Public displays of affection, often referred to as PDA, can be an early point of contention in relationships. They may be no big deal for people in a casual encounter, but if you’re moving into committed relationship territory the issue of how much, when, and how, to touch each other in public can be one of those issues that highlights differences between partners in the meaning and experience of sex. Like most issues that are related to sexuality and how we feel about ourselves as attractive and worthy of affection, this one is complicated, and can use a little public deconstruction.
What Counts as Public Displays of Affection?
This is a good question to start with because there’s no one answer, and it helps to know what you think before you make requests or demands of a partner. Are you talking about holding hands, sitting on laps, hugging, kissing, and back rubs? Does public touching that’s meant to be hidden (like slipping your hand between your partner’s legs under a dinner table) count as PDA? Make a list for yourself of all the things you’d consider to be public displays of affection, if you feel like it include any activities that you think cross the line from PDA to sex in public, just for a reference point.
Why Are Some People Freaked Out By PDA?
It can be tempting to cast those who are completely comfortable with public displays of affection as more healthy and less neurotic than people who get uncomfortable and/or icked out by them. I recommend you avoid that temptation.
However much we might wish it to be, actions have meaning, and for some of us, showing physical affection in public carries a meaning we just aren’t comfortable with. The only way to know why is to ask the person, but here are some possible reasons:
Context. PDA isn’t just about the display, it’s also about the public context. Some people will be comfortable being affectionate in public at a party, or on vacation, but won’t be okay with it at a family dinner or work event. Think about the time and place, and also the politics of the situation. Whenever you are being affectionate in public you are drawing some attention to yourselves, which is your right but also comes with potential consequences that everyone involved has to be okay with.
Pressure. If one person wants a lot more PDA than another the other partner can quickly feel pressure to perform, and often that can make the idea of public displays of affection even less appealing. If you want something more from your partner it can help if you can ask for it in a way that doesn’t demand or expect it.
Personal Meaning. Consider what being affectionate in public means to each of you. Some of us get a lot of our sense of self-worth from feeling connected to and attractive to partners. So wanting PDA makes sense. But some of us prefer a kind of private personal life and feel like PDA is “showing off” or taking up too much public space. There’s no right or wrong here, but it helps to think about why you do or don’t want more PDA and what it means to you to have it.
Comfort with Attention. Whether you want it or not, PDA brings the attention of others. If you have a partner who doesn’t want to hold your hand in public or hates it when you walk with your arm around them, it can feel like a personal rejection, but it might have more to do with other people than it does with you. Our experiences of feeling safe in public have a lot to do with how we identify and are perceived by others. Our gender and sexual orientation in particular can greatly influence how much we do or don’t want to engage in PDA. We need to be sensitive and understanding with partners if for no other reason than it’s the best way to find common ground.
What If I Want More or Less or Something Else?
If you and your partner(s) aren’t on the same page some or all of the time it can create conflict. The partner who isn’t comfortable may try to minimize it, but that can lead to more feelings of rejection and invalidation. If you want something to change about the way public displays of affection are going down (or not) in your relationship, you may want to start by thinking about your own feelings and motivations. Why is this important to you? What does it mean to you that your partner is always giving PDA or not giving them enough? Then take the time when you’re not in public to talk with your partner about public displays of affection. Don’t expect an immediate resolution, but consider it a good chance for both of you to learn more about each other.
The Bottom Line on PDA:
If you’re in a relationship that you hope will last, public displays of affection may be one of those issues that comes up more than once over the years, and requires some compromise. If you’re struggling with it try to remember that fundamentally you both want the same thing (to feel loved and lusted for in your own way) and that any compromise you reach will be about how that happens, not if it happens.