Exhibit A: Rush hour. Man and woman leaning against a bus-stop bench in an ardent embrace. Open-mouthed kisses. Roving hands. Intertwined torsos. Gawking motorists.
Exhibit B: Lunchtime. In a ditch beside the railroad tracks. Teenage boy and girl, lying in the weeds in full view of passing cars. Smooching. Neck nuzzling. His right hand under her shirt.
Exhibit C: Afternoon. In the park. Thirtyish couple seated at a sun-soaked picnic table. She’s on his lap, facing him. French kisses. More French kisses. Sloppy, audible French kisses.
Ain’t love grand?
Sure. Up to a point - the point where private, intimate actions become public, exhibitionistic performances.
But in the land of PDA - Public Displays of Affection - the line of demarcation between good taste and vulgarity is not always clearly defined. One person’s expression of true love can be another’s exercise in revulsion. Some are shocked and offended when they see a couple making out in the park; some are unfazed. It depends on personal parameters, moral standards and sexual beliefs - and it depends on who’s doing the PDA, where they’re doing it, and what they’re doing.
However, there do seem to be some universal truths regarding PDAs. Scenes like the three described above likely would elicit a common reaction from casual observers. They might be too polite to say it, but they’d at least think it: “GET A ROOM!”
Why the outrage? Because most of us simply don’t like it when unwritten rules of civility are broken, especially when it happens right in front of our disbelieving eyes.
“You can tell the difference between a love kiss and a kiss where the next thing, they’re gonna be lying on the grass,” says Carroll Hightower, who occasionally sees PDAs during her strolls around Prospect Lake in Colorado Springs, Colo. “When I see them doing that, I feel like kicking ‘em to the curb. Go home. Find a bed. I don’t want to see it.”
Most seem to agree with Hightower. Based on interviews with about two-dozen parkgoers, the unofficial PDA-tolerance guidelines look like this:
Holding hands? No problem.
Walking arm in arm? That’s cool.
Hugging? OK, depending on amount and duration of body contact.
Kissing? Fine, if it’s quick and tidy. But no tongues, please.
Petting or fondling? Nope. Illegal use of hands is a major no-no. For a lot of people, this is where innocent, lovey-dovey stuff turns into serious, sexually oriented behavior.
Foreplay and beyond? Absolutely not. And expect to get a ticket for indecent exposure if you’re, uh, caught with your pants down.
Sometimes, PDAs go beyond poor taste. Sometimes, they’re against the law.
“Basically, people kissing and holding hands is fine,” says Sgt. Matt Martin, who oversees Colorado Springs’ park police and mounted patrol units. “But if they start exposing genital areas, having any type of sexual act or fondling another person’s genitals in public, that’s illegal.”
Of course, parks aren’t the only places you’re likely to stumble upon people glommed onto each other like a couple of amorous sucker fish. It’s not unusual to see spontaneous romance in all sorts of places, from cars and bars to schools and restaurants. The use of alcohol - or other inhibition-reducing substances - makes PDA sightings more likely, especially at gatherings like parties, concerts and 80-proof picnics.
And when it comes to obtrusiveness, distance matters.
“One factor in how people feel is whether they can avoid being involved. For example, if it’s going on in the park, but it’s at a distance where people can ignore it, more or less, they’re going to be less judgmental,” says Stanley Jones, a communications professor at the University of Colorado and an expert in the field of touching.
Jones also stresses that age - both of the viewers and view-ees - is a factor in PDA sensitivity. He’s 61 and says his line of good taste stops with viewing a brief kiss on the mouth (“Beyond that, it’s too far,” he says).
“People’s values are set in their age group, their generation,” he says. “You’re going to hear more objections from older people who were brought up in a different milieu.”
Eric DuBoue, 25, agrees. On a sunny afternoon at Memorial Park, DuBoue is holding hands, hugging and sometimes playfully hoisting his girlfriend, Tanya Vigil, off the ground.
“The younger you are, the less stuff bothers you,” DuBoue says. “But it’s a personal thing: One person might look at a couple and say, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting.’ Another person might walk by and say, ‘Look, isn’t that adorable?’ Not much bothers me.”
It’s difficult to generalize about PDAs, though, because exceptions are everywhere: Take teenager Shannon Kupersmith, who chided her peers for playing “tonsil hockey” in the Doherty High School halls. Kupersmith, 16, wrote a commentary in the school paper, The Spectrum, last December that humorously targeted her fellow students’ lack of maturity and respect.
The story was well-received, Kupersmith says.
An excerpt: “To me, all this ‘lip licking’ fun is becoming rather annoying. Now, don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with a hug at times, but, please, is it absolutely necessary to have boyfriends tonguing down their girlfriends’ throats during every passing period?”
Kupersmith’s personal stance: “If you wouldn’t do it in front of your mother, you probably shouldn’t do it in front of people at school,” she says.
Humans probably have been PDAing ever since Thag and Oona made a prehistoric spectacle of themselves by making love in the tar pit across from the mastodon burial grounds. Not that their fellow cave-dwellers would have given a darn; after all, nobody had discovered civilization - or evolved into lookie-loos - yet.
But these days, the overwhelming question is: Why? Why do some people foist their most private moments on a bunch of innocent bystanders? Are they showoffs? In love? Insecure? Enslaved by their hormones? Do they think we’re all voyeurs?
Please allow an explanation from DuBoue, a gregarious young man who admits he has gotten carried away in public.
“If it’s a nice day, you’re hanging out, you get to cuddling up, and after a while you forget where you are and think you’re at home,” he says. “It happens sometimes. You just forget.
“I guess when you get to that point where you need to be alone, everybody else probably thinks you need to be alone, too. If you’re looking around - like checking to see if people are watching you - then you probably need to put it under wraps.
“It’s OK to get in that moment, but you need to know when it is and where you are. As you get more mature, you learn more of what’s appropriate.”
Being in love is not an excuse for excessive PDAs, says Judith Martin, a k a “Miss Manners,” who writes a syndicated etiquette column.
“It’s in a division of Bad Manners called Showing Off, and a subdivision of that called No Two People Have Ever Been So in Love,” she says. “All people newly in love suffer from the delusion that they excite envy in the rest of the world, whose emotions (and resulting actions) are pallid in comparison. And for some reason, those who believe their romances defy tradition … seem to be particularly susceptible.
“Far from being stunned that they are witnessing the romance of the century, the onlookers may well be thinking, ‘Eeew, how can she bear to kiss him?’ or ‘What in the world does he see in her?”’
Other theories as to why people engage in PDAs: They want to display ownership. They want to shock the world, especially those people with dissimilar views. And …
“They’re brainless,” Hightower says. “Really, I think it’s because they don’t have respect for themselves, so they don’t have respect for others.”
Says Jay Coakley, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs: “With teens, I think it tends to be an identity expression. Part of it is to show the world that they’re valuable enough as a human being that they have a partner who is willing to take this risk with them.”
Sometimes, especially with teens trying to deal with burgeoning sexual feelings, it’s not really a matter of choice. They have no socially acceptable place to go.
They can’t go home. They don’t own a car. So they trundle over to the park for a little experimental kissing, etc.
A generation ago, one of the prime hangouts for making out was the local movie theater. But no more, says Kim Bayles, owner of Kimball’s Twin Peak Theater downtown.
“I’ve never seen it here,” says Bayles, 44. “Actually, my wife and I kiss a lot and grab each other in the theater, but I think we might be the only ones.
“When I was that age, we used to all take our girlfriends up in the balcony, and nobody cared what movie was playing, because we just went to make out. But making out has become a thing of the past - almost cliched in some way. I don’t know if it’s because they skip that part and go directly to the heart of the matter or what.”
The PDA issue also transcends heterosexuality. Many people don’t mind hand-holding and modest kissing and hugging as long as it’s a man and a woman displaying their affection. But in Colorado Springs (and lots of other places), if that couple is two men or two women, the public disapproval rate rises.
“Homosexuals have almost no latitude here,” Coakley says. “Some of my gay friends say they can’t walk down Tejon Street holding hands without getting hassled.”
Regina DiPadova, an adolescent therapist and executive director of Inside Out, a gay/lesbian/bisexual youth group, says it’s not quite that bad. There are some public places where she and her girlfriend can hold hands without harassment.
She says that PDA is PDA, regardless of who’s doing it, and that the line of acceptability remains the same.
“Whether you’re gay, straight, lesbian, whatever, I think most people find it uncomfortable when they’re in a bar or on the street and see a couple in a full lip-lock, with their bodies smashed together and their hands all over each other,” she said. “When you see that, it’s time for those people to take it home.”
Coakley and Jones say the importance of touching within the United States’ culture has a lot to do with why we view PDAs the way we do. In many European and Latin American countries, friendly, interpersonal touching, even between members of the same sex, is viewed differently than in the United States.
“In other cultures, there’s more freedom related to physical expression,” Coakley says. “Other countries haven’t sexualized those expressions to the extent that our culture - because of our Puritan background and more recently, the born-again theme - has. We have a tendency to sexualize displays of physical contact.”
Even an act as simple as holding hands carries sexual connotations, Jones says.
“It’s what we call a simple ‘togetherness touch,’ but in our culture it says you’re sexually involved or romantically involved,” he says.
Does this mean we’re sexually repressed as a nation and therefore more vulnerable to reacting - or overreacting - to PDAs?
“I don’t know if you can say that, because we’re also much more permissive than a lot of other countries, especially some Asian countries,” Jones says. “We’re somewhere in between.”
In between public, private - and proper.
Right, Miss Manners?
“Nobody likes watching other people nuzzling in front of them,” Martin says.
“That is why there is a rule against it.”
xxxx DOES IT BOTHER YOU? How do you react to public displays of affection? Here’s your chance to speak out. What’s acceptable? What’s over the line? Who are this area’s worst offenders? Is there an appropriate way to respond to flagrant groping and tongue hockey in settings where ignoring it is all but impossible? Please call and leave a message on City Line, 458-8800, category 9899. In Idaho, the number is 765-8811, category 9899.
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