When a recent video, of a couple affectionately hugging and kissing on the Delhi Metro, appeared in my Twitter feed, it broke my routine of mindless doom scrolling. I looked at the screen and smiled, heartened by this romantic exchange. However, when I read the hashtag, #CulturalGenocide, in the original tweet, now removed for flouting Twitter guidelines, I realised how easy it was to mobilise virtual pitchforks against couples for snatching some romantic moments.
We share, at best, an ambivalent relationship with public display of affection (PDA). The Marine Drives and Lodi Gardens of India are populated with lovers at every corner. We lose our minds when couples get engaged and kiss in front of the Eiffel Tower. And yet, we raise obscenity charges and create a mindless furore about some couples, who engage in PDA.
Anne Sexton famously said, ‘Love and a cough cannot be concealed.’ And they must not be either — for physical intimacy is a crucial marker of a relationship’s health. A 2020-study with over 184 couples, published by the Harvard Health Publishing, confirmed that an increase in regular affectionate activities like touching, hugging, and cuddling significantly increased relationship satisfaction. Another study, published in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, substantiated that high levels of “PDA-related vigilance” or concealing affectionate behaviour in public could worsen psychological and physical well-being.
Simply put: intimate touch, with consent, is good for us. And the more we try to conceal it, the worse it is for our relationships.
For the modern Indian, physical affection is not only a core component of romantic love, but is also tied to identity and self-expression. Ankur Pathak, 29, screenwriter, ‘Modern Love: Mumbai’, argues that indulging in PDA is about avoiding self-censorship of his behaviour. “It is an impulse that I don’t want to filter. I’m not orchestrating a kiss with my partner while on the way to a coffee shop. It is an emotional reaction from a place of tenderness, not sensuality,” says Pathak.
Despite growing up in a family that rarely exhibited physical affection, Ekta Chauhan, 29, a PhD researcher, managed to cultivate a highly affectionate personality. She is uninhibited about PDA and believes it shouldn’t just be normalised but encouraged. Having spent four years in Germany, she tells me how different it feels to approach PDA in India. “It was extremely comfortable in Germany because you could do whatever you felt like on the streets. In India, I have to self-censor because I don’t want to run into problems,” she adds.
For some, growing comfortable with PDA has been a process of unlearning the shame and judgement that it carries. “I have worked hard to overcome my conditioning, which associated it with shame. I am filled with warmth when I witness it,” says Neha Dwivedi, 36, certified childbirth educator and lactation specialist. Sometimes this ‘shame’ is inflicted by partners, as was the case for Chauhan. “My first boyfriend was not just uncomfortable with PDA, but he also shamed me for it, calling it cringy. Now that I’m dating someone who is okay with it, it has made me come out of my shell. I'm more open with expressing myself,” she adds.
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However, despite being comfortable with PDA in principle, it is not always straightforward for everyone to happily engage in it. For some, like Arva Kagzi, 24, a communications professional and photographer, it is people’s gaze that makes him uncomfortable, and not the act itself. “I don't violate anyone else's boundaries if I kiss someone. If I’m making you uncomfortable, just don’t look in my direction,” she says.
But what is defiance for some could be a severe safety hazard for others. Chittajit Mitra, 29, writer-translator and a queer rights activist, tells me how things are different for LGBTQIA+ people. “People just make videos of cis-hetero people engaging in PDA. However, they won’t even think twice before assaulting a queer couple,” they add.
The threats to personal safety are endless — from unwanted stares, illegal recording and resharing of videos, to calling the cops. Recently, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation announced plans to deploy police in civil clothes to watch for ‘objectionable’ behaviour on the widely used public transport. While it has been spurred by the video of a man masturbating on the metro, it is not tough to postulate how acts of affection too might fall under the purview of such monitoring. Still, despite the policing, for Kagzi, public affection is far better than the unsafe situations many young couples face while accessing shady hotels with improper hygiene standards.
Although it would be the best-case scenario, expecting an overnight cultural revolution in how India perceives PDA is a big ask. In that case, let me suggest a quid pro quo: if I can ignore men using every wall on the streets of a busy city as a urinal, you can overlook a couple sharing kisses on the Delhi Metro, and we can call it even.
Delhi-based Nona Uppal writes on love and relationships. She is on Instagram @nonauppal