Public displays of affection, a.k.a PDA, are a range of romantic behaviors carried out by two (or more) people in a public space. This is the typical definition you might find in a dictionary, but it’s important to recognize the subtleties and varieties of PDA and the meanings behind them.

What PDA constitutes of is very much culturally and generationally defined. For instance, whereas the average Canadian might consider public handholding and hugs inoffensive behavior, more traditional East Asian cultures could very much label them as “unsightly.” Although such attitudes are rapidly changing in places like China, South Korea and Taiwan, the issue is still very much at the forefront of public debate. In 2009, Nanjing University (in China) instituted student patrol officers to prevent any sort of public displays of affection (hugging, holding hands, or getting ‘too intimate’ in any way). This decision sparked a major controversy, demonstrating the tensions and changing perspectives about this issue.

Sexuality also has a role in our perceptions of PDA. Whereas some may deem a heterosexual couple kissing in a park acceptable, two men or two women doing the same might elicit a different response. Even without having to search up official statistics, it is common knowledge that members of the LGBTQ* community are likely treated more harshly for their displays of love and affection; their romance is tolerated “so long as it’s kept out of sight.” This highlights the importance of events such as Pride Week, which celebrate all relationships along the gender and sexual identity spectrum.

So why do people engage in PDA? 

In order to answer this question effectively, one must ask a follow-up question: Is it an active decision (wanting to show), a passive decision (not caring about being seen), or a mix of both?

If it’s an active decision, then there could be all sorts of explanations (e.g. “it makes it more exciting/hot” or “I want to show them all how I kiss my BF,” etc.). On the other hand, if it’s a passive decision, then we’re simply dealing with people who don’t care about being seen, and that’s that.

Should PDA bother us? 

Personally, I find PDA quite bothersome, but I am also bothered by the fact that it bothers me and wonder whether it should or should not bother me.

As soon as I think, “Wow, get a room!” a second thought comes to mind: what if this is the only place where they can do this? What if their parents/cohabitants are so opposed to their relationship (or don’t know about it) that MUSC is really the best place for cuddles and kisses?

When I see two people making out in public (or go beyond), I get annoyed by their immodesty. Does that make me a prude? Or does that make me someone who just likes sexually neutral public environments? I am also surprised by people’s ability to be so intimate as they are being watched (and possibly judged) silently. But then again, what if the decision is an active one?

A quick internet search shows some of the top complaints against PDA: “it’s gross,” “this stuff should be private,” “show respect for yourself/others/boundaries,” “keep it away from my impressionable child.”

Socially Constructed Beliefs

There are no ‘right’ answers on how to conduct PDA (or not), or what form of public romance can be legitimately criticized; thus, it remains up to our common sense and judgment. This is because ‘discreetness,’ ‘modesty,’ and ‘appropriateness’ are not in themselves absolute morals; rather, they are socially constructed values. What we deem ‘okay’ and ‘not okay’ changes across time and place, about behaviors in general and PDA in particular.

If all of this has been confusing to you, that is fine. I’m also confused. Try to think about it as you walk through campus between classes, or as you stroll through a park on a warm summer night…just beware of the distractions.