On (my own) excessive PDA

This is a submission to the Carnival of Aces, whose theme is “Second Chance at any Past Topic“. This may be considered a response to “Touch, Sensuality, and Non-sexual Intimacy” or “Kissing, Handholding, Bed-sharing, etc.“.

I have a confession: I am one of those folks who shows public displays of affection (PDA) all the time. My husband and I regularly hold hands in public, stand well within each other’s personal space, put hands on each others’ shoulders, backs, and legs. And occasionally hold each other or kiss. And while this wouldn’t stand out among couples of a certain age, we’re getting to an age that we’re clear outliers.

We don’t do it for show. In fact we’re more aggressive about it in the more private corners of public spaces. (Most private of public spaces: in an elevator. Most public of public spaces: in an elevator with one other person.) But there is an undeniable social dimension to it.

With m/f couples, PDA might be considered eye-roll-inducing; but with m/m couples, PDA comes across as defiant, victorious, or cute. And there’s good reason for that. PDA is the ultimate coming out–not just to family, friends, or acquaintances, but to utter strangers. We don’t do PDA just because it’s a political statement, and yet it inevitably makes a political statement that we are not interested in backing down from. We know some people will be annoyed, but we will not bow to that unless we felt threatened, and perhaps not even then.

We have gotten harassed for PDA, and it doesn’t even matter what kind it is. Just standing close enough together lets people pick up on the fact that we’re couple. More frequently, our PDA has provoked comments along the lines of “That’s cute”. I interpret that as a particular form of happiness that comes from seeing the fruits of social progress, but it feels objectifying and I’d rather people kept it to themselves.

Most people say nothing. In that silence, I imagine straight people who are slightly annoyed, but fear that if they said anything it would come across as homophobic. I imagine queer people immediately spotting us, gaydar pinging loudly, leading some of them to feel safer, and some to feel jealous.

And then some people are thinking, they must be having a lot of sex. (And this is based on a few comments where people have said so directly.)

I’ve spoken about being sex-favorable, but our PDA likely gives the wrong impression. We are not having nearly as much sex as people imagine. In private, we mostly do more PDA, but like, the P now stands for private. The biggest addition in private is just that we cuddle a lot. We’re kind of a classic “ace couple with sensual attraction”, except that I’m gray and he’s allo, and also I prefer to think of it as sensuality rather than sensual attraction because what even is attraction.

In the context of the ace community, Sometimes I think about the theoretical conflict between aces who feel uncomfortable around PDA, and people who wish to engage in PDA. In principle, this could be a tough issue, akin to societal arguments about appropriate levels of dress or nudity. But in practice, I hardly ever see it.

I’ve definitely heard expressions of discomfort–not towards me in particular, but towards PDA in general. It’s the sort of discussion that occurs more in semi-private forums, where people don’t have that primal fear of accidentally going viral. But very rarely are people calling for PDA to stop, rather they’re sharing personal reactions with other aces, a communal exploration of experiential minutiae.

I respectfully acknowledge experiences of discomfort but I hope it’s clear by now that we’re not going to stop. And nobody has ever really asked us to. We have toned it down at ace meetups (back when we had in-person events), but only in line with our approach to other kinds of public spaces.

In all these years, the worst comment I’ve ever heard from an ace person did not take the form of advocating for PDA to stop. Instead, it was a lie about the motivations of PDA. They claimed that people do PDA specifically to show off. Nobody needs to enjoy seeing PDA, but please don’t make hasty generalizations like that. People do PDA for a variety of reasons.

If I may go on a tangent, lately there’s been an argument going around about whether kink belongs at pride. I say “argument”, but when I searched Twitter I only found hundreds of people loudly arguing that kink does belong at pride, and I did not find out who they were arguing with. And that seems about right, because kink at pride is so deeply established, trying to kick it out is literally worse than trying to kick out the Dykes on Bikes. It’s hard for me to take seriously.

So this is all hearsay, but supposedly people who oppose kink at pride occasionally cite asexuals, under the theory that removing kink from pride might make aces more comfortable at the events. The general ace reaction is “No, we never asked for that, stop bringing us into this.”

I bring this up, because the supposed conflict between aces and public celebrations of kink is similar to the supposed conflict between aces and PDA. That is, the conflict is almost entirely imagined, and doesn’t really happen in practice. And why is that?

If any readers are uncomfortable with PDA, I’m curious about your thoughts. But my thinking is, there are just a lot more low-hanging fruit to mitigate discomfort. For example, simply acknowledging discomfort and not acting like people are weird for feeling it. Or allowing people to avoid media with more explicit depictions of sex. Or marking media with content warnings, so that people can more effectively avoid it, or come prepared. I think preventing people from sincerely expressing their affection or celebrating their sexuality is far from what people really want.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in Articles, LGBT, personal experience, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to On (my own) excessive PDA

  1. Cracticus says:

    I’m allo ace and occasionally touch adverse. I’m somewhat uncomfortable with some of the more obvious forms of PDA. Part of it is I’m very private in how I express my affection to my boyfriend and sometimes PDA makes me very conscious of how my relation is different to what’s “normal”, but it also makes me think about how I’d personally feel uncomfortable displaying affection that way. I’m particularly uncomfortable with online PDA, such as in Facebook posts. It confuses me why people do that, especially since I would would find it more special to receive such sentiments in a private space.

    • Siggy says:

      Yeah, *nods*.

      I think there are actually quite a number of (allo) couples who don’t feel comfortable doing PDA, but it can be hard to tell, because PDA is often the most visible indicator that they’re a couple in the first place.

  2. aceadmiral says:

    I’m a little conflicted about the framing of this topic simply as “preventing people from sincerely expressing their affection or celebrating their sexuality” because on the one hand it is true that that is the reason that I do not ever say anything to anyone about PDA, but on the other hand it attaches an absolute right-ness to other people’s needs that force me to yield mine in favor of theirs every time. PDA does make it genuinely harder for me to exist in the world, especially because of the political aspect that you point out, where I have to not only try to protect myself the best I can without infringing on people’s PDA, but I also have to be concerned with how I do it, lest they take offense. And it’s not like it’s just minor or temporary; I have a friendship I’m slowly losing (or maybe have lost) because of it.

    I will say that at least part of why my relationship with that friend is so strained is that she is ace, knows I am ace, and at least theoretically knows how I feel about PDA, and yet she came to my home and was PDA-ing non-stop. But did I say anything to her? No, of course not, for the reasons discussed above! I’m not defending my actions here–it’s on me that I haven’t cleared the air with her–but when there is literally nowhere my needs receive consideration, not ace space, not even my own home, I don’t think it’s entirely irrational to perceive a heavy pressure that my needs don’t deserve consideration. I completely understand and even endorse the sentiment behind “we will not bow to that unless we felt threatened, and perhaps not even then,” but the absolute nature of it means all I can do is endure and withdraw.

    So I don’t think it’s surprising you’ve not seen much of this discussion in practice, and that the people you’ve heard discussing it frame it in terms of sharing personal reactions. Why would we have this discussion when it is so clearly and overwhelmingly going to be decided against us, and at the same time it would be weaponized against us and people we care about? I’ve been rejected enough by the community on this issue (I say, in the middle of writing a public comment about it…); I’m perfectly skilled at keeping myself to myself, thanks.

    • Siggy says:

      Based on the context you describe, you might be in more of a position to negotiate than you think.

      Something that I hope I made clear, is that the PDA is adjustable, and gets adjusted all the time, almost intuitively based on the context. The main question is whether we are inclined to do so. If a stranger complained, it’s like, we didn’t ask you to be in our life, and you’re free to leave or look away, and that’s why strangers don’t complain. On the other hand, a stranger in an elevator is not free to leave.

      With friend spaces the intuition might be to treat it almost like a private space. But friends are also the most likely to voice complaint, because they know that we’ll listen.

    • wrainfall says:

      Well said. The erasure of aspec identities will always make PDA a stacked deck.

  3. I’m not sure if I’d necessarily consider myself touch-averse, but I do have a very short list of people I’m completely comfortable touching me and even with them I prefer the touch to happen on my terms. Overall, I figure couples engaging in PDA isn’t really my business at all, but sometimes I slam headlong into just how much I don’t want someone to touch me like that. That said, I’m not convinced that’s the same thing as actually being uncomfortable with PDA.
    Also, my relationship with the question is influenced by the whole “ace people want there to be no PDA at Pride!” boogeyman the Anti-Ace Brigade sometimes pulls out. I’m not sure if any ace has ever said that, but posts “reminding” aces not to complain about PDA at Pride resurface all the time. Overall, I’m annoyed by the assumption that I can’t handle PDA and need to be reminded not to make that allo people’s problem when I’ve never claimed that I can’t handle PDA.

  4. opisaheretic says:

    Not a huge focus of this post, but I appreciate the data point about what you find objectifying or perhaps patronizing behavior. I know a lot of people are probably well-meaning in their “Oh cute”, comments, but if they truly are they’ll consider that it doesn’t have the intended effect.

  5. Shoshanna says:

    I’m one of those hypocritical aces who is kinky and does PDA, and is also uncomfortable around strangers doing PDA and being publicly kinky. (The latter more than the former, and in very specific gendered violence-related contexts, which I don’t think is related to my asexuality. I want kink at Pride, and I also don’t go to Pride because there are occasionally cis-man-appearing people leading around cis-woman-appearing people on leashes, and I just can’t right now.) I treat everything else, including PDA, the same way I treat any other behavior in public that makes me uncomfortable but isn’t hurting anyone – politely ignore.

    My ideal world still includes PDA! And people being kinky and sexual and anything they please. It just also involves my personal sphere having a low level of sexual content. It’s my responsibility to curate my social sphere, and to not be a jerk to strangers out in public when they’re not being a jerk to me.

  6. wrainfall says:

    I admit, I used to fall into the trap of thinking couples – any couples – were showing off. As I’ve got older, I realise it’s something that comes naturally to alloros, at least. My frustration with PDA was a result of my frustration with amatonormativity.

    As I’ve come to realise allos can’t choose to be allo any more than we can choose to be ace, that undercurrent of “They’re just showing off to throw it in everyone else’s faces” has largely gone away.

  7. Pingback: Round Up of All Submissions: Carnival of Aces – August 2021 – Second Chance at Any Past Topic – From Fandom To Family – The New Home of luvtheheaven!

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