Written by Misha Gajewski
You’re standing at the bus stop minding your own business when you notice a couple sucking face—and they’re going at it, practically dry humping. You look away, but you can still hear the sound of their smacking lips, like an old man eating chili. Your body cringes with revulsion. Instead of thinking, “Ah, young love!”, you’re completely disgusted.
While you try and keep down your lunch, a part of you wonders why seeing public displays of affection makes you as uncomfortable as watching a sex scene with your parents. Are you a prude? Or just a bitter single person who can’t be happy for other people’s love?
First, it’s not just you—but it’s also not everyone, either. People vary widely in their response to others’ PDA, says Karen Blair, assistant professor of psychology at St. Francis Xavier University and the director of the KLB Research Lab. “Some find it sweet, some find it gross, some don’t even notice,” she says.
It’s worth noting that PDA is a relatively new phenomenon. Heavy petting and necking were once more behind-closed-doors activities. The first on-screen kiss wasn’t until 1896 and it’s only been since the 20th century that we stopped thinking anything more than hand holding was an all out scandal. Before the 1900s, PDA was taboo, and sometimes even illegal (punishable by fines, jail time, and in some extreme cases, death). These chaste beginnings can continue to have an influence over our modern day thoughts and behaviors.
For instance, at least one survey of university students that looked at work ethic and views on sexual norms found that traditional Puritan values about work and sex still influence Americans today. Context also matters, Blair says. People tend to be more accepting of PDA when it’s done in appropriate settings. She explains that we have a higher tolerance for PDA in places where people commonly greet or say goodbye to each other.
“There is never a shortage of PDA at airports, and indeed, often it is more gratuitous than what you might see in any other place, and people don’t seem to react negatively. In those situations, people empathize with the process of saying goodbye or hello to an important loved one and therefore give more space [and] acceptance to expressions of affection,” she says.
As Charles Hill, a professor of psychology at Whittier College, wrote in a New York Times article back in the ‘80s, one reason PDA might be less acceptable in places where it’s not the norm is because it forces people to become an unwilling audience member—and that can be uncomfortable.
Another factor is who is doing the kissing: One 2014 study found that 95 percent of heterosexual participants were fine with a hetero couple kissing on the cheek, but only 55 percent of them approved of a gay couple kissing on the cheek. Another study, conducted by Blair and her colleagues, found that men who were more prejudiced towards gay people were more likely to rate man-on-man PDA as “disgusting.”
“We also found that these same men with a past of aggressive behavior were more likely to show facial expressions of contempt in response to images of two men holding hands and facial expressions of disgust in response to images of two men kissing,” Blair adds. This might explain why same-sex couples ares less likely to share affection in public.
Even without social and cultural influences or homophobic/racist leanings, however, how you react to PDA also has a lot to do with your personality. As Gwendolyn Seidman, a psychology professor at Albright University explains, we each have personal tolerance levels for disgust.
“People differ in their level of disgust sensitivity, [which is] the extent to which you find different types of things disgusting,” she says, explaining that being grossed out by one thing—such as bodily fluids—means you’re likely to be grossed out by other things, like insects, spoiled food, or sexual taboos. “So people higher in disgust sensitivity might find visual displays of PDA to be especially disgusting.”
Meanwhile, Blair suggests that your attachment style—how you react in relationships—might also might have something to do with how you feel about PDA. “Even though attachment style relates to how we feel about our own personal relationships, it may influence how we view others’ relationships as well,” she says. Therefore, she adds, if you have an avoidant attachment style, you may be less likely to respond positively to displays of affection by other couples, perhaps seeing them as unnecessary or ‘over the top.’
Seidman adds that how you see yourself acting in a similar situation can influence what you think of PDA. “People tend to use themselves as a source of comparison to other people,” she says. “They judge others based on themselves.” In other words, if you’re the kind of person who would never make out on a bus, then you’re going to judge whoever does do that more harshly. And this is especially true if you think that couple is being extra about their displays of affection.
“It does appear that there’s such a thing as too much PDA,” says Lydia Emery, a graduate student in the psychology department at Northwestern University. In Emery’s research, she has found that people are seen as unlikeable if they are extra gushy about their relationship in their Facebook posts. She says the same could be true for couples who are all over each other in public, but more research is needed to see if the dislike for TMI Facebook posts also hate real life extreme PDA.
As for why people are so quick to hate on over-the-top PDA, Emery hypothesizes that it might be because people can pick up on the motivations of the couple. People engage in public displays of affection for a number of reasons, yet according to a University of Kansas study, which asked 349 college students about their engagement in PDA and the reasons behind it, the number one reason people did it was “to enhance their image or status by proving they were capable of making out with a particular person.”
“People don’t like it when others are bragging or showing off, or at least if they perceive it as such,” Seidman says. In another one of Emery’s studies, she found that people share more information about their relationship when they’re feeling insecure about their partner’s feelings. So people might actually be reacting negatively to the fakeness of the display of affection, but Emery stresses that more research is needed.
On a positive note, it seems that hating PDA has nothing to do with your relationship status. “Single people and people in relationships appear to dislike excessive PDA on Facebook an equal amount,” Emery says. But whether or not you think PDA is gross, you have to admit that you’re lucky you now live in a place—and a time—where that couple feels comfortable enough to make out in public at all. Just try not to sit next to them on the bus, and maybe put some headphones in.