Dear Katherine,

The person I’m seeing doesn’t like P.D.A., and I live for it. How can I show him the pleasure of touching in public?

–Feeling Touchy

Dearest Touchy,

Your question is simple but not easy to answer.

A few weeks ago I was with two friends at a gas station in rural New England. We were buying bacon and beer in anticipation of Christ’s ascension. At the checkout, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my friends swapping spit in front of the candy bar display. I hastily forked over cash for a six-pack and darted over to awkwardly tap them on the shoulder and utter in an unusually high pitched voice: “OK! Off we go! To the car!!” Un-phased, they broke their liplock and followed me out to the parking lot.

Yes, dear, you’re talking to a girl who just isn’t a fan of that much PDA. Public kissing to me is a cross between public urination and slurping spaghetti without a spoon in Michelin-starred restaurant. Check, please!

HOWEVER, I understand that this isn’t the case for everybody, and that there can be great joys involved in PDA (public displays of affection). If I had my druthers everybody would abide by the following categories:

In your own home
In a dark alley
On a subway platform (but must be against a wall, not in middle of trafficked area)
On the steps of your home
In a car
In a taxicab
The park
The Jane Hotel after midnight
Your private Instagram account

The grocery store
A gas station
A movie theater
Traffic court
Really, any court
On a megabus
At a restaurant
Anywhere where other people are trying to eat
Your public Instagram account

Katherine Cooper

Katherine Cooper

PDA from a partner makes me feel like I’m constantly being checked in on. I don’t like advertising my sex life to my friends with explicit physical behavior. Secrets, to me, have always been more erotic. PDA is the bikini to the one-piece of implied private intimacy. The latter leaves a lot more raunchiness to the imagination, which is of course the most private and X-rated domain of all.

However, I realize that I’m on the conservative side when it comes to this issue, and your question has me wondering why that is and how I would want a partner to broach PDA with me. Here’s the thing: our cultural upbringing and milieu greatly determines our behavior in public places. How we occupy space with our bodies is never entirely up to us. Society influences our behavior in invisible ways. Think about it: were you raised to hold the door for certain people but not others? Were you surrounded by people who spit in public as part of social custom or were you told never to do such a thing? Have you been taught that it’s rude to begin a meal before everybody has their food or that it’s rude to let food get cold? How conscious are you of those behaviors as rational choices?

That being said, in order to acquaint you with a sexy yet decorous approach to PDA I’ll walk you through some definitions as well as approaches on how to share your public pleasure with your partner.

A sociologist named Irving Goffman wrote a book called “Behavior in Public Places.” He was sorting out the rules and regulations of social circles so that he could better understand what made somebody classifiable as mentally ill or socially unacceptable. PDA is far from psychotic, but understanding what you mean when you say “public” might help you avoid seeming so. Goffman defines “public places” as “any regions in a community freely accessible to members of that community.” (Hence my frustration with snogging in the dairy aisle). Conversely, private places refer to “soundproof regions where only members of invitees gather.” Knowing the difference is an essential starting point for a conversation with a loved one.

Now that you have a working definition of public and private, start by exploring some semi-public places with your partner. Try holding hands at a dinner party in your own home or kissing outside your apartment. Explore public affection in venues that feel comfortable and intimate.

I know I said all that stuff about hating making out in public, but I definitely have a thing for affection in motion. Kissing in an (empty) elevator or linking arms while walking through a park feels delightful. When you’re in motion you’re not expecting anybody to stick around too long to have to watch you do your thing, and thus it’s more enjoyable for those of us who are less exhibitionist. Plus, there’s a sense of adventure involved, which is impossibly sexy.

Just like any erotic proclivity from wanting to be spanked in bed to dying for Russell Stover chocolate, your desire for public touch must be articulated. Is it because you simply enjoy the pleasure of touch? Do you feel naughty when you do it? Do you feel supported by your partner when you can feel them close? Start a conversation with your partner about the nuances of your desire without the expectation that his will take the same shape. I might be more inclined to attempt to snog in public if I understood exactly how and why it meant so much to my partner. Maybe. No promises.

Now that you’ve articulated your desire give him some space to initiate. Some of us feel smothered by the expectation of PDA and need a little bit of time to grow into it. Once the desire is articulated, don’t jump his bones the next second. Give it a minute for him to react. There’s nothing more erotic than space. As psychotherapist Ester Perel says, “In this space between me and the other lies the erotic élan, lies that movement toward the other … And so, when I see my partner on his own or her own, doing something in which they are enveloped, I look at this person and I momentarily get a shift in perception, and I stay open to the mysteries that are living right next to me.”

I maintain that there’s nothing sexier than consent. Asking, “Is it ok if I kiss you on the cheek?” is infinitely more seductive than laying a wet one on him and having him shudder. Proceed gingerly and let the eroticism grow with each peck. Do not treat his shyness around PDA as a pathology.

Maybe his parents never kissed in front of him. Maybe it doesn’t turn him on to lose control by showing affection out in the world. Maybe holding hands feels childish and infantilizing. This may just be his deal, and you’ll need to decide exactly how important PDA really is to you. But whatever you do, don’t take his lack of interest personally. Instead…

Once you’ve had that convo about the underpinnings of your desire you’ll be more able to find ways of stoking those fires together. Maybe jumping into his arms after watching a horror movie does something similar for you. Maybe having him rub your back in private gives you the sense of intimate touch that you desire. Perhaps just making some prolonged eye contact with him in public situations will give you that same sense of security. Whatever it is, find it together.


Just the Tips is’s weekly advice column, with professional matchmaker Katherine Cooper. Have a question for Katherine about sex, love or dating? Shoot her a note at