Public Displays of Affection

They're everywhere: the couples out in public with their tongues down each other's throats and a serious case of wandering hands. It's enough to make you shout, "Get a room!"

"America has become a nation of sexual exhibitionism," says Carole Altman, Ph.D., author of 101 Ways to Make Love Happen (Casper Publishing, 1999). "People feel the need to demonstrate their sexuality to others, and public displays of affection (PDA) are the perfect way to prove that our private lives are truly sexual," she says.

All couples have to find their own comfort level when it comes to public displays of affection. Many couples find themselves in a situation in which one partner is totally into PDA, while the other prefers a more "hands off" approach. Take Tom and Anna, both 21, seniors at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, who started dating during their freshmen year.

They weren't always in sync in terms of PDA. "I saw it as showing off and didn't feel the need to play tonsil hockey with my girlfriend when our friends were two feet away," says Tom.

Anna, on the other hand, thought Tom's reluctance to touch in public meant that he was ashamed to be with her. "He wouldn't even hold my hand at a party or give me a quick kiss goodbye when we were walking to class," she remembers.

If You're Dating a Cuddler Here are some explanations for your partner's grabby behavior:

  • He/She simply loves to cuddle.

  • He's/She's marking his or her turf. "Men like to practice PDA because it stokes their egos," says Altman. Women also practice PDA as a way of sending a signal to other women that her partner is "taken."

  • He/She's starved for affection. Your significant other may be insecure and need PDA as a proof of connection with you.

  • You're dating a jerk. "Some people think it's funny to squeeze a breast or butt and say, 'Check it out, this is mine,'" says Altman, "The friends laugh and it's all fun, but your partner is mortified."

If Your Partner Says, "Hands Off" Here are some possible explanations for his or her behavior:

  • Mom and Dad were discreet. A person whose parents didn't practice PDA may feel embarrassed about kissing or necking in public. Similarly, if your partner heard his or her parents make derogatory comments about public displays of affection, says Altman, he or she may have internalized that judgment.
  • Other people are looking. Your partner may be concerned about what others think. And if you're in the company of parents, single friends, or co-workers, they may have a point.

  • Save it for later. Your S.O. may feel that intimacy is a private matter. Altman notes that some people are quite uninhibited at home when it comes to sexual expression, but freeze up when other people are around.

How to Compromise Convincing a partner to be more or less affectionate in public isn't easy, but it can be done. Altman suggests the following strategies:

Open up: Talk to your partner about what makes you uncomfortable about PDA. Ask what they can handle (a hug, a kiss on the cheek, an arm around the waist, a hand on the knee, etc.) and don't go beyond those limits.

Compromise: Bring a 'touchy-feely' partner down to your level, or a 'hands-off' one up by coming up with less obvious ways to be affectionate in front of others, such as holding hands under the table, sharing a look, or blowing a kiss across a room.

Get playful at home: Tickle, wrestle, kiss and be spontaneous when you're alone. It just may carry over to the outside world.

Use common sense: It's fine to be affectionate, but avoid these moves, which are sure to annoy onlookers:

  • Deep kissing that goes on and on.
  • Body grinding.
  • The butt or breast squeeze.
  • Smooching in front of a single friend, your parents or co-workers.
  • Anything that can be construed as sexual, rude or inappropriate.