A few weeks ago I was at the Bryant Park Film Festival with some friends. In the middle of High Noon, I noticed that my friend Rob was cuddling with a female stranger. I glanced at my friend Bill and we shared a chuckle. As much as I was trying to focus all my attention on the film, I couldn’t help being distracted by the progress of the action to my left. The innocent cuddle had escalated to heavy caressing and entwined limbs. Bill and I exchanged more glances and chuckles as our amusement became tinged with annoyance. “At least now her mouth is shut,” I said to Bill, referring to the loud conversation that had distracted me from Grace Kelly before the live soft porn had begun. Okay, so they weren’t peeling each other’s clothes off, but the sight of her hand wedged between Rob’s thighs was not exactly appealing on a picnic blanket, surrounded by snack food packages and plastic cups, on a sweltering July night, in a haze of communal stinky sweat.
Public displays of affection are a debatable topic. Some people are offended by one kiss on the sidewalk, while others would cheer at a couple copulating in Central Park. If you fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes, there are two main factors that determine whether the PDA is offensive or cute: context and attractiveness. In terms of context, one must assume that the venue is not sexual, i.e. a swingers party or sex club. Then you have to consider the time of day. A friend of mine told me that he witnessed a couple making out on the subway before noon. It’s like having Tiramisu for breakfast. He said the MTA PDA wouldn’t have bothered him if it had been late at night.
Context is also linked to culture. In Paris, the sight of couples making love in the streets (kissing and caressing) is as common as la merde des chiens (excuse my French). When I lived in France, I told one of my French lovers that if we were in the States, someone would probably tell us to get a room. He said no one would make such a comment in France. There isn’t even a standard French expression equivalent to “public display of affection.” In Europe and South America, romance is such an integral part of the culture that any public expression of it is natural, and therefore, hardly noticed.
In this country, people do more than notice. They complain or gawk, depending on the context, sexual preference, and attractiveness of the couple. Once I was on a date with a lesbian and a couple of straights were practically eating each other nearby. My companion was disgusted. I asked her, “If two women were doing that, would you be disgusted?” “No,” she said. Regardless of preference, most of us are more likely to tolerate PDA’s when the people involved are attractive. It’s human nature. Of course, attractiveness is subjective, but I would be more inclined to watch a clean, good-looking couple turn each other on in the subway than see a sloppy, unhygienic duo lock lips in a bar. But I can usually walk away and say, “I’m glad they’re getting some.”
Generally, the effect of PDA has more to do with the witness’s mood at the moment rather than where, when and how the couple is exhibiting their public affections. There have been plenty of times when I’ve been depressed about a relationship and the sight of a couple of lovebirds smacking their lips and cooing in each other’s ears made me nauseous and want to scream something Dostoevskian like, “Love is an illusion, you fools!” Then there are the numerous positive occasions when a couple’s snuggling brought a smile to my face because I was in love and happy to see that others were feeling the joy of human connection.
My friend Kelly told me a story that exemplifies the power of context and mood in a PDA situation. While waiting for a train, she indulged in a flirtatious phone conversation with a friend. Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, a couple caught her attention. The woman was bending down halfway with her hands smack against the wall, while the man dry-humped her doggy-style. Though shocked at first, Kelly laughed and enjoyed the show because she was experiencing her own little juicy pleasure over the phone. If she had been in a bad mood, she said, the scene might have shocked or upset her more. When people are bitter about relationships or lacking love and intimacy in their lives, a public display of affection may trigger negative emotions like jealousy and anger. Kelly believes a negative reaction can be an opportunity to look at your self and ask, “Why am I so bothered by this?” Cringing at the sight of two people slobbering over each other in public may mean you’re afraid of intimacy, or have attachment issues regarding an ex. Kelly says, “These days, I’m enjoying PDA’s because they remind me of what I want: a loving relationship. Overall, I believe PDAs are a good thing because they serve to inspire more love in the world.” All we need is love, right? Even in Bryant Park, in the middle of a crowd, on a sweltering summer night.