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Birds & Bees

Smooching Couples Seal Our Unease With a Kiss

August 28, 2000|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So much kissing going on, all of it so visible. And all of it causing such a stir.

When Danielle Goldey and Meredith Kott kissed during a Dodger game, their show of enthusiasm for the home team earned the lesbian couple a nine-guard escort outside, and a request to never return.

When Vice President Al Gore joined his wife, Tipper, on stage at the Democratic National Convention, he greeted her with a seven-second, intense, face-squishing smooch, which elicited cries of "Gross!" and "Yuck!"

Why does a little public display of affection, or PDA, cause such a to-do? After all, this is a culture saturated with sexually suggestive and explicit images from television, advertisements and films. What's wrong with a little hand-holding, cuddling and kissing in public after taking in a steamy episode of "Sex and the City"?

The reasons for discomfort vary, explain social scientists, but the two recent smooch fests, like many PDAs, primarily are an invasion of personal space. "When you pay money to see a movie or turn on the television, the viewer agrees to see Bruce Willis kiss somebody or to see a steamy scene in a soap opera," said Marty Klein, a Palo Alto sex therapist and publisher of the electronic newsletter Sexual Intelligence.

"But when you stumble on [a PDA] unexpectedly, it forces you to be a voyeur. Some people are resentful that the role of audience member has been imposed upon them without their permission." Becoming an unwitting voyeur may also elicit a flurry of uninvited feelings with a sexual subtext.

Speaking of the Al-Tipper smooch, Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist, said, "It wasn't a ritualistic kiss." While many pundits claim the kiss was a staged moment, Schwartz believes it was a spontaneous show of affection. "It was felt and it was desired. We understand manufactured emotion, but we don't understand real emotion. If it is real emotion, it is a threat."

Naturally, some displays of affection are socially sanctioned. A hand on the shoulder, an arm around the waist or a brief hug doesn't violate the culturally acceptable. But when a kiss is more passionate and emotional than a brisk peck, "there is an element of unpredictability," said Klein. "It is: 'Are they going to put their hands down somebody's clothes? What else are they going to do?' "

Certainly the social boundaries on public affection have eased considerably over the decades, but still there is a comfort level that many don't want crossed. If a couple takes a picnic basket behind some trees in the park and goes into lip-lock mode, it is less offensive because tacit respect for conventional sensibilities has been shown. But if a couple kisses on a sidewalk or at the entrance to a building, people are forced to walk by, creating an invasion of physical and emotional space.

"Kissing in public can bring up a host of complicated feelings related to our basic mating emotions," said Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University anthropologist. "It offends people's concept of sex in privacy. It can make people feel jealous, envious and sad. A person may ask, 'Why isn't this happening to me?' 'Why are they showing off?' It reminds people of their own loneliness and their own bad life situations."

This can be especially painful for couples who lack intimacy. Seeing a PDA is a stinging reminder of what's amiss. "Most couples don't talk about how little affection they have in their relationship," said Klein. "When confronted with couples who have affection, it forces a couple to deal with it by either putting [the PDA] down, by being defensive or by ignoring it."

While a public kiss between a same-sex couple comes with baggage all it own, ours is still a culture that gives mixed messages about sexuality. We want it to be as erotic and sappy with emotions as possible in film and television, said Schwartz, but for real people, we want the sexual side obscured in public.

But for Goldey and Kott, whose exuberance at the Dodgers' home run was expressed with a kiss, and for the Gores, who are widely known for their cuddly, affectionate ways, PDAs are a natural gesture.

Goldey and Kott were vindicated when Dodger officials apologized to the couple, promised to give 5,000 tickets to gay and lesbian organizations and said all stadium personnel would undergo sensitivity training.

And as for the lovey-dovey Gores, the convention kiss, as explained by Al Gore, wasn't supposed to be a public show. "I was overcome by emotions," Gore told Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today." "Somebody said: 'Were you trying to send a message?' I said: 'Well, I was trying to send a message to Tipper.' "

Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at kellehr@gte.net.

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