Public display of affection

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A married couple's kiss during their wedding

Public displays of affection (PDA) are acts of physical intimacy in the view of others. What is an acceptable display of affection varies with respect to culture and context. Displays of affection in a public place, such as the street, are more likely to be objected to, than similar practices in a private place with only people from a similar cultural background present. Some organizations have rules limiting or prohibiting public displays of affection.

Physical affection has been defined as "any touch intended to arouse feelings of love in the giver and/or the recipient."[1]


In the United States, "get a room" is a phrase that is usually said when one feels a sense of disapproval after seeing what they consider to be an excessive public display of affection.[2][3]

Effects on romantic relationships[edit]

Brazilian actors Bruno Gagliasso and Giovanna Ewbank, who are married, kiss and hug each other publicly while dancing, 2010.

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.[4][5] 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.[1] Five of these behaviors, with the exception of caressing/stroking and holding hands, have been significantly positively associated with relationship and partner satisfaction.

Social media[edit]

Expression of a person’s feelings towards someone else had previously been limited to written letters, phone calls or in person. In the modern world, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are growing, with 1.7 billion users on Facebook[6] and over half a billion Twitter users.[7] Studies on relationships through 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. After two people meet and form an interest, one or both individuals will go onto the other person’s Facebook page and get information such as relationship status, pictures, and interests. Once a relationship begins, some couples broadcast their relationship with posts, such as pictures and changing the relationship status.[8]

How people show their public displays of affection on social media sites can be indicative of relationship security and personality. Frequent and recent communication with a romantic partner through different forms of social media is an indicator of relational escalation, whereas limited communication has shown to be an indicator of alienation or relational de-escalation.[9] 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.[10]

A study 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.[11] 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.


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.[18] 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.[14]

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.[17]

This table[20] below shows the quality and context of displays of affection in adolescence who are in intra and inter racial relationships.

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 other's genitals 53.68
Had sexual intercourse 42.40

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.[21] 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,[22] 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 of 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.[23]


Implicit or explicit attitudes towards interracial relationships strongly affect 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.[24] 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 if interpersonal interactions between group members of each race will decrease prejudice and foster amicable connections between races.[25] 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.[26][27][28][29]

Not everyone, especially those with learned biases and/or racist attitudes, is 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.[30] Furthermore, it has been found that higher numbers 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 ingrained 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.[31] 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 fewer public and private activities than couples composed of individuals from the same race.[32] 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.[33]

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.


Top:Two topless women hug and kiss each other in public during Dyke March of lesbians, New York. Above: Two females belonging to US Navy who are formally in a relationship kiss in public upon meeting after a long time.

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,[34] 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.[35] 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 do not 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 whereas women tend to be more accepting overall of homosexuals and their role in society.[36] 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.[37] 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.[38] 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".[39]



Religiosity is one important factor that influences how romantic relationships develop in other countries.[40] 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 influences the level of expression of affection in general. Also, religion is related to more conservative values that may have a global effect 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 very unlikely 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 and this sometimes culminates into proscription based on religious rules, for example sharia law. The conservative Islamic schools of thought, especially Salafism-oriented ones forbid public displays of affection.[41]

Europe and North America[edit]

In most of the Western world, such as Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, it is very common to see people holding hands, hugging and sometimes kissing in public. It is not usually socially acceptable to be overly explicit, such as engaging in sexual activities. Kissing is more commonly seen in adult night-life, such as nightclubs.[42]


Mothers from the Manchu minority ethnic group, as only researched in the 1900s in Aigun of Northern Manchuria where the researcher S. M. Shirokogoroff personally believed the Manchu element were "purer" than those of Southern Manchuria and Peking,[43] used to show affection for their children by performing fellatio on their male babies, placing the penis in their mouths and stimulating it, while the regarded public kissing with revulsion.[44][45][46][47][48]


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, causing annoyance to others through "obscene acts" is a criminal offence with a punishment of imprisonment up to 3 months or a fine, or both.[49] Because this law does not give explicit definitions of "obscene acts", 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 publicly embracing in a "sexually provocative" way.[50] 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.[51] However, relaxation of previous generations' social norms has made public displays of affection more common among India's younger demographic. In the state of Kerala, a public hugging and kissing campaign (named Kiss Of Love) was launched in November 2014 in protest against moral policing.[52]


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)".[53]


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.[citation needed]

Middle East[edit]

Middle Eastern countries such as Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are predominantly Muslim cultures. Although public displays of affection generally do not fit the local culture and customs, it varies even among these countries. Decency laws do not allow public displays of affection. Penalties can be severe based on the action in different countries. Travelers to Dubai have been sentenced to lengthy jail sentences for kissing in public, according to the U.S. Department of State[citation needed]. 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.[54] The taxi driver drove the couple directly to a police station. Kissing is considered "an offense to public decency".

In Iran holding hands has become more and more popular especially in big cities and among young generations.[55]

See also[edit]


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  44. ^ Clarke, John R. (2001). Looking at Lovemaking (1st paperback print ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-0-520-22904-4. In the Manchu tribe, a mother will routinely suck her small son's penis in public but would never kiss his cheeks. Among adults, the Manchu believe, fellatio is a sexual act, but kissing—even between mother and infant son—is always a sexual act, and thus fellation becomes the proper display of motherly affection.
  45. ^ Barre, Weston La (1975). "The Cultural Basis of Emotions and Gestures". In Davis, Martha. Anthropological Perspectives of Movement. Arno Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-405-06201-8. Manchu kissing is purely a private sexual act, and though husband and wife or lovers might kiss each other, they would do it stealthily since it is shameful to do in public; yet Manchu mothers have the pattern of putting the penis of the baby boy into their mouths, a practice which probably shocks Westerners even more than kissing in public shocks the Manchu.
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  48. ^ Walls, Neal (2001). Desire, Discord and Death. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-89757-056-5. Compare Henderson's (1988:1251) remarks on the social construction of sexual expression: "A Manchu mother, for instance, would routinely suck her small son's penis in public but would never kiss his cheek. For, among the Manchus, fellatio is a form of sexual behavior except in the context of mother and small son, whereas kissing of any kind is always sexual. We are perplexed because, in our culture, fellatio is always sexual, whereas cheek-kissing among kin never is."
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