Public Displays of Insurrection

Note: This post is Part I in an ongoing series concerning affection and sexuality in public. Part II is [here], Part III is [here], and Part IV is [here].

Today I had a cultural experience.

I’ll try to give you some context and I hope you don’t mind: My companion and I entered one of the many public buildings not devoted to classwork on our local college campus—this building is reserved for recreation and peripheral matters like parking permits, stores, cafés, etc. She intended to purchase one last book for the new semester, while I intended to depart to do some light work on the lower floor. I gave her forehead a playful headbutt, and attempted to kiss her as she was pulling away, a common game—this caused me to slide along, attempting to keep pace. In fact, our lips met for what might amount to half of a peck, but what happened next caught me off guard.

A short, hostile man in a green tank and crew cut seemed to spontaneously materialize and, after the fashion of the close-talking Aaron of Seinfeld, stood what must have been close enough to smell me or examine my pores.


Imagine: I, the old lady, and synapses aflame.

His words are lost to me because my flight-or-flight muscles were flexed to the point of ripping, and so I can only recall phrases and paraphrases. (I am an introvert, autistic, and maladapted: I do very, very poorly with strangers, conversation, eye-contact and personal space).

He told me that I should understand that he is a veteran, and that he doesn’t want to come to school and see such things. He told me that what I am doing is unacceptable (please observe this man completely ignored my companion, as though she had no part whatsoever in the display). In my typical, cavalier, too-flippant form, I asked him if he was aware that it was by such means he came to be. After all, physical affection is how the world is to be peopled. He took great exception to this. He told me to never speak to him that way and that he was entitled to greater honor. I asked him how it was he was entitled to the honor of being free from seeing a kiss, but I was not entitled to the honor of being free from the interrogation of strangers.

At this point his face shifted. It looked pained, violent and faintly psychopathic. I moved to walk away, and did the circuit of the ground floor to provision myself in the cafeteria. I was pleased to be done with him, for only a moment, before realizing he was actually stalking me through the building. He continued to harass me about respect, honor, being a soldier, and a variety of other very-important-matters. He actually called, in front of about fifty people in the cafeteria, across the room to inform me I am a disgusting human being.

This is not some sort of survivor story, or pity-me-party. It’s actually hilarious to me, and is part of an on-going research session I’ve been conducting about the nature of human affection. This experience galvanized me to write because it was so preposterous and extreme. It brought to the surface a constellation of topics that I now realize are all interrelated, and I’ve been meaning to get them off my chest for months now.

My first impression, after realizing this wasn’t the sort of PTSD-addled psychopath who might murder me where I stood, was to figure out what offended him so much. It reminded me of one of my friends. Her regular expression is “I have eyes,” which seems to be her equivalent of “Get a room,” which I also find to be a greatly amusing statement. But also non sequitur. I can never understand why it is that showing affection seems to cause such social problems. So I consulted the internet, of course. There are reams and reams of information on this topic online, but very little in the way of empirical data. Further, most writing concerning the subject is so heavily biased toward one or the other side of the fence that it is almost useless to even read it.

Some common conceptions of what is wrong with public displays of affection:

  • It is a form of showing off, and causes jealousy to singles.
  • It is an immature expression of love which could only occur in teenagers or whimsical daters and which is shed by married, mature adults.
  • It is a form of sexual abuse, essentially subjugating others to an unwanted experience.
  • It falls under common public indecency, obscenity and gross misconduct legal provisions.
  • It is disrespectful, selfish, disgusting, immoral, rude.
  • It causes discomfort because bystanders don’t know how to interact with it—where to look, what to say, what to do, etc.

But not everyone hates public displays of affection. One time I sat in the corner of a room and watched two people make out for many minutes because it was very enjoyable to see how tenderly they adored one another. I enjoyed how happy they were with each other and I imagined how healthy their friendship must be. How impermeable it must be. It lifted my heart and it encouraged me, because it showed that somewhere out there exist happy people who care for one another. One time I kissed my companion at a gas station, and a bearded, older man yelled out his window, with enthusiasm, a smile and excitement, “Fuck yeah!” and it should be noted that in the context and culture of this statement those words mean he was happy and he approved. One of my most notable, vivid memories as a child was a couple with their hands in each others pockets. I thought it was scandalous—and beautiful. My friends, family and peers which I’ve encountered throughout my life fall variously on a vast spectrum in their attitudes, as do those around me. While the local stripper girl who professes to be a sexual champion and commands legions of “fucktoys,” as she affectionately terms them, tells me to “get a room” shortly after giving an informal seminar to her devotees on buttplugs in the common room of our student union building, while the most introspective, unassuming, and plain among me play a prolonged and passionate round of footsie with their S.O. while doing homework. I’m told that in Indonesia, you can be set back a year’s pay and five years in prison for a public display of affection, while in Brazil it’s presumed there might be relational friction if there isn’t any physical friction. It’s plain to me there is no universal standard. Appearances are deceiving, expectations are fickle, and someone is going to think you’re wrong no matter what you do.

I see three very important questions that must be addressed to properly arrive at an informed opinion on this topic and this post serves as a launching point for these three questions. The questions are these:

  1. What makes humans distinct from animals that affection between animals, even bawdy sex and on public display, doesn’t draw even a batting eye while even the slightest sign of interest, from a flickering glance delivered at the wrong moment, is enough to create a moral panic in our species?
  2. To what extent does the issue of consent reach, if even visual displays in a public place can cause a social or moral furor? Put another way, in what sense is public space public if all private mores and expectations are to be protected; is Western individualism not at fault for sacralizing the private experience at the expense of public experience?
  3. Do individuals hold a burden or obligation to observe prevailing cultural expectations, despite whether they may or may not be disclosed?

I will be wrestling with these questions in three forthcoming installments and I hope you will weigh in in the comments. I simultaneously feel impervious certainty in my own position and great flummoxing terror that I am missing some terribly obvious truth so basic no one has ever tried to articulate it.

visuals by mewDuring the composition of this post, I listened to [Visuals] by [Mew]. Alerted to its existence by one of my favorite musicians from his end-of-the-year list for 2017, I decided to give it a shot. That was a brilliant move as his tastes are sumptuous.

Visuals by Mew stands out on his list as Danish, poppy, dreamlike, progressive, and soft. Its lyrics are like fairy tales, its sounds are like ear candy, and if tasked with a one-word description of Visuals I would confidently say ‘lullaby.’



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