What drives us to be on display?
Public displays of affection, or PDAs, can be a minefield in all sorts of ways. Some people are vastly more into them than others; some countries have extremely different views on them than others, and everything from the time of day to the stage of life the people putting on the display are in can affect how they are received.
But what about the science? What’s actually going on when a couple decides to lock lips (or more) in full view of those around them?
The motivation for a PDA can be quite different to simply wanting to kiss the person you are with and not caring where you are or who can see — the public-ness of it can be part of the whole thing. A 2021 study from the University of Kansas, which involved a survey of several hundred students, found 32% of men and 37% of women to have been involved in ‘strictly performative’ making out — in which wanting others to see was a primary motivator of their actions. Motivations cited by respondents in the survey included enhancing their image (i.e., looking cooler/sexier to those around them), causing jealousy or envy in others and demonstrating a relationship.
Twice as many men — 59% to 30% — said they engaged in PDAs to enhance their image, while many more women than men said that they were concerned about reputational damage, with phrases like ‘slut-shaming’ coming up. While the study was focused on male-female PDAs, it also found that significantly more women than men had engaged in same-sex PDAs.
The internet and social media can of course blur the lines between public and private spaces, and provides newer ways of ‘showing off’ a relationship. While the world of social media is a fast-moving one, some studies have suggested than using it as a forum to show off about your relationship can be, in some cases, as much about narcissism as anything else. Psychologists have coined the term ‘relationship-contingent self-esteem’ to describe people who have to show off about their relationships to feel good about themselves.
Limits: when is a PDA too much?
It doesn’t take science to say that there’s generally a limit to what anyone sees as acceptable public behavior, but where those lines are drawn differs greatly from environment to environment. Something that wouldn’t draw a second glance at midnight in a darkened bar would scandalize fellow commuters on a well-lit 8am bus, for instance.
But where things can get even more complicated is in relationships that are looked upon less favorably — or even potentially less favorably — by those around them. This involves not only any kind of PDA in a less permissive society, but sadly enough, those by minority or interracial couples or LGBTQ+ couples even in supposedly progressive environments.
It’s all very complicated, because while nobody should feel pressure — internal or external — to ‘perform’ their relationship in public (the Kansas study bears the title ‘Wanting To Be Seen’), similarly, surely nobody should have to police their behavior to the extent that they can’t enjoy a kiss with their partner in public.
A 2014 study by the American Sociological Association found that while heterosexual respondents were in favor of same-sex couples having exactly the same legal rights as them, they were slightly less egalitarian when it came to who should be allowed to indulge in a bit of public affection — a liberal attitude when it came to legislation but a more conservative one when it came to witnessing non-heteronormative passion.
This unfriendliness in turn makes such displays less likely. A 2021 German-Irish study found context, and how friendly an area seemed, was much more likely to determine whether LGBTQ+ couples were likely to kiss in public than heterosexual couples. Perceiving an area to be less friendly also meant that if they did have such a moment, they enjoyed it less that they would do somewhere where they felt safer.
Similarly, interracial couples are, according to an analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health done at the University of Pennsylvania, less likely than intra-racial couples to engage in public displays of affection, while showing no such difference behind closed doors.
Inside and outside.
Beyond the performative aspect, and all other things being equal (something these studies remind us is far from true), does a proclivity towards public displays of affection reveal anything about how healthy a relationship is?
As with so many of these things, it does and it doesn’t — there are couples who perform to hide cracks in their relationships and those that genuinely can’t keep their hands off one another. In general, results tend towards the idea that couples who touch one another more — in any context — are happier and more sexually satisfied.
There is almost certainly a practical element to PDAs being more associated with young people — for those still living at home, or living in shared accommodation with a lot of other people, privacy might be thin on the ground at the best of times, and being in public might not really feel much different.
A 2022 study from Poland found a negative correlation between both public and private displays of affection and age and relationship duration — i.e. that older people and those that had been in their relationship longer were less likely to be physical in public, but also in private.
In terms of online public spaces, the jury seems similarly out — while some public proclamations are solely motivated by showing off, some are totally healthy and valid expressions.
So it’s all incredibly complicated — a public display of affection could be any combination of performative behavior, genuine spontaneity, carefully-controlled behavior adhering to social standards or something else entirely. There’s more to making out on the bus than one might think.