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Posted : 2012-06-27 20:00
Updated : 2012-06-27 20:00

Public displays of affection: where to draw the line?


Public displays of affection (PDA) have become increasingly common in Korea, but outright displays of excessive intimacy still seem to be a taboo in a society ridden by conservative norms. / Korea Times

By Kim Bo-eun, Jung Min-ho, Bahk Eun-ji

It’s no longer uncommon to see young couples hug, squeeze or smooch in public. While some couples are still coy about anything beyond holding hands in public areas, others are unafraid of expressing their affection for each other in a more explicit, or sometimes even raunchy, manner.

However, public displays of affection (PDA) occasionally go beyond kissing or groping. People around couples who display their love in public sometimes find themselves in an awkward situation which they have to deal with, one way or another, and many still struggle to find the most appropriate way of doing this without making the situation more embarrassing for the couples or themselves.

PDA, expressing physical intimacy in sight of others, has become prevalent in this society, almost everyone has, at least once, witnessed or participated in it.

However, older generations can’t stand when young couples cross the thin line that determines appropriate PDA, but younger people don’t appear to mind the frowns or dagger looks aimed by appalled onlookers.

With no rules on PDA and social norms blurred, what may be considered appropriate PDA?

Park Kyoung-tae, a 38-year-old sommelier, recently had an embarrassing experience on the subway.

“It happened late at night around 11 o’clock. I was with my girlfriend after a date. I gave her a good-bye kiss before she got off the subway when, suddenly, an old man came out of nowhere and started scolding us, saying it is not right to block other peoples’ way by ‘doing so.’” Park said. “Since there were few people on the subway, I was not convinced at all and it just hurt my feelings.”

Although the old man gave a reason to justify his action, Park knew that he just wanted to chide them for kissing in public instead of telling them to stay out of other people’s way.

“I understand excessive PDA could arouse uncomfortable feelings in others and therefore could be a problem,” Park said. “However, if it is a minor incident, people have to let it go.”

Love is universal, and so is the PDA issue. In other words, Korea is not the only country in which onlookers grumble about couples intimate moaning in the park or eyeing each other lustfully.

Recently, English singer-songwriter Kelly Osbourne posted a tongue kissing picture of herself and her boyfriend Matthew Mosshart on Twitter with the caption, “I’m in love and I don’t care who knows about it!” fueling debate over how much PDA is appropriate in societies.

Is it possible for people to hate PDA? Of course, if they have to watch it. But some might change their point of view if they find themselves engaged in it. This creates paradoxical thinking.

A person who believes PDA is romantic can also despise it. Problems arise when people watching and people smooching have different definitions of “appropriate limits” on PDA.

As hard as it is and indeed almost impossible for steamy couples to keep their hands off each other, it is painful for many watchers to remain calm with provocative scenes happening right in front of their eyes. So, controversy abounds regarding the issue and is up for debate.

Korean society is changing

“It’s not illegal; it really depends on personal choice,” says Song Mi-rah, a 23-year-old college student.

“My boyfriend and I used to make people uncomfortable by holding hands, hugging, and even kissing in public, but as I got older, I think I became more conscious of others,” Song said.

She said she feels more secure when she makes out with her boyfriend in a private rather than public place.

“I think the cultural context is also important,” says Yoo Sang-hee, a 26-year-old private banking manager.

“When I was traveling in France last summer, PDA was very common; I saw so many couples making out in parks, at cafes and even on the street. I did not get annoyed at all even though I happened to see a Korean couple kissing at an outdoor cafe, because it was seen literally everywhere so it struck me as being very natural,” Yoo said.

However, she said once she returned to Korea, she suddenly felt uncomfortable when she saw a young couple kissing on the street. Yoo thinks that this is because of her Asian upbringing which has been influenced by Confucian values.

“It is a kind of stereotype that westerners are more comfortable showing their feelings and affection in public, while Asians don’t and are not allowed to do so,” Yoo said.

“I know it sounds ridiculous and illogical, but I think that society is on its way in becoming more open to PDA. That’s obvious.”

Johan is from Sweden and is on his second visit to Korea. He says he noticed certain changes in attitude toward PDA within the young generation in Korea.

He recalled vividly what he witnessed three years ago when he was going home after a party with friends.

“A girl was sitting on the subway ventilation at the platform and waiting for the train with her boyfriend. They were literally making out; hugging and kissing each other. Suddenly an old lady approached them, slapped the girl’s arm and scolded them. The couple ended up leaving.”

He was amazed at what he saw but things have changed greatly. He has since rarely seen objections to PDA like that recounted in his story, since he revisited Korea.

“I’m fine with PDA in moderation, as I don’t see anything wrong with being affectionate,” says Johan.

“Some couples, however, seem like they don’t know when to call it quits. A quick hug, holding hands, a goodbye kiss are all good, but making out, which is anything more than a quick kiss should be done in private,” he said. “It’s nice that couples are not afraid of showing how they feel toward each other in public. Still, enough is enough, you know.”

PDA still frowned upon

A recent survey conducted by SK Marketing & Company showed that what people on the subway find most disturbing is excessive PDA.

Among 3,000 respondents aged 20 to 59, more than 44 percent said inappropriate behavior by couples was the worst, more than those who cited talking loudly on the phone and elderly people expecting young people to give up their seats.

There was a difference however, between age groups. Among those in their 50s, 54.3 percent frowned upon PDA whereas for people in their 20s the figure was 30 percent.

By occupation, housewives were the least tolerant, while college students were the most open toward PDA.

The survey confirmed that the older generation is more conservative in their attitude toward intimacy in public.

“Expressing affection is a somewhat private type of behavior,” said 59-year-old Kim Myung-seok. “Korea has deep roots in Confucianism which values community over individuals. Displaying behavior that could make others feel uncomfortable is something very individualistic, that goes against what is accepted as common sense,” he said.

However, even among younger people, excessive physical contact is not viewed in a positive light.

“Holding hands, hugging or a light peck on the cheek is fine,” said Park, a 26-year-old university student. “But anything that goes beyond that becomes unsightly.”

Park said he recently saw a couple making out at a cafe and said that he had looked at them disapprovingly. He said he often sees young couples kissing in the streets of Sinchon, a district where several university campuses are located.

“PDA has become quite common. It’s easy to spot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a pleasant sight,” he added.

Still not much tolerance

Another survey conducted recently by a Seoul-based matchmaking company Duo showed that one in two young people believed that excessive displays of affection should be punished somehow.

Among 261 respondents aged 20 to 39, nearly 60 percent said so, supporting the notion that even young people were not completely open to expressing intimacy in public.

In the survey permitting multiple answers, the majority of the respondents replied that overt sexual expression and any type of PDA that makes others feel uneasy should be punished.

And despite varying responses to PDA that included indifference and amusement, 35 percent said that it made them feel uncomfortable.

When asked about what they do when their girlfriend or boyfriend wanted to make out in public, only 18.6 percent said that they disregard other people and go ahead with whatever they desire to do.

The remaining respondents were self-conscious about displaying affection in front of others and 26.4 percent said they do not engage in any sort of PDA. The majority of respondents also said that the part that bothered them most when making out in public was how others would view them.

Although Korean society is becoming more open toward PDA, the surveys show that not only the older generation but younger people are also still quite conservative when it comes to the controversial issue.

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