PDA — Getting on the Same Page About Touching in Public
In terms of dating, and especially dating someone new, the first experience with PDA (Public Display of Affection) is a thing. Is it welcome? Is it too much? Is it…hot?
People that enjoy touch and prioritize it as a component in dating are usually pretty vocal about it these days. If you’ve spent any time on an online dating app, you’ll inevitably see a plethora of folks that feel the need to list touch as one of their “love languages”. I get it. I’m a “touchy” person and I value that in a partner. Heck, I grew up in the modern dance world where touch and invading awkward body spaces was part of the gig on a regular basis. I may not mention that in my profiles (and I’ll get to that later), but I’m acutely aware of how this plays out when I’m first dating someone and exploring what their boundaries are with touch, especially in public.
It’s the public part of this that’s especially interesting. Our comfort levels in private or familiar circles are not always our comfort levels in public, and even that may depend on the space. Not surprisingly, being affectionate while being watched by others has been written about extensively and there are plenty of articles discussing the reactions to PDA as well, a fascinating topic in and of itself. But when it comes to dating a new person, what is it about PDA that makes it such a hot topic and potentially sends a zinger down your spine?
People are around. They’re looking. They can hear you. Form opinions about you. Make assumptions about you both (gasp). Your actions are on display for more than just your date. Showing affection in public for couples already comfortable with each other can be as simple as an automatic gesture they barely notice, but for new daters… it’s a symbol. It’s a test. It’s a request. It’s sometimes an incredibly heartwarming and intimate experience and shows a level of attraction and the desire to take something to the next level. This article does a nice job of expressing some reasons why PDA in the beginning and over time can be a highly affirming act and also mentions the other theories and reasons people “perform” PDA. I found this passage particularly moving:
When couples physically connect in public, they reinforce their commitment in the grand setting of the real world. Their actions not only say, ‘I want you right here, right now, no matter what,’ but also declare, ‘I choose you, just you, and no one else will do.’ That’s a powerful statement.
Essentially, it’s about taking pride in the person you’re with and showing others you’re not afraid to symbolically gesture that you like them. You’re happy to be with this person and don’t care who knows it. When someone doesn’t want to touch you or accept touch in public, when they purposefully create physical space between you and avoid showing any level of “being together” in public, it can’t help but feel like there is shame or embarrassment in being together and a desire to avoid showing any hint of “commitment” and keep some sort of secret until the feelings are more sure. That’s the kicker I think. For many of us, it’s a measure of surety in the attraction and a way to give emotional support to our date or partner. There’s some solid psychology behind all this and it turns out the propensity to like it may come from a variety of factors, most of them familial and cultural.
I come from a family that was physically affectionate; we gave each other head rubs and massages regularly, and even in my 30s my mom will still play with my hair or squeeze my shoulders while I exhale my stress away. I witnessed my parents being affectionate in my younger years, so seeing couples do that was normalized for me. The U.S. in general is a pretty affectionate-in-public kind of place. However, it’s important to remember that not all families and in fact, many cultures do not practice PDA, so this perspective is internationally narrow in scope in some ways. Adding to that, our LGBTQIA community experiences a level of discrimination with PDA not experienced in the heteronormative world which affects their desire and consequences for expressing it.
Now…timing. Most people welcome some appropriate PDA once a mutual connection is established, but doing too much too early may feel a bit false. I’ll never forget having a second date kiss that quickly turned into a groping make-out session with someone that seemed all too eager to get inappropriate in a semi-private booth at a comedy club. It felt less about me and more about his escapism in the moment for thrill seeking behavior, and filling insecurity and loneliness feelings. Sure, it was fun, but meaningful? Naw. Timing is important. More extreme PDA within the first few dates may seem fun, but be careful of alternative motives.
Location is an area of concern too. A lot of people find it appropriate to make out in dark, night club type venues or spaces where others aren’t too close physically like a big park or the beach, but imposing your close chemistry in a seated audience situation or groping each other in a busy workplace is going to be off-putting and awkward. When accepted social norms of imposition are crossed, that is definitely some other kind of behavior being exhibited and not a way to show your partner you care.
You won’t find me sucking face in a museum and giving hand jobs under five-star tables, but I generally feel very affirmed by normal physical touch with partners: holding hands, a hand on shoulder or around a hip, an appropriate kiss here and there. Statistically and scientifically, the majority of humans need/want/crave touch, public space conversations aside. For us and some of our great ape counterparts, it’s a means of increasing positive emotional responses, reducing cortisol and can affirm relationship ties. (Fast forward to me in the corporate world where I have to constantly remind myself that touching everyone’s shoulders when I speak to them is a no-no for HR, no matter how innocent the intent. “But my genetic needs!” my inner ancestral ape cries.)
Even the simplest touch, whether it’s in public or not, has some ground rules. I mention this often and it will never not be true: consent is everything. Touch of any kind — even a hand on an arm — needs to be welcome, and any indication of discomfort should be acknowledged and accepted without judgment. A percentage of people don’t have the same need for touch as others, especially from those they don’t feel romantic with or close to. It makes them uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. That’s something to keep in mind for both parties and new dates.
Another aspect mentioned in PDA conversations is the idea that PDA is related to possessiveness, ownership or part of a machismo culture from the male perspective. Consider seeing a sibling or parent with a new partner and how touch signifies that partner’s newfound closeness and relation to your social circle. I would tie this to consent and hope that both parties are equally engaging in and happy to be expressive of their relationship equally. If one party is using touch as a means of control or reminder of dominance when that is unwanted, that’s a no-no. Always be aware of consent, in regards to your partner and those around you. Let’s talk more about consent.
Remember, just because you want it and feel excited for it, doesn’t mean your date feels the same way. Check those signals, folks. Ask those questions. If you’re the initiator, make sure to allow your date an opportunity to show or tell you a response, and if you’re the one being touched, always respond authentically and don’t be afraid to set boundaries. If your date grabs your hand for a little hold and you’re not ready yet, it’s totally fine to take it away. It doesn’t have to mean you don’t like them. Just explain yourself. If your hand holder is a cool person, they will understand.
PDA Talk on the Apps
When it comes to the apps, I hold the opinion that you should be careful of vocalizing your desire or need for touch too early, only for the sake of lowering the pressure or stakes to show feelings. For the hetero guys — think about how many women are browsing profiles with mentions of a sexual nature, and how many sexual messages they receive, wanted or not. The online space is a treacherous one and women’s boundaries are tested often. Sure, on a human level, you enjoy touch and want that in a partner. On a dating app, it has implications for standards in sex that women may tend to misinterpret. Instead of thinking, “Oh, this sweet guy likes to hold hands in public, how nice,” she’s more likely reading, “Great, this guy is just going to be looking for getting physical as soon as possible. I like to cuddle as much as the next gal, but I don’t want that pressure of needing to show you that in order to go on a few dates.”
For couples, if affection shown through touch is not something you both share, quite frankly, it might not work out and that will all come out in the wash if you communicate your needs at the appropriate time. That’s my final plea. Once mutual attraction is established, then you can clearly communicate and positively reinforce the habits that you enjoy. In researching for this post, I came across a lot of folks writing about unfulfilled desires for touch from their partner because they were too scared to talk about it, and that just kinda sucks. Touch is usually a pretty strong need for those who desire it. It might be a good idea to gently bring up the conversation with a new relationship early if you suspect there is a disconnect. How terrible to think of two people secretly wanting touch, but afraid to offer it or receive it.
PDA is a big topic that gets into all sorts of interesting cracks and crevices of dating: attraction, boundaries, communication, consent, hormones. I always wonder about how far a date is willing to go to attempt a little closeness in public and love to see how relationship bonds can be expressed through the simplest of gestures. Holding hands, for us touchy-feely feelers, is the ultimate warm fuzzy. Want to see how you compare in a totally nonscientific way? Here’s a BuzzFeed quiz on PDA to see how you compare to others that take BuzzFeed quizzes. Not everyone needs to get a secret butt grab in public, but if you do, good luck finding your main squeeze out there in the dating universe. Your other PDA partner is ready and waiting. Go forth and date!
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