Where you can (and where you really shouldn’t) get handsy.
In an urban environment, PDA is a fact of life. We meet for coffee and a quick smooch; we find ourselves canoodling over drinks in a dark corner booth; and we even sometimes have to leave the house in order to get away from prying eyes—especially in a world of rents so high that we are likely to live with a horde of roommates (or with our parents).
When we want to queue up Netflix and chill with our special Tinder friend, we sometimes have to take it to the streets.
Knowing what crosses the line—both socially and legally—is imperative.
Will you gross people out?
Let’s begin with the basics. What’s the verdict on hugs, hand-holding, and quick pecks? “Don’t do anything in public that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see,” suggests the very girly lifestyle mogul Lauren Conrad.
It’s actually not such bad advice. As far as politeness goes, anything beyond a quick kiss and some hand-holding tends to give other people that uncomfortable feeling that we get when we know that two people are thinking about each other naked.
The law echoes Conrad’s rule of thumb, too. As long as you’re sticking to the “grandma rule,” you’re probably well within the boundaries of what’s legal, even in a public place or on public property (like a park). Seattle Police Sergeant Sean Whitcomb explains that “kissing, embracing, snuggling, and hand holding,” should all be just fine, though “full-on groping would reasonably make some people uncomfortable.”
Situational awareness is also extremely crucial when it comes to PDA, even if it’s of the PG variety. Making out on, say, public transit may seem like an alright idea, but consider the poor commuter who’s trapped beside you, frowning and trying to lean away from your slurping sounds.
That goes for any time you’re getting handsy in front of someone who’s glued to their post, such as a doorman or Uber driver who’s just trying to do his damn job.
The rules of PDA, though, aren’t necessarily hard-and-fast for everyone—particularly if you’re not in a hetero couple. For decades, same-sex couples could literally be jailed for the kind of PDA that was perfectly legal for opposite-gender pairings. And while those kinds of “indecency” laws have largely been struck from the books (thanks, marriage equality!), your comfort level and what you deem appropriate (and safe) really depends on where you live.
Will you get into legal trouble?
As you may have learned in health class, kissing sometimes leads to activities other than kissing—and that’s where you may find yourself in a legal grey area.
Depending on where you live, your city may or may not have a ban on public nudity. The City of Seattle, for example, has no law barring a person from being nude in public. Instead, it’s what you do when you’re nude that can get you in trouble.
“There is nothing illegal about being naked,” explains Whitcomb. “Nudity coupled with behavior that is deliberately sexual is both illegal and creepy. If most people would be offended or alarmed, it’s probably illegal and not a good idea.”
Just how illegal? It depends on where you live and, possibly, which act you’re caught in.
Fooling around in public may be considered an act of indecency, public lewdness, or even fornication, all of which are misdemeanours. In many states—including Idaho and Minnesota, for example—literally all sex between unmarried couples is apparently still illegal, and could result in a fine of $300.
Of course, it’s unlikely that you’d actually get ticketed for an unwed romp, but there’s still cause to be careful. A little necking at DisneyWorld? Watch out, because in Florida, “open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior,” is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in county jail. Considering a spooky adventure in a cemetery in North Carolina? Better not; these public grounds are “for the burial of human dead only,” which means that if your lewdness doesn’t get you stopped, your trespassing will.
And if your partner is married to someone who is not you, you may actually get ticketed (and jailed for up to 90 days!) for adultery, which is illegal in nearly half of U.S. states. Really, it happens.
“If you are engaged in PDA that involves removal of clothes, consider a private venue,” Whitcomb concludes.
It’s all well and good to say “just go inside if you’re going to undress” if you or your tryst partner live alone or have an unobtrusive roommate situation, but what if you’d like to do more than swoop in for a quick peck and the only privacy you can find is, say, in your car?
If your car is parked in a public place, you’re still technically in public, and you might still be seen by the general population. “The same rules that apply to public areas applies to PDA in cars,” says Whitcomb. “Keep it within the boundaries of what most people would be comfortable with.”
“Parking,” as the kids used to call it, isn’t technically illegal—though where you park might be. If you’re in a park after sundown (when parks are generally closed), don’t be surprised if a ranger comes along tapping at the windows. Additionally, thanks to crackdowns on sex work in some cities, an officer might be more likely to interrupt if he suspects that something nefarious is happening behind those steamed-up windows.
If you’re going to get busy in the backseat, at least ensure that the car parked somewhere that you can’t be easily seen by prying eyes of the law. According to the case of People v. McNamara, (1991), if your car is fully out of public view, it’s technically a private space. To be on the safe side, “consider parking your car in your garage at home,” Whitcomb advises. (Though what fun would that be?)
If you’re still unsure which public displays of affection are permitted, both socially and legally, just try to find the sweet spot between your comfort level and what your mom would be comfortable with. If you can strike that balance, you’re probably not going to violate the laws of common decency or your municipality.