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Public affection: How much is too much?

  • Story Highlights
  • Public displays of affection can make people cringe
  • Expert: Hand-holding, arm-around-the-waist, closed-mouth-kiss is OK
  • Hands under clothes, deep tongue kissing in public -- not OK
  • Therapist: Not all couples agree on what's too much
  • Next Article in Living »
By Jocelyn Voo
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(LifeWire) -- When actor Richard Gere swept Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty into his arms and planted several kisses on her during an AIDS awareness event in New Delhi, the act prompted an Indian court to issue a warrant for his arrest.

Though Gere's behavior was tame by American standards, it was deemed obscene in India, where such public displays of affection (also known as PDA) are frowned upon.

Reaction to that caress earlier this year was so intense that posters of Shetty and effigies of the "Pretty Woman" actor were burned. Five months later, the actress was wrongfully detained on the obscenity charges, her publicist, Dale Bhagwagar, told The Associated Press.

That kiss involved two actors at a publicity event in Asia, but even in the United States, people struggle with PDA and deciding how much is too much. And even married couples can take some heat over the issue.

Former Vice President Al Gore set off a media storm when he kissed his wife, Tipper, after accepting his party's nomination for president in 2000. It was described as a "can't-wait-to-get-back-to-the-hotel-room type of kiss" by Lance Morrow on Time.com.

Meanwhile, so-called "cuddle parties" -- where adults are invited to don pajamas and enjoy platonic intimacy -- have been popping up in cities like New York and San Francisco in the past few years. Organizers like cuddleparty.com enforce a strict non-sexual code, promising a "playful, social event designed for adults to explore communication, boundaries and affection," according to their Web site.

However, PDA can be an issue for couples, especially when the twosome has different thresholds for modesty. Here's the lowdown on how to be affectionate without offending your mate or the people around you:

PDA: Acceptable or tacky?

Don't Miss

"In moderation, and in the right venue, they're fine. Assuming that one half of the couple isn't leaving for a two-year deep-space mission, I'll say that any PDA beyond the hand-holding, arm-around-the-waist, closed-mouth-kiss type is out of order," says Charles Purdy, aka "Mr. Social Grace," a Vancouver, British Columbia-based etiquette columnist and author of "Urban Etiquette: Marvelous Manners for the Modern Metropolis."

"Extreme PDA -- hands under clothes, deep tongue kissing -- just makes the couple look incredibly immature or, possibly, drunk," Purdy adds. In other words: keep it PG-rated, kids. Don't do anything you wouldn't want your mother to see.

Right place at the right time

You may think you're being sneaky, but just because it's dark in the movie theater doesn't mean it's a good place to engage in heavy petting sessions.

"The problem isn't that most people don't know where PDA is tacky or inappropriate. The problem is that some people just don't care," says Purdy. "When in doubt, simply pay attention to the behavior of the people around you."

An intimate dinner at a chic restaurant? Reel in your lust and keep it to longing glances or holding hands. A weekend at the Burning Man festival of art and self-expression? Let the love flow freely.

How to make it work

Does hand-holding in public make you cringe? Is your partner constantly pulling away from your kisses? Marguerite Salmon, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, outlines a three-step plan for being in a relationship with someone whose sensitivity to PDA is not in sync with yours.

1. Discuss the issue. "Ask them what makes them feel uncomfortable," says Salmon. Are they averse to hand-holding, or is it just kissing? Ask them exactly which actions make them cringe, as well as which situations. Your partner may not feel comfortable openly kissing in the neighborhood where he or she works, for instance, but may not be so opposed elsewhere. Then, explain your own feelings on PDA.

2. Try to understand. "Mirror back what they say," says Salmon. "Go for the empathic response: 'I understand why this is a big deal to you.' And then disclose why it's a big deal for you." There may be larger issues you may not be aware of. For example, your partner may not have gotten a lot of affection in past relationships, or may feel like physical closeness is equivalent to emotional closeness.

3. Attempt compromise. With PDA, most people only think of the extremes -- but this shouldn't be the case. Negotiate with your partner, says Salmon. "'Can you bend a little here? Can you give me 10 degrees?'," she suggests asking. "And sometimes the person is able to do that. They just think they're going to have to go from being really stoic to making out on city streets." Assure your partner that it's not about going from one extreme to another; it's all about give and take. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Jocelyn Voo is a freelance journalist and relationships editor at the New York Post.

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