PDA is a form of interaction that constantly receives mixed reviews. Some partners engage in it frequently while others may never do it at all. Upon witnessing PDA, onlookers may either be indifferent, or resent it. When entering a relationship with any partner, understanding PDA can help determine how to best show affection, while ensuring that both partners are comfortable.
What Is PDA?
PDA stands for public displays of affection. They are gestures of physical intimacy that occur around others.1 Physical intimacy is a method of demonstrating one’s feelings through touch. PDA can exist in a variety of relationships, be it platonic, romantic, or sexual. It is a completely natural part of some interpersonal relationships, and research shows that physical touch between partners elicits the release of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. 2 These three compounds all are associated with an improvement in mood when emitted in the body. Social acceptance of PDA varies depending on location and context. Instances of PDA that happen in extremely public, heavily populated settings tend to face more opposition than if they had occurred in a more private location. Public displays of affection are often constrained by varying social norms, which can impact how partners behave towards one another.
Different Forms of PDA
Between partners, common forms of PDA include, but are not limited to, gestures like kissing and hugging. Other popular methods of physical intimacy are holding hands, massages, cuddling, and holding one another. Multiple forms of physical intimacy have a positive association with both partner and relationship satisfaction.2 This is because for some, non-verbal cues can help express love and attraction.
PDA can also exist between platonic friends and family members. Kissing (either on the lips or on the cheek), hugging, hand holding, and cuddling are common public displays of affection within these relationships as well. As with romantic and sexual relationships, PDA amongst friends and family acts as a way to bond and show affection towards one another.
Cultural acceptance of PDA varies from nation to nation. In western countries such as Canada, Europe, and the United States, PDA is extremely common. Most people in these countries find expressions like handholding and hugging commonplace, socially acceptable behaviors. However, overtly sexual public interactions between partners are faced with more criticism depending on the setting.
Religion is often a major factor that shapes the development of romantic relationships in different countries. And while a strong religious presence does not necessarily always correlate with a decrease in physical intimacy, it is clear that religion is often associated with more conservative ideals.3 People with conservative beliefs are more likely to disapprove of public displays of affection. For example, devout Baptists emphasize purity and modesty in every aspect of life. Many Baptists have extremely strict beliefs regarding physical intimacy and public displays of affection, stating that these actions should be reserved for marriage.
Another example comes from the Muslim religion. Muslim practices and approval of public displays of affection vary from country to country, but excessive PDA is generally considered taboo. In Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, passionate kissing is punishable by jail time or a heavy fine. And in some Middle Eastern countries, public decency laws prohibit public displays of affection as well.8 Kissing in public is the most common charge, while in some countries like Iran, the laws are more lenient and allow for more subtle forms of PDA such as hand holding.
Talking to Your Partner About PDA
Communication is incredibly important when engaging in PDA with anyone, be it a partner, friend, or even a family member. Establish consent before engaging in sexual and non-sexual activities with others. Consent is defined as “a clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed outwardly through mutually understandable words or actions to engage in a particular activity.”4 Consent must be given without the influence of coercion or force. While body language can be a useful tool in determining whether or not someone is comfortable, it can easily be misinterpreted. It is best to receive verbal confirmation to ensure that your loved one is comfortable with various forms of PDA.
It is also okay to be uncomfortable with PDA. There are five common “love languages” recognized as the ways that humans give and receive love. Author Gary Chapman coined these “love languages” in 1995.9 The five “love languages” are physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, and quality time. Chapman muses that each person shows their love using one or a combination of these methods.10 PDA does not appeal to everyone, but that is not a reason to feel discouraged. Open communication with your loved ones about how you like to give and receive affection is the best way to ensure that both participants feel heard and valued in the relationship.
While many cultures have progressed in terms of accepting PDA, there is of course still work to be done. When it comes to interracial public displays of affection, the reaction of onlookers is largely determined by location and culture. Cultural biases and racist beliefs are unfortunately still present around the globe. This hostility can make interracial couples hesitant to show PDA. Research has shown that adolescent interracial couples engage in less PDA than adolescent couples of the same race.5 This is attributed to their fear of being negatively judged and their desire to spare themselves from harassment and confrontation.
Intolerance towards homosexual PDA is widespread across many cultures as well. Like interracial couples, homosexual couples may feel limited by societal restraints. This leads some same sex couples to abide by what their community deems appropriate when engaging in PDA. They may feel that this unspoken conforming protects them from further scrutiny or retaliation.
Engaging in PDA can be a wonderful aspect of any interpersonal relationship. Physical intimacy is a great nonverbal way to express your affection to your partner, friend, or family member. Before engaging in PDA, make sure that you receive clear consent from your partner. While many enjoy PDA, there are also others who are uncomfortable with it due to societal pressure or personal preference. PDA is just one of the many ways that you can show affection to others and: your “love language” should reflect what makes you feel the most comfortable.
- Gulledge, Andrew K., et al. “Romantic Physical Affection Types and Relationship Satisfaction.” The American Journal of Family Therapy, vol. 31, no. 4, 2003, pp. 233–242., doi:10.1080/01926180390201936.
- Jayson, Sharon. “Human Touch May Have Some Healing Properties.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 29 Sept. 2008, usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-09-28-touch-healing_N.htm.
- Bearman, PeterÂ S., and Hannah BrÃ¼ckner. “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 106, no. 4, 2001, pp. 859–912., doi:10.1086/320295.
- “The University of Michigan Policy and Procedures on Student Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence.” University of Michigan. 1 July 2016. Web. 2 May 2017.
- Vaquera, E.; Kao, G. (2005). “Private and public displays of affection among interracial and intra-racial adolescent couples”. Social Science Quarterly.
- Datzman, J.; Gardner, C. B. (2008). “In My Mind, We Are All Humans”. Marriage and Family Review. 30: 5–24.
- De Oliveira, J. M.; Costa, C. G.; Nogueira, C. (2013). “The Workings of Homonormativity: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Discourses on Discrimination and Public Displays of Affections in Portugal”. Journal of Homosexuality. 60 (10): 1475–1493.
- Simpson, Colin., “The rules are clear, says lawyer: no kissing allowed in Dubai” The National, 4 July 2013.
- Gary Chapman.,(1995). The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. Northfield Publishing. ISBN1881273156
- Pam Farrel (2005). The 10 Best Decisions a Couple Can Make. Harvest House. p. 125. ISBN 0736934731.
Last Updated: 17 February 2018.