Public Displays of Affection: The Politics of Being Queer In Front Of Other Humans

About three months ago, I was walking down a quiet street in Rio de Janeiro with my mother, who had come to visit me in Brazil. I was giving my mom a tour of my neighborhood when an adorable same-gender couple walked in our direction. As they drew nearer, they playfully entwined fingers and slowed down momentarily to indulge in a loving kiss. Generally, when I see cute queer couples cuddling and mutually fondling each other in public, I respond in one of three ways:

1. I giggle and gush at how adorable they are.

2. I lower my shades, raise whichever fist is adorned with my rainbow bracelet, and walk by as if I’ve slain every homophobe in the history of the world.

3. I grumble bitterly because I am very single and then I find myself a chocolate bar.

Chocolate is the best solution for my queer feels. That and Brittney Griner.

Chocolate is the best solution for my queer feels. That and Brittney Griner.

On this particular afternoon, I fidgeted in quiet anxiety as my mother eyed the two affectionate young men. My mom is not really a fan of queerness — I have not even come out to her yet — and I feared she would say something offensive to the lovers. Well then, how did my mother react to this pair?

“Hmm… I never knew people did that here.”

The truth of the matter is that queer people are doing that everywhere. We do that in the U.S., we do that in Brazil, we do that in our bedrooms, but most interestingly, we sometimes do that in the street and other public spaces. Aside from PDA (which I think we can safely use as a catch-all for “that“) simply being a fun activity, our public displays of affection can go from being cute to something quite political.

GayPrideKiss

“Kissing my girlfriend in Flatbush, Brooklyn could double as an act of love and as a political act of changing the culture,” reflects Courtney Baxter in her piece “Queer in Public.” She explains, “By living out the personal is political mantra, we transform from invisible to visible and provide hope for our queer sisters and brothers in less tolerant nooks of the world”. When we are affectionate in public, we assert that our identities are, in fact, valid. We engage in a form of community uplift that demonstrates that our relationships are not shameful.”

The only thing worse than being a third wheel is being a homophobic third wheel

The only thing worse than being a third wheel is being a homophobic third wheel

However, while in Brazil, I learned that sometimes I consider queer affection too public. In November of 2012, I wandered along Copacabana beach among a throng of people decked out in glitter and rainbows for Rio Pride. The atmosphere was festive from the start, but it was not long before the scene got… erotic. Attractive people meandered through the crowd towards other attractive people and in a matter of moments, Pride looked more like an orgy than a march. Rio Pride meant seeing many people not only kissing in the streets, but also having sex and being extremely intimate in public; and, in spite of my general reactions to PDA, I found myself repulsed by this openness of sexuality. Initially, I could not fathom the beauty of fucking in the street until a Brazilian friend explained to me that public displays of promiscuity (let’s call it PDP), especially in the street, is not just a glorified form of “sluttishness” — even though there is nothing wrong with being a slut if one chooses. She taught me that PDP, as well as PDA, is a form of militancy.

For a while, I unconsciously had subscribed to the notion that queer PDA was acceptable as long as it was “respectable” and fit the standards of a hetero-patriarchal moral compass (i.e- between two people and in moderation). I really had to challenge the respectability politics I had unknowingly invested in by recognizing that my PDA and the PDA I observe should not quietly settle for tolerance from the rest of the world, but rather demand acceptance. PDA and PDP are the ways that we declare the streets a space to be reclaimed. The streets connect us humans to one another, and by locking lips on street corners, we remind the world that we have right to be connected to society regardless of the activity or the number of people participating in said activity. We translate our acts of affection as quotidian experiences instead of pathological shame. Our public displays of affection have the power to move us from the periphery to the center of society by showing that our love, lust, and everything in between are legitimate and do not need to be hidden.


Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer ladies to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.


Helen McDonald is a 20-something college student living off of bad cooking, social justice and a lil snark. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog revolutionaryrainbows.tumblr.com and is a contributing writer at ElixHer.com.

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Helen McDonald is a 20-something college student living off of bad cooking, social justice and a lil snark. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog revolutionaryrainbows.tumblr.com and is a contributing writer at ElixHer.com

Helen has written 32 articles for us.

48 Comments

  1. Thumb up 27

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    I agree that being queer and engaging in PDA in public can be political and I think it’s wonderful. But having sex in public whether or not the orientation of the individuals seems to be skirting close to public indecency. It just doesn’t seem right to me for random bystanders to have to witness that if they weren’t expecting it.

  2. Thumb up 17

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    I just wrote about this on my queer group on Facebook and my blog. Yesterday!

    I called it Think of the Children, and reminded everyone that hiding our queer PDA in shame is harmful to all the young queer folk looking for a sign that it’s ok need to see happy, loving queer folk in public to affirm their identity as OK.

    • Thumb up 4

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      I like this perspective on “Think of the Children.” I work with young kids in a relatively small, rural town. My wife and I walk around town holding hands and being public affectionate. Still when I’m at work or around the families of the kids I work with I believe in being professional and less demonstrative. Interestingly the kids still know that I love my wife and she loves me in a matter of fact way.

      There is also an elementary school music teacher in our town who has an HRC sticker on the back of his car and a boyfriend. It makes me happy that we can be role models for kids in our town, even in the small subtle ways.

    • Thumb up 3

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      I definitely agree that the ‘think of the children’ attitude is what queer displays of affection out of the public eye. Sexuality, and queer sexuality especially, is still seen as this big, scary thing that will corrupt the youth, but really forcing it into the closet (no pun intended) creates a worse culture because children don’t know what healthy sexuality or relationships look like.

  3. Thumb up 22

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    I remember how terrifying it was to be engaged in PDA with my then girlfriend before I was out, and how wonderful it felt when I embraced it — and I definitely appreciated seeing visible signs of people like me on the streets.

    However, public sex isn’t something I personally want to stumble upon. Fucking can be sexy, romantic, hot, political, yes, and maybe it is the constraints of the Man that have me thinking that I shouldn’t walk on my streets and see anyone – straight, gay, or otherwise – going at it. But – *shrugs* – I feel like seeing two women or men having sex in public isn’t helping further a political agenda, it’s just being gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous. And it’s certainly a barrier for a certain group of people to get to understanding queerness.

    • Thumb up 9

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      I think this is a great point. It’s a great point regardless of who’s having the sex and what their genders and sexual orientations are.

      I find the idea of PDP at a political event pretty bothersome. Public sex is your radical act in this political space? What about your fellow queers who are triggered or otherwise made to feel unsafe by public sex? Don’t they have just as much right to participate in this public political queerness, this reclaiming of public space, as you do? Don’t you want them there?

      It just seems like a bit of a solidarity fail.

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      Touche. And if I were a mother, I would be furious that my kids would be forced to be exposed to this. One could argue that mothers should “keep kids away from pride parades!” but then that creates the unintended consequence of equating gay pride with child-inappropriate behavior.

  4. Thumb up 26

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    I made an account here just to comment on this wonderful article so… hello fellow straddlers!
    I have been thinking about PDA a lot lately since my girlfriend and I will soon be moving in together after a long time apart. We are more of the sedate ‘holding hands/peck on the cheek’ sort of couple, but given the fact that we are a lesbian couple, it still sometimes worries me, even in a more liberal city like where we will live. I don’t necessarily fear physical attacks, but people don’t hold back in letting their (unwanted) opinions known either.
    Public sex, however, is a whole other thing, like most people have commented here. The bottom line is, by having sex in public you are involving other people in your sex act without their consent. And that is not ok. This is not just a question of ‘not my kink’ or ‘it just isn’t right.’ I think the issue of non-consent cuts across here, whether the couple having sex is gay or straight or any combination thereof. If exhibitionism is your thing, there are safe spaces you can take part in it where the entire group of watchers know what will happen and are ok with it.

    • Thumb up 1

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      I have never been harassed so much in life as walking down the street of my liberal city holding my (former) girlfriend’s hand in her relatively skeevy neighborhood. It’s as if your queerness negates your personhood to some people.

  5. Thumb up 4

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    Great piece! I totally get how PDA can give other queers hope. It’s showing that ‘no! we’re not ashamed! it’s something to be proud of! there’s nothing wrong with being queer!’ I always say that if you love someone, you should show it, not put it to shame because it’s putting yourself to shame too. I know it’s a scary world out there but by being proud we can show people it’s not something out of the ordinary. It’s just love.

  6. Thumb up 7

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    The use of PDA as a way of being politically visible is an inspired idea but I think the PDP is more simply a reflection of the beach culture for straight or queer relationships, whether you’re talking the sands of Copacabana in Rio or South Beach in Miami. Also I understand the PDP as a form of reclamation of space but I think it has the exact opposite effect in a social context, giving the anti-crowd more ammunition with which to frame the argument against the queer community. As others above commented, right time / right place goes a long way in such exhibitionist pursuits.

    • Thumb up 3

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      I totally agree. PDP in a safe, openly queer space can be a positive radical thing.

      But I can’t help but think back to watching “gay pride” at my home town when I was about 18. It was a small event, and the majority of attendees were very drunk in the street by lunchtime. It was being hosted on a stage in our (busy) town park by some drag-queens who were clearly high, being really obscene and filthy (which might have been more funny in a safe queer space), and encouraging drunk people to strip and make out or have sex in public. All this at midday in a family park. I was watching grandparents pushing kids in prams going past and couldn’t help but think this is many local people’s only interaction with this town’s queer scene… It paints it in a really negative light.

      The problem with PDP is it is very alienating to a lot of people and gives huge ammunition to “the other side”. That said, in a safe queer consenting space, it can be amazing and powerful.

  7. Thumb up 10

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    There are some insightful points being made here about PDP and the issue of consent. I think the important question here is at what point PDA crosses the line into PDP and thus, potentially, into harassment/invasiveness.

    Personally, though, I really like lower-level PDA. When dating men in the past I was always really wary about showing any kind of affection in public, but now that my dating situations tend to be visibly queer I actually seek it out–reaching for my person’s hand, going in for a kiss on a street corner, etc. Knowing that these actions are automatically more public because of whom I’m engaging in them with makes them feel more intimate to me.

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      Same here. I always shied away from PDA when I was with a man, but now that I’m in a very visibly queer relationship-type-situation, I find it more comfortable to pursue PDA. It takes a lot of trust and confidence for both of us to be public in our affections, automatically making it more intimate.

  8. Thumb up 6

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    Thanks for such a nicely written article. I always love seeing queer couples out and about, especially in my really rural area. There’s always that really awkward moment where you sort of look at them too much or smile and because I don’t really read as gay (unless I’m in my plaid shirt and rainbow earrings!) I always think that I look really weird and then feel guilty in case I made them awkward. I totally agree with the other comments though r.e the issue of consent and PDP. I once ran into a straight couple having sex in a really public place and it wasn’t a nice experience to say the least!

  9. Thumb up 6

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    I love seeing it!

    The only problem is that I look pretty mainstream and tend to get a big smile on my face when I see two people in love. I’ve occasionally gotten a scowl back from a queer couple and can only think that maybe they think I am being condescending or something.

    Remember that you don’t know who is queer and who is genuinely happy to see you holding hands or kissing!

    Great post BTW!

    Debby

  10. Thumb up 9

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    I’m still working on getting to a place where I’m 100% not bothered by random passers-by reacting negatively to me holding hands with my girlfriend in public. I’m mostly able to brush it off these days, but sometimes disapproving looks still make me feel (albeit temporarily) like I’m doing something wrong, even though I objectively know I’m not. I think queer PDA is important. I find it so heartening when I see other queer couples holding hands or being affectionate in public, especially when I’m living abroad in a place where I still don’t know many queer people – I feel less alone when I can see other queer people existing. I definitely wouldn’t want to see anyone (of any orientation) actually having sex in public though – that would just be really discomfiting and I agree with other posters that there’s a big non-consent issue.

  11. Thumb up 9

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    I have sort of divergent opinions on this one. This comes up a lot in my kink circle as well. While I personally relate to the ‘militancy’ aspect involved in PDP, if people are saying that they can’t/don’t want to see or be included in my acting out for reasons that are genuinely not tied to being anti-queer it’s a thing I have to negotiate with respect.

    The issue for me is defining the point where public affection/sexiness lapse into territory where we need to worry about consent, because this bar is set at different places for different people.

  12. Thumb up 7

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    I’m definitely on board with the issue of bystander consent with the issue o PDP.

    However, I’ll add that I rarely see bystander consent brought up in during hetero PDP during, say, Spring Break. Usually, consent is brought up, it’s considered between the people engaging it. There’s an unwritten understanding that, if you don’t want to see those acts, you don’t go to those areas.

    Of course, that doesn’t invalidate the original point. It’s just something I’ve noticed.

    • Thumb up 5

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      that’s an interesting point. i think i’d add that nobody talks about bystander consent when they talk about Dinah Shore, either — i feel like maybe it’s a “you know what you’re getting into when you go” kind of thing? but also it’s an enclosed space and you need a pass to enter. sidenote i’d rather not see whitney and romi have sex in the pool but that’s for unrelated reasons

  13. Thumb up 10

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    Of course it’s disingenuous of the mainstream to claim that public space should be kept non-sexual. The distorted lens of heteronormative sexuality keeps most people from noticing it, but heterosex is thrust upon and within us all over the place, often gratuitously and explicitly, without anyone worrying about the consent issues at stake when thus interpellating us. “Think of the children” only comes up when the issue is what KIND of sex is displayed. So it’s understandable that GLBT cultures often tend toward the radically frank exhibition as a way of claiming back some of that sexualized public space for ourselves.

    If we are to wring our hands about PDP, let us be honest in including a critique of the wanton sexuality paraded by straight people with as much stress. We should not be too quick to reject one of the few ways we resist accession to the wholesale capture of public human space by the hetero hegemony.

    And let’s consider that “public” has a million nuances. When an area has been ceded, even temporarily, to us queermos, is it still “public” on the same level as shopping day on mainstreet? Behind the Rio Pride example the author invokes, I hear the Carnival and all it means anthropologically for a set-aside time of extraordinary revelry. In these Saturnalia moments, many cultures permit public sexuality in grave excess of the norm. In this light, excessive Pride PDP should worry us as a barometer for how repressed our actual quotidian lives are. When Pride becomes orgiastic, it potentially indicates that our quotidian public spaces are not permissive enough. It is an indictment of how much we still must fear indulging even the most chaste, casual, loving PDA when going about our days.

    All this said, however, I understand why we should be more careful with PDP. Those who have invoked the consent issues at stake, because triggers or no, are spot on. No one should be unduly interpellated into sexual situations, especially which endanger their wellbeing. A bit more intentionality across the board is warranted. We can work toward a more truly sexually restrained custom in those public spaces given to the everyday conduct of affairs. We should be overt and conscious when declaring carnival spaces and times, so that consent can be obtained and a fun time had by all. It can’t be perfect; the carnivals are glorious and should continue. The important point is that social contracts on these points should be negotiated, questioned.

    But these questions should be much more strenuously delivered to those who uphold the blare of heterosexuality conquering our experiences of most public spaces. Until they start worrying about how triggering their pornographic, propaganidistic displays in all public media are to some of us who would rather not consent to being exposed to them, our worried rectitude in these matters as Queer people is a bit over-polite.

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      I really liked this comment, and it made me think a lot. Because I’m not someone who is particularly triggered by PDP, it made me question why I was still having such a hard time with accepting the notion of public sex as a truly political act. I think alot of it might come back to the virgin/whore dichotomy that is still expected of women. We are expected to be ashamed of having and wanting sex ourselves, especially in public spaces or in “unconventional” ways. And yet, like you so poignantly pointed out, we are perpetually subjected to virtually (or literally) pornographic images of sexualized women.

      I wonder what the line is between deconstructing the heteronormative, repressive idea of what women’s sexuality is supposed to look (or, more aptly, not look like) while combating the pervasive and de-humanizing sexualization of women so prevalent in modern media.

  14. Thumb up 1

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    I am not offended when i see queer PDA but it does bring out the loneliness in me. It’s a powerful statement to society around us. I have never seen the point of hiding who you are and showing your affection for your partner.

  15. Thumb up 2

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    Despite being out and having engaged in PDA myself, sometimes I still find myself uncomfortable with observing queer PDA. Too many years of pretending not to be watching, I think… some things are hard to unlearn.

  16. Thumb up 5

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    Thanks for writing this piece Helen. I’m Courtney (the one you quoted in your piece — thank you for that!) My response to this topic was to start a street photography initiative: Queer in Public. http://www.queerinpublic.tumblr.com

    It uses art (photography) as a way to transform the way people see queer couples. But we’ll have to tackle this in many different ways, including Autostraddle threads, at the policy level, etc. Thank you, again.

  17. Thumb up 0

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    I think the social attitudes toward PDA and emotion are also important to think about here. I’ve never been to Brazil, but I understand that everyone is fairly open about expressing themselves publicly, which might help explain why PDP is considered the next logical step in pushing boundaries and raising awareness of queer life. If heavy PDA is the norm, then PDP is just pushing that.

    I, on the other hand, live in a country where only twitter-pated teens hold hands in the street, and I can count on a single hand the times I’ve seen anyone kiss. I don’t think it’s necessarily anything against sexuality so much as it is awkward for the reserved (or emotionally constipated) culture that permeates our society. It’s so uncomfortable to be witness to someone’s intimacy, no matter who they are.

  18. Thumb up 4

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    This concept of bystander consent seems a bit problematic to me. The idea of requiring people to go out of their way to hide themselves while doing a harmless activity in order to protect others from the mere sight of them doing it would be considered ridiculous if that activity were anything other than sex. It’s mostly only because of arbitrary cultural conditioning that most people have a negative attitude towards various aspects of sexuality, including PDA and PDP. Trying to make it an issue of consent seems like a rationalization to me. Something doesn’t become an issue of consent merely by involving sex. CONSENT ISN’T ABOUT SEX. Consent is about everything. The principles of consent should be able to be generalized to both sexual and non-sexual situations. For example many people falsely believe that, while it’s wrong to touch people sexually without their consent, it’s perfectly OK to touch them non-sexually without consent. The truth is that when it comes to touch you need consent whether it is sexual or not. In much the same way that you DO need consent for both sexual and non-sexual touch, you DO NOT(at least from an ethical standpoint) need consent[from the bystanders] to preform both non-sexual and sexual activities where others can see, because it would constitute an unreasonable limitation on your freedom. For example it would be a violation of consent to hug someone without permission, but if someone who hated seeing others hug tried to shame every random pair of huggers they ran into by using consent as an excuse then it would be utterly transparent to everyone(depending on culture) that the problem laid not with the hugging but with the hugphobia. The ONLY reason sex is held to a different standard is because of cultural bias.

    The only good argument I’v heard in favor of prohibiting public sex is that it could trigger someone who has experienced sexual trauma. However upon closer examination this too seems to be a rationalization. A person can potentially be triggered by almost anything, whether is is sexual or not. In order to use potential triggering as a justification for prohibiting public sex one would have to unfairly privilege the feelings of those who are triggered by sexual things over those of people who are triggered by non-sexual things; a subtle, but clear display of cultural bias. The unfortunate truth is that even if we severely curtailed peoples freedoms we will never be able to prevent everyone from being triggered. However we can do our best to prevent as many people as possible from experiencing sexual trauma, and I believe that promoting public sex actually helps that cause.

    The widespread prohibition of public sex is both a result of and reinforces erotophobia(the irrational fear of sex). Erotophobia, in addition to playing a supporting role in many forms of oppression, is responsible for the widespread resistance to sex education, and for the attitudes of shame surrounding sex. Inadequate sex education leaves children ignorant and vulnerable to becoming both victims and perpetrators of sexual assault. The attitudes of shame surrounding sex magnifies the trauma of being assaulted and discourages victims from seeking help. The normalization of public sex would completely undermine erotophobia, and thus would quite likely reduce the amount of sexual assaults by a significant amount.

    All that being said, there actually IS a consent issue with public sex, just not the one everyone’s been talking about. The issue is that it’s not always clear from a bystanders perspective whether or not all parties involved are consenting. Imagine seeing two people having sex and not being certain whether or not you’re seeing actual sex or a rape. Imagine debating with yourself whether or not you should intervene or leave them to their fun, ultimately doing nothing due to uncertainty, only to later discover that it was in fact a rape and you could have stopped it. It’s a horrifying possibility, and no one should be put in that position. However the social benefits and freedom that comes with normalizing public sex are too great to abandon just yet. Perhaps a good compromise would be to only prohibit acts that could easily be interpreted as non-consensual. Though that still leaves the question of how to interpret “easily”. Whatever, I’m tired, let the lawyers figure it out.

    Disclaimer: It’s entirely possible some or all of what I’v said here is horribly wrong, due to an error in logic, missing a key fact, or misinterpreting something. Any absolute statements were made purely in the interests of keeping this comment from being any longer than it already is, I promise!

    tl;dr Public spaces should be safe spaces for harmless activities whether they be sexual or non-sexual.

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      Common PTSD triggers are obviously not harmless. If there is a problem with our society, it is that other common and avoidable triggers are not taken as seriously. If it was common for abuse survivors to be triggered by seeing people hug, then people who hug in pubic while knowing that would be terrible people, because they would be knowingly choosing to make public space inaccessible to abuse survivors.

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        Yes, but in a hypothetical future where public sex was normalized it seems logical to assume that trauma survivors would be less likely to become triggered by the sight of sex alone if it wasn’t so exclusively associated with their traumatic experience (though admittedly I’m not terribly familiar with the psychology). Also given the way that normalizing public sex could lead to less sexual abuse, outlined in my original comment, it would seam that the potential benefits far outweigh the costs, though to be fair the benefits are largely theoretical whereas the costs are much more tangible.

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          The benefits of a hypothetical sex-normative future do not outweigh the costs of further traumatizing abuse survivors or making public existence inaccessible to them.

          Never. Not ever. A human being suggesting that horrifies me.

      • Thumb up 3

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        Exactly. If people have sex in public due to exhibitionist tendencies then, whether they like it or not, bystanders become voyeuristic participants in that act. It’s the same principle as flashers – even if the people being flashed only view it and aren’t forced to interact directly, they are still being drawn into a sexual exchange they did not consent to.

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    I have a slightly different take on PDAs. Parts of my family expect my gf and I to be constantly engaging in PDAs and seem fearful that we would cross into PDP in their presence. Simply because we are a queer couple. Never in my life have I shown a propensity for this. In fact, we are the least demonstrative couple in my family; just by virtue of who we are. I was wondering I anyone else has experienced this?

    A fun side of this is on date nights when we come across another queer female couple my gf usually gets a small nod of acknowledgement from the more MOC of the couple. Very much saying, “Yeah, we’re taking our ladies out. ‘Sup?” It’s awesome.

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