Yeah I know it’s been a while, but you can blame Cara Ellison & Jenn Frank for sparking this one. They had the gall to talk intelligently about sex, kink and affection in Second Life and in real life. I will not be as eloquent. Why I have you here is centered around the words Cara & Jenn exchange at the 43:00 and beyond mark.
Cara and Jenn go into a conversation about handholding in public. Jenn Frank, let me quote, is “by and large rigorously anti-PDA.” Which is something I related powerfully to … when I was 16. That isn’t a diss. Look, when I was 16, one of worst things you could do to me is sit next to me on the bus and make out with your girlfriend. Here I am, by myself and here this couple is imposing, nay, encroaching upon my space with this act of crass exhibitionism.
Fragmented moments like these meshed with a patriarchal society that, at every turn, hammers home the point that love is only to be displayed within strict parameters. If you venture out of said parameters, you’d better be on a Jumbotron at a sporting event. That’s right, showing off all that love for attendees. I’m not gonna lie, when I heard Cara and Jenn say they don’t hold hands, or don’t have a history of holding their partners’ hands “with enthusiasm.” There was a part of my brain that was “Hester Prynne-ing” them. Which isn’t to say they are prudes, but more of a commentary on my own personal [male] thought process.
Both comment on the act of holding hands as being “performative” and a demonstrative act of affection. And for the sake of addressing my own ‘PDA spectrum’ I’m putting handholding well below public mouth & tongue kissing, booty grabbing and naked bike riding...just as an FYI. From a recent exchange, I know Jenn and I share a fondness for hugging. Truthfully, it’s my defacto method of PDA when “dap” isn’t the preferred method of greeting-slash-departing.
Now the meat. All of this revolves around an ego, social norms, and walls we build up around ourselves. So I’ll try to be respectful to those who only like hanky panky in a dark room covered in sheets. But I do want to push this thought of “shared intimacy” and performative acts of affection. I think there is a big difference between wanting to hold someone’s hand versus the apprehension felt based on a ‘public interpretation’.
I’d rather hold someones hand rather than shouting to someone across the street, “yeah, love you too sweety.” Though, I don’t have a problem doing either. I just value the intimacy of “love you’se” a lot more than me holding your hand and steering you through a dark dance club. However, there is an equivalent feeling of saying that versus holding your hand through say, a cemetery. Handholding is so person-to-person and scenario-based, I really don’t see how anyone writes it off. It’s literally a thing you’re taught to do as a child to help someone who needs you. Oh… maybe that’s it.
I remember Jenn saying she felt weird holding her boyfriend’s hand in Chicago because she, “felt like I was cheating on the rest of the world, with this one person’s hand I was holding.” Which is interesting on a lotta levels, but the one I’m interested in is the idea of the concern of others, because of your affection for one. The concern of seeing people you know, the concern of seeing exes, family members that may not know -- etcetera. I don’t get it.
Doesn’t this bleed into what we deem “public” displays of affection? If the concern is the act, the performative act -- which is centered around the physical, then when aren’t you laying down some smooth PDA with your partner? When you’re walking side-by-side? What if people interpret in a caveman fashion your gender binary* and formulate an intimate relationship just based on you two walking together?
“See woman walking with man. They must do sex.”
*picks flea out of ear*
Oh goodness the shame. The scandal. The sheer uncomfortableness. I mean, that’s what we’re really talking about. Being publicly uncomfortable holding someone’s hand because people might think… umm … what again? Sex? Like, they weren’t thinking about it before you two locked fingers? But now that you are, onlookers have a full theatrical love story starring you and this other person? Word?
I remember Cara summing up her feelings perfectly by saying, “intimacy isn’t for others, it’s for you.” And I think this falls under the veil of intimacy, true intimacy, being confined into a predetermined space no one else can see, feel, and experience. Which I think is true. I just don’t think me holding a person’s hand and another witnessing it -- means that person insta-gets how we do intimacy. I think there’d be a lot more single people if that were the case.
I also think there is an obvious “fear of intimacy thing” overlapping with a certain shame the ego feels. That feeling when a friend sees you holding hands with whomever this person you’ve opted to be in your life. I’m no longer “independent Isaiah” I am now “relationship Isaiah.” From that point on you’re branded with the sentence, “oh, glad you made it out, where’s so and so?” What a shame it must be, to be seen as a person -- tied to another person. Thanks a lot handholding and other forms of public affection.
From my perspective, I’ve been fairly spoiled. Any partner I’ve ever had eventually wanted to hold my hand -- ahem -- among other things, in public. And for a long time, I thought that’s just how people worked. As far as intimate relationships, I think I’ve never been bashful about people I’m with. Especially since half of my relationships have been interracial, it means something else if you can’t hold my hand in public. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe that performative aspect of affection comes along with affection in general.
Going deeper with this, when the affection is cut off because you’re around coworkers, parents, and students. I think that is understandable, but why it’s being cut off is always interesting. I once had a partner that didn’t want me to hold her hand around her boss and students. It centered around her job being “family oriented” and the perception that since she’s not married, then why would she even hold my hand? It always interested me, especially because marriage is beautiful, but there is that patriarchal aspect that deems you property and owned by the male. It also didn’t help that she was white and me being black and in love around her and her coworkers was … well … a story for another time. This did, in a weird twist make me NOT want to do anything publicly intimate until we handled this job perception situation.
It’s very important that you put your legs on me in the movie theater during a horror film. I veil my fright with deep tissue massages to calves. Sorry, that’s just how it goes. At the same time, if you’re the kind of person that only accepts a touch, a glance, a caress with blinds drawn and doors locked -- for fear of our intimacy leaking to the masses, I’d have to put myself in danger and ask, “how important do you think you are?”
Furthermore, how important do you think you are to them versus what we have here. Also, why do you even care?
I’ve engaged in a bit of a kink where I’d tell my partner we can’t touch each other until we get home. Looking back, this could be seen as us “behaving” in public. Or just a simple vanilla way of turning each other into gifts, ripe for the unwrapping once that door locks. Truthfully, we never made it out the car. This also coincides to being grownups. How being a grownup means playing by rules we kinda self-impose on each other and when those rules are broken, how uncomfortable are we?
I don’t date much, so maybe when I do manage to find someone to be intimate with, I’m kinda all-in. So these lines we’ve drawn as grownups in relation to public displays, and me not knowing what’s public and how we draw lines with the physical amongst other manners of affection is the equivalent of long division to me.**
A quiet lake can be much more enticing when you’re in a loud apartment complex.
*the binary is a sham don’t believe it. Don’t!
**Barring some kink and bdsm stuff. I cut out the obvious fact that this article is centered around the privilege that cis hetero monogamous folk, including myself, complain about the strangest things. The idea that someone complains about having their hand held publicly, in a society where we have killed folks depending on public and private displays of affection to their preferred lovers is definitely not lost on me.