • Full body hugging
  • Fixing or playing with their hair
  • Nose kisses
  • Butterfly kisses
  • Dancing together
  • Asking someone to take your picture together
  • Introducing someone as a significant other

You can read the full list here. The point is that there are many ways to show affection, and it’s not all viewed equally. People who are pro-PDA but anti-LGBTQ+ could respond very differently to the exact same display of affection depending on who expresses it.

Why People PDA or Don’t PDA

While it may seem to be a matter of personal preference, there is a reason that people use public displays of affection just as there’s a reason to avoid them. Public displays of affection can communicate relationship status. Many people use them to show that the person they’re with is “taken”. It can be a possessive or even territorial move, but it can also show genuine pride and affection toward a partner.

Social status and relationship status can be both a reason to PDA and a reason to avoid it. If you want someone to know you’re committed, a PDA can communicate your intentions. If you still want to be single and mingle, you might decline PDAs to keep your relationship status open.

PDAs can also be dependent on the level of confidence and security each person has with themselves and the relationship. If a partner is insecure about themselves or about their partner, they are less likely to engage in PDAs. On the other hand, if they’re more confident, they’re more likely to be loud and proud about their relationships and feelings.

Whether you’re in support of romantic partners showing public affection for each other or not, there tend to be a few rules of etiquette surrounding PDAs. These rules of thumb can help you express your feelings without immediately making everyone in the vicinity uncomfortable.

PDA Do’s

Do Get Consent

Is your partner on board with public displays of affection? If you’re not sure, ask. It’s important to make sure that you have consent before engaging in a PDA. Because people’s comfort levels with intimacy differ, it’s important to talk about it rather than assuming you’re on the same page.

Keep It Classy

Displays of affection that take place in public shouldn’t gross anyone out. There’s no need to play full tonsil hockey in front of your grandmother. Brief kisses, snuggly hugs, hand-holding, and brushing someone’s hair off their face can be sweet signs of affection that are unlikely to have people advising you to get a room.

Be Aware

Time, place, and audience matter. A heavy petting session with your plus-one at Thanksgiving dinner is probably a bad idea. Holding hands and leaning on your partner’s shoulder during a movie are unlikely to raise eyebrows. If you’re around small children or your ultra-conservative relatives, it might be a good idea to keep any affection at a G or PG level.

Enjoy Power Couple Status

As long as you’re not posting loved-up naked bedroom selfies, most people are going to be fine with coupled photos on social media. If you’re dating someone or in a relationship and want to be public about it, there’s nothing wrong with a cute, affectionate “ussie” (selfies for two). Your relationship status certainly shouldn’t define you, but if you’re part of a couple and want to show that off, you should feel free to do so as long as the other person consents and the pictures you post are tasteful.

Less is More

If you really want to be an expert at PDAs, don’t feel like you have to go all in on kissing or draping yourself across the one you’re with. Instead, keep it simple. Allow the affection to be genuine, not forced. Small, subtle touches to check in with each other read as far more sincere than overt displays. Ask yourself this: Are you showing them affection or are you trying to show off? A true PDA should never be flashy just to get other people’s attention. The reason should always be to show actual affection to the person you’re seeing.

PDA Don’ts

Don’t Touch Without Consent

Grabbing someone's private areas in public because you like it isn’t appropriate on the city streets during the day or at a nightclub. It’s never appropriate to touch someone without consent — even if you’re in a relationship with them. Make sure it’s okay with them first. Read the room and find out how comfortable they are with PDAs before you make your move.

Stop When It Gets Uncomfortable

If the people around you seem grossed out or uncomfortable with what you’re doing, it’s probably a little much. Seriously, get a room, or tone down your affection a bit in front of your audience. While I fully believe you should ignore bigots and their judgment at all times, be aware when the judgment is aimed at how far you’ve got your tongue down someone’s throat versus judging the actual relationship.

Skip Makeouts at Mealtimes

There’s no need to make out with your partner during mealtimes. If you’re at lunch or dinner where other people are trying to enjoy their food, it’s probably not the best time to engage in a full-on makeout session. There are so many more appropriate PDAs for meals. Hand holding, a little round of footsie, or other displays of affection could be more palatable to other diners than groping or kissing in a dining establishment or at a group dinner.

Don’t Do It for the Wrong Reason

Public displays of affection aren’t always, well, affectionate. Never use a PDA to make someone else jealous. It’s not kind or mature. Additionally, PDAs should be avoided when the point is to “mark your territory” to someone else. If you want to publicly display your affection, be affectionate. Show how you feel to the person you like — not to other people in the room. Using someone as arm candy or revenge on your ex really isn’t a nice or affectionate act at all.

Don’t Bite, Lick, or Grope

It should really go without saying, but biking, licking, and groping another person in public is distasteful. Unless you’re attending a swinger event, assume that the people at the grocery store, restaurant, or movie theater don’t really want to get a preview of your foreplay. Touching the genital areas or exploring beneath the clothes is just in poor taste in public areas. Even people who are pro-PDA probably don’t want to see you lick your partner’s face or give them a giant hickey in full view of others.

Don’t Opt for Nudity

It’s a pretty safe bet that most people don’t want to see you nude or semi-nude in public during a PDA. Clothes should stay on, and even your beach or poolside PDAs shouldn’t make anyone else feel as if they accidentally walked into your bedroom.

Public Displays of Affection and You

If you want to publicly display your affection, go for it. Just know that there could be repercussions for choosing an inappropriate time, place, or action. People frowning on you getting overly intimate with your partner in public doesn’t make them prudes; it makes you rude.

You can be free with your affection and still keep it cute. After all, you don’t have anything to prove to anyone.

Whether you love public displays or hate them, I think we can all agree that even the pro-PDA crowd can follow a few basic rules of etiquette. Showing that you care doesn’t need to be a big display broadcast to the world. It doesn’t mean you have to have your hands in their back pocket feeling them up in aisle 3. A forehead kiss could mean as much without making anyone else feel like they need to bleach their eyeballs after seeing it.

Originally published on The Truly Charming

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Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned writer. She is the author of the Heart of Madison series and a volume of poetry entitled My Words Are Whiskey. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, and Elephant Journal. When she's not writing, you can find her traveling, paddle boarding, cycling, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with one puppy and two wild and wonderful children. Crystal writes about relationships, mental health, parenting, social justice, and more. Never miss an update. Subscribe to emails: https://crystaljacksonwriter.substack.com/

Madison, GA
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