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PDA Etiquette Around the World You Need to Know About

Culture Couples
by Claire Litton Cohn Nov 7, 2018

Everyone remembers the first bloom of love when you just can’t keep your hands off each other. But world travelers can get into some serious trouble by smooching their honeys, depending on location. In some countries, like Italy, France, or Spain it’s not uncommon to see lovers seemingly welded to each other while leaning against bridges in broad daylight and nobody batting an eye. But I once walked down the street holding hands with my boyfriend and leaned over to give him a peck on the lips when we were in Tangiers, Morocco, and a guy opened his window overhead and yelled at us to get a room. More seriously, engaging in public displays of affection in some countries can lead to physical harassment or even criminal penalties. Navigating the potentially dangerous waters of PDA can be difficult, so here’s a handy guide to follow if you can’t keep your hands off your partner.

In India, PDA is a criminal offense.

According to the Indian Penal Code, “public displays of affection” are a punishable offense, and transgressors can receive up to three months in prison or a large fine. That said, Indian residents say that corrupt police departments use the vague wording of the law to harass citizens who aren’t actually doing anything wrong, and activists are staging “kiss-ins” to protest what they see as an overly strict and easily misused law. Young Indians are still conflicted about sexuality in general: 61 percent of Indians under 25 said they believed premarital sex was no big deal, but 63 percent believed their future spouse should be a virgin. With the recent landmark decision by India’s Supreme Court to legalize gay sex, however, it seems likely that the culture will get more permissive rather than less, so the future seems bright for anyone who wants to kiss their sweetie and not get arrested.

More than 84 diverse cultures think kissing is icky.

We tend to assume that kissing is a universal display of affection, but, according to a 2015 study from the University of Nevada’s anthropology department, nearly half of 168 different cultures don’t do it. Many smaller and more pastoral societies tend to shy away from romantic kissing entirely; for example, the Mehinaku of Brazil told the researchers that kissing was “gross” because it seemed like “sharing their dinner.” Many Native American tribes did not adopt kissing until they had contact with Europeans. Platonic kissing is common in many cultures, though, with parents kissing children or adults trading closed-lip kisses much like handshakes, to establish social hierarchy. Similarly, it’s becoming more common in Western societies for friends of any gender to kiss each other on the cheeks without any sexual intent.

Holding hands is expected in Arab countries — but only between friends.

While Arabic cultures vary wildly based on country, in general, it is common for good friends of the same gender to hold hands, especially men. It’s a sign of strength and solidarity — President Bush made confused headlines when he and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia held hands at a meeting in 2005, but to Arabs, it demonstrated the strength of the bond between the two countries. However, touching someone of the same gender that you don’t know can be subject to severe penalties, even if it happens by accident. Touching, or sometimes even speaking to, someone of the opposite gender in public can be punished with stiff fines or deportation.

Dubai prides itself on being open, tolerant, and even welcoming of LGBTQ guests, but, according to The New York Times, foreigners have received jail time, been deported from the country, or faced torture designed to elicit a “confession” for offenses as mild as visiting the country with their partner while pregnant, making an “obscene” hand gesture at a driver, or even Tweeting rudely. The basic guideline for travel in the Middle East is to keep PDA at a strict minimum and be aware that, just because you see others engaging in behaviors, doesn’t mean they’re legal. Strictly speaking, gay sex is punishable by death in the UAE, even though there are popular gay clubs and sex shops everywhere in the red light district. To avoid potentially serious consequences, it is, unfortunately, best to keep your hands to yourself unless you’re the best of pals, and your gender presentation matches.

Europe can seem liberal, but keep the kissing out of the countryside.

In North America, Europe may seem sexually permissive with kissing seen as just a regular part of everyday life and explicit sexual education in schools. For example, super liberal Copenhagen in Denmark or gay mecca Sitges in Spain are relaxing and welcoming destinations for LGBTQ travelers, who can walk the streets and kiss their partners without locals blinking. But even with these relaxed attitudes, PDA in most Western European countries mostly happens in big cities and not in smaller or more rural areas, so keep the kissing and touching at a minimum when in the sticks or in doubt.

PDA isn’t illegal in Japan, just gross.

Kissing, hugging, and hand-holding aren’t technically forbidden in Japan, they’re just deeply frowned upon. Japanese culture prizes emotional reservation, and anyone engaging in icha-icha (a blanket term meaning anything from a kiss on the cheek to heavy petting) is likely to shock those around them. For a country that has sex toy stores and love hotels on what seems like every corner, this can seem bizarre to visiting guests, but there are also some unspoken rules about when canoodling in public is more acceptable. For example, when you’re drunk, a certain amount of sucking face is expected, while others get up to more shenanigans if they’re dating a foreigner, since foreigners aren’t expected to understand the nuances of Japanese culture. Same-sex couples who might be worried about traveling to Japan can rest easy — you’re more likely to get frowns for kissing than you are to get frowns for being gay. All couples should keep public makeouts to a minimum, and it should be smooth sailing.

In Russia, avoid the PDA if you’re in a same-sex relationship.

Russia got a lot of negative attention recently for almost banning same-sex hand-holding in public spaces, while gay World Cup attendees were warned against showing their love on camera and on the streets. Activities “promoting” same-sex relationships among minors, such as pride festivals, LGBTQ-specific events, or even wearing a rainbow patch on your clothing, are illegal according to 2013 legislation. Neo-Nazi group Occupy Pedofilyay lures gay boys to remote locations using targeted online personals ads, and then beats them and posts the videos of the attacks online. Gay culture in Russia is being driven underground, and the consequences of engaging in PDA can be both deeply politicized and somewhat dire, depending on where you are. Visitors should avoid gay dating apps in Russia for their own safety, even in larger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, which have vibrant, if hidden, gay communities. Straight (or straight-appearing) couples can kiss with impunity wherever they feel like it, however.

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