Public display of affection

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Married couple's first kiss

Physical affection has been defined as, “any touch intended to arouse feelings of love in the giver and/or the recipient.”[1] Various studies have found physical affection to be associated with positive outcomes in romantic relationships. For instance, it has been related to the formation of attachment bonds and psychological intimacy[2][3] Physical affection can be displayed in many different forms, ranging in perceived intensity. Physical affection has been categorized into seven different types including holding hands, cuddling/holding, backrubs/massages, caressing/stroking, kissing on the face, hugging, and kissing on the lips.[4] Five of these behaviors, with the exception of caressing/stroking and holding hands, have been significantly positively associated with relationship and partner satisfaction.

Despite the positive effects within relationships, public displays of affection (PDA) can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the context and the perspective of the observer. To some individuals, the acceptance of physical intimacy by others may be dependent upon the aesthetic appeal of the act coupled with inherent biases. The media is often cognizant of this relationship, as made evident by a study that found female characters on prime time televisions programs are significantly less likely to demonstrate physical affection if they had a larger body type than thinner female characters.[5] Thus, even television producers act in a way as to intentionally limit public displays of affection based on the appearance of their actors, and that might affect viewership based on social disapproval. Regardless of television portrayals, the frequency and intensity of PDA has a tendency to depend upon the cultural context as well as perceived public perceptions of the couple, including their age group, racial composition, sexuality, and relationship centralized activity on social media.

Social Media[edit]

Technology has been rapidly advancing, and with it, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are growing, with 1.3 billion users on Facebook[6] and over half a billion Twitter users.[7] With people posting everything from their favorite new television show to what they just ate, it makes sense that there is an increase of public displays of affection via these social media sites.

Expression of a person’s feelings towards someone else had previously been limited to written letters, phone calls, or in person. However, with recent technological advances, many people now feel uncomfortable or irritated seeing the expression of PDA on Facebook.[8] Studies researching relationships on Facebook found that when two individuals who are interested in one another both use Facebook regularly, their relationship progresses in different increments than how it would without social media. Now, after the two people meet and form an interest, the individual will go onto that person’s Facebook page and get information about that person such as relationship status, their pictures, and their interests. Once a relationship begins, some couples broadcast their relationship’s success by creating posts on one another’s walls, posting pictures of each other together, and changing their relationship status.[9] Society now sees a person’s Facebook relationship status as a major step in forming a new romantic relationship, which is something that did not exist prior to 2004 (see Facebook).

How people show their public displays of affection on social media sites can also be indicative of that person’s relationship security and personality. Frequent and recent communication with a romantic partner through different forms of social media helps partners convey a feeling of closeness and proximity, whereas limited communication has shown to be an indicator of alienation or relational de-escalation. In the past, if an individual would post on their significant other’s Facebook wall or tweet about them but has stopped doing so, it is shown to be a sign that the individual is no longer invested in that relationship.[10] Another study has shown that when someone focuses on relationship status and public displays of affection such as posting about activities with the significant other or his or her feelings towards them, that person tends to be more possessive or territorial over their partner.[11] This is, once again, a new aspect to dating because social media allows a person to see what he or she tweets or whose posts he or she is liking, which can result in higher rates of jealousy or insecurity in a relationship.

Public displays of affection through social media have become an integral part of romantic partners’ lives. Although many people would prefer not to see these affectionate displays, they still occur and the frequency to which they do occur has been shown to be indicative of the relationships’ success or failure. Although an individual may want to share how much he or she loves his or her partner with everyone, not everyone will care to see it. Similarly, if an individual’s partner liked someone else’s post, that does not mean that the relationship is doomed. Nonetheless, said individual can predict his or her relationship’s success based on the potential decline of social media interaction between one another.

Adolescent Public Display of Affection[edit]

It is well recognized that relationships outside the family become increasingly important during adolescence. Although several studies of basic social processes have been conducted by sociologists,[12][13] much of the research and theorizing about adolescent relationships has been carried out by developmental psychologists. Much more research has been done in the area of specific adolescent behaviors, which has shown that these behaviors are predicted well by relationship variables to include the display of affection.[14]

Affection or intimacy references a pattern of conduct within relationships that includes subjective assessments of attachment. This pattern of conduct is a part of a larger constellation of factors that contributes to an adolescent’s development of a non-parental relationship. A number of sociologists have explored the more general terrain of gender relations, although several of the key studies focus on preadolescence and early adolescence.[15][16][17][18][19] Their work is important in highlighting the degree to which features of these early relations, and even intense personal feelings such as being in love, are socially constructed. Adolescents' conceptions about and conduct within these relationships are heavily influenced by interaction and communication with other girls or other boys.[20] Specific rules emerge (e.g., one should always be in love, it is wrong to date more than one person, heterosexuality is the only acceptable romantic option) and gossip or other social sanctions serve as important sources of informal social control around these rules.[21]

Research moves into the early adolescent period when youths are old enough to say they are going steady and is useful in actually characterizing the nature of these relationships. These liaisons are described as highly superficial and based on unrealistic idealized expectations. Furthermore, the desire of adolescents to put on a good “front” inhibits the development of intimacy. Going steady is a limiting factor on the adolescent social ritual.[22]

This table[23] below shows the quality and context of displays of affection in adolescence who are in an intra-racial relationship.

Behavior Percentage
Held hands 89.90
Said to others they were a couple 85.76
Went out together alone 78.00
Went out together in a group 78.40
Met partner's parents 75.91
Gave partner a present 72.08
Received present from partner 76.25
Told partner that he/she loved her/him 82.05
Partner said that loved him/her 79.69
They thought of themselves as a couple 90.88
Kissed 91.56
Touched under clothing or with no clothes on 62.78
Touched each others' genitals 53.68
Had sexual intercourse 42.40
N 9.232

Boys and girls begin the process of relating to one another, the transition is much easier for adolescent males, who essentially transport their dominant interaction styles (derived from peer interactions) into this new relationship form with the opposite sex. Public displays of affection may facilitate the demonstration of this dominant interaction style transference in a socially acceptable way.[24] Experimental research on communication processes observed in same- and mixed-gender groups to support this idea. Although behavior observed in cross-gender task groups is relevant, intimate dyadic relationships and task groups are not equivalent social contexts. Thus, an alternative hypothesis is that boys, who have less practice than their female counterparts with PDA (by virtue of their peer group experiences), must make a larger developmental leap as they move into the heterosexual arena. For example, examining the messages students write one another in high-school yearbooks,[25] we observed marked differences between boys' discourse directed toward friends (e.g., “you're a lousy wrestler…”) and that directed toward romantic partners (e.g., “you are very beautiful in so many ways, it would take me a lifetime to express them in words…”). In contrast, young girls use language in messages to close friends and boyfriends is more similar in form and content. To the degree that the romantic context provides their only opportunity to express themselves and, more broadly, to relate in this intimate fashion, young males can be considered more dependent on these relations than female adolescents, who have close friends for intimate talk and social support. Of course, this quality of uniqueness may figure into the etiology of more negative and sometimes gendered relational dynamics that also emerge in connection with romantic involvements [stalking, intrusive control efforts, violence and the like.[26]

Interracial Public Displays of Affection[edit]

Implicit or explicit attitudes towards interracial relationships strongly impact interpretations of public displays of affection within this context. These attitudes can be influenced by a plethora of factors, including social contact. For example, personal involvement and extended contact (media representations) with interracial and Black-White relationships has been linked to more positive perspectives regarding interracial relationships.[27] Thus, personal experience and mere exposure to interracial couples tends to be related to more favorable attitudes. This finding supports the contact hypothesis, which states that interpersonal interactions between group members of each race will decrease prejudice and foster amicable connections between races.[28] Beyond the conditions of equal group status, common goals, group cooperation, and social approval, some studies have found other stipulations important for fostering positive relations. For instance, it’s important for the interracial contact to be intimate instead of superficial, for it to happen in many different settings, and for it to happen repeatedly with more than one individual from the other race.[29][30][31][32]

Not everyone, especially those with learned biases and/or racist attitudes, are likely to be exposed to another race under these exact conditions; this lack of exposure to racial diversity will further perpetuate the internal cycle of unsubstantiated prejudice. In fact, the larger presence of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians in neighborhoods and religious congregations significantly predicts higher support from Caucasians for interracial marriages with these other races.[33] Furthermore, it has been found that higher amounts of individuals from each of these racial groups in these social settings predict more interracial friendships. Therefore, it appears that reducing the socially imposed distance between one’s in-group and out-group can result in developing more favorable attitudes towards romantic relationships between races. The problem still exists though that many people who have negative attitudes towards other races will avoid social settings where they may be exposed to other races due to engrained stereotypes, opting instead to surround themselves with members of their in-group. In general, one study using survey data found that approximately half of African-American respondents versus about a quarter of Caucasian respondents approve of a close relative marrying an individual of the other race.[34] Accordingly, it appears that the problem is pervasive to the point that there are a large proportion of individuals on both sides of the equation who do not approve of interracial relationships.

Due to perceptions of others’ attitudes towards interracial relationships, many interracial couples may engage in certain behavioral strategies to reduce stigma and ostracism. Research shows that adolescent interracial couples tend to participate in less public and private activities than couples composed of individuals from the same race.[35] Significant differences have been found between these two groups on holding hands in public, whereby interracial couples are less likely to do so, yet these differences do not maintain significance in the context of private displays of intimate affection. Therefore, it appears that the fear of being negatively judged in public inhibits interracial couples from displaying physical affection in comparison to couples of the same race. Interracial couples have also been found to engage in other strategies to deter potential judgment, including ignoring public harassment to avoid confrontation, staying at home or filtering their social group to increase acceptance, attending social gatherings attended only by other interracial couples, and publicly surrounding themselves with members of their social support network.[36]

Consequently, many interracial couples still fear perceptions of public displays of affection, even though increased exposure and contact with other races under harmonious conditions is associated with more favorable attitudes towards interracial relationships. This is made evident in less engagement in these behaviors publicly as well as forms of premeditated coping strategies in response to public harassment. As the research is limited, it is difficult to definitively determine if these behavioral responses are contingent upon the social setting as well as the racial composition of the surrounding public, i.e., would an interracial couple be more likely to engage in public displays of affection in a racially diverse crowd, or a party of friends as opposed to strangers? Moreover, the majority of the extant literature has examined interracial couples composed of African American and Caucasian individuals, neglecting potential differences with different groups of minority interracial groups, e.g., Asian/Latino, African-American/Asian. Therefore, future research should examine the different dynamics of interracial relationships, including individual differences, social status, social setting, socio-economic status, and other psychosocial factors that may contribute to the engagement or avoidance of public displays of affection.

Same-Sex Public Displays of Affection[edit]

Newly wed gay couple in Reykjavik, Iceland

Public displays of affection between individuals of the same sex may or may not suggest homosexuality depending on the cultural context. For example, in many African cultures it is socially acceptable for people of the same sex to participate in public displays of affection,[37] whereas in other countries such as the United States and Portugal, it is considered indicative of homosexuality. Public displays of affection tend to be determined largely by culture which greatly influences perceptions of same-sex PDA.

Intolerance for homosexual PDA is common place in large swaths of society in many different cultures. For instance, in Portugal, LGBT individuals only act in ways that contend contemporary ideals and political/economic agendas. Homosexual individuals are less likely to partake in public displays of affection because their society is extremely critical of the act. They believe that by behaving according to what society deems appropriate, (e.g., only opposite-sex couples should partake in acts of public displays of affection), they are protecting themselves from being categorized as abnormal, odd, or deviant.[38] Although same-sex marriage has been legal in Portugal since June 2010 (see Same-sex marriage in Portugal), LGBT people still refrain from public displays of affection for the most part. This detail may suggest that Portugal’s acceptance of same-sex marriage is due to the fact that the LGBT individuals don’t broadcast their sexuality, not that the public of Portugal is more accepting of these acts. Although it may appear that homosexual individuals are ambivalent about being limited in only displaying affection privately, it seems to happen out of fear of resentment or being perceived as odd rather than out of respect for their societies’ political beliefs and attitudes.

There have been many in depth studies regarding societal attitudes towards homosexuality across many different factors. One study found that heterosexual people had higher negative attitudes towards homosexuals of their own sex, especially if they felt that they were being targets of sexual advances. They also found that men have less negative attitudes towards homosexual females than males (most likely due to the “eroticism” of lesbians in society) whereas women tend to be more accepting overall of homosexuals and their role in society.[39] In the contemporary Western society, attitudes towards same-sex public displays of affection vary city to city much like they vary country to country. Studies have shown that in populations where the majority of individuals have high cultural values and are more accommodating, same-sex or same gender public displays of affection are more likely to occur.[40] This is understandable because same sex individuals feel less persecuted by others in society and are less likely to feel as though they are being categorized as odd, abnormal, or deviant like those in Portugal.

Of course, there are negative attitudes towards same-sex or same gender public displays of affection as well. In a Colorado high school, two yearbook staff resigned after they were informed that they could not print the relationship page because it had a photo of two females holding hands.[41] This is an example of the persecution many LGBT individuals face for doing something that is widely acceptable for heterosexual couples to do on a daily basis. Society makes them feel abnormal for wanting to hold their partner’s hand when other “normal” couples around them do it every day without any consequence. A spokesman for the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project declared in 2007 that “people are still verbally harassed and physically attacked daily for engaging in simple displays of affection in public. Everything changes the minute we kiss”.[42] This person is trying to inform people about how many heterosexual individuals discourage same-sex public displays of affection to the point that they go as far as to harass them for doing something as simple as kissing the person they have feelings for just because they are of the same gender. However, most people don’t realize that couples use physical affection as a way to comfort their partner. However, because many same sex couples feel this social disapproval when showing affection, they don’t get to reap the benefits of these acts in their relationship.[43] Ultimately, high rates of negative attitudes towards same-sex public display of affection effect their relationships in an extremely detrimental way that many people don’t think about when casting negative glances or making judgments.

Worldwide[edit]

Religiosity[edit]

Religiosity is one important factor that influences how romantic relationships develop in other countries.[44] Higher levels of religiosity are not directly related to the number of partners reported by the respondents. However, religious respondents report lower levels of intimate contact with their partners. It is apparent that religiosity has an impact on the level of expression of affection in general. Also, religion is related to more conservative values that may have a global impact on all levels of PDA by younger participants. Seemingly religiosity may work in two different ways where religious communities are in general quite racially segregated in the around the world, and people with strong religious beliefs may be less prone to engage in sexual activity or even to date someone due to the morals advised by their religion. In many regions of the world, religion drives the cultural view on PDA.

Europe and North America[edit]

In most of the Western world, such as Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and the United States, it is very common to see people holding hands, hugging and sometimes kissing in public. It is not socially acceptable to be overly explicit, such as engaging in sexual activities. Kissing is more commonly seen in adult night-life, such as nightclubs. [45]

China[edit]

China promotes modesty in public between the two sexes. In times past there has been a three foot minimum distance between members of the opposite sex was the standard, but due to overcrowding in Chinese cities it is not always possible to keep a three foot distance.[46] Public displays of affection are completely off limits. Many Chinese children have never seen their parents hold hands or kiss, or even say “I love you”. However, members of the same sex may walk hand in hand and men may walk with arms draped over each other’s shoulders. In clubs, men dance with men, and women dance with women. Kissing is regarded as nearly as intimate as any form of sexual contact and tends to be a secretive act for many Chinese individuals. A Chinese woman may only be naked in her bathroom when in a hotel. PDAs by tourists are considered violations of local law. The most common religion in China is Buddhism, which considers public displays of affection taboo. The progressive integration of public displays of affection into Asian society is still very rough around the edges.

Instead of kissing, mothers from the Manchu minority ethnic group used to show affection for their children by performing fellatio on their male babies, placing its penis in their mouths and stimulating it, while the Manchu regarded public kissing with revulsion.[47][48][49][50][51]

India[edit]

Public display of affection is regarded as unacceptable in India. Kissing and hugging are taboo. However, same sex physical contact is allowed. “Under section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, Public Display of Affection (PDA) is a criminal offence with a punishment of imprisonment up to 3 months or a fine, or both”(see Indian Penal Code). Because this law does not give explicit definitions of PDA, it is blatantly misused by police and lower courts to harass couples. For example, in 2007, when actor Richard Gere kissed Shilpa Shetty in an AIDS awareness event in New Delhi, a warrant for his arrest was issued by an Indian court. People burnt effigies of Gere and Shetty for publically embracing in a “sexually provocative” way.[52] These cases of harassment of dating couples are generally bitterly criticized by a growing number of young Indians, who feel the need for a change in the perception on dating and public displays of affection. In the past, attacks by vigilante groups also were a danger for those celebrating Valentine's day. However the number of couples celebrating Valentine's Day has grown so much that these attacks have become ineffective in deterring couples. [53] However, relaxation of previous generations' social norms has made public displays of affection more common among India's younger demographic.

Indonesia[edit]

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world. Muslim practices and Islamic traditions have grown stronger over the past few years, and they consider public displays of affections taboo. Heavy or passionate kissing could carry a “maximum penalty of five years in jail or a 250 million rupiah ($29,000 fine)”[54]

Middle East[edit]

Middle Eastern countries such as Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt are predominately Muslim cultures. Decency laws do not allow public displays of affection. Penalties can be severe. Travelers have been sentenced to lengthy jail sentences for kissing in public, according to the U.S. Department of State. In 2009 a British, couple caught publicly kissing in Dubai, was deported following a three month prison sentence. An unmarried Indian couple, who were in a taxi, was sentenced to one year in prison for hugging and kissing.[55] The taxi driver drove the couple directly to a police station. Public displays of affection do not fit the local culture and customs. Kissing is considered “an offense to public decency”. Adultery and homosexuality are punishable by death in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Nigeria. In 2011, an Iranian man and woman were stoned to death for committing adultery, the punishment for infidelity according to Islamic law.[56]

Japan[edit]

In general, public displays of affection are less prevalent in Japan. It is typical for Japanese families to bow to each other when greeting or when saying goodbye. In Japanese culture, where shame plays a huge part in motivating behavior, it’s often about trying not to lose face. Because of this, Japanese people care deeply about what others think of them, including friends, coworkers, family members, and even total strangers. Propensity to engage in public display of affection is heavily influenced by the culture and thus it is rare for anything more intimate than hand-holding to occur; kissing goodbye is likely out of the question.  

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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