When Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly fronted the cover of GQ recently with an ardent display of passion, the response was visceral.
‘True Romance’ read the headline, while Fox’s social caption was even more... intense. “The tale of two outcasts and star crossed lovers caught in the throes of a torrid, solar flare of a romance featuring: feverish obsession, guns, addiction, shamans, lots of blood, general mayhem, therapy, tantric night terrors, binding rituals, chakra sound baths, psychedelic hallucinations, organic smoothies, and the kind of sex that would make Lucifer clutch his rosary," it read.
And while celebrities are naturally more intensely scrutinised, the general consensus was that it was just a little gross.
Their friends, Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker (better known as Kravis) have received a similar response from the public with their social posts. Are they obscenely graphic? Not really. Are we happy for the two? As much as we can be for two people we've never met. But again, the similar instinct to eye-roll or even gag when they post yet another image of themselves, pretzeled into one form alongside captions about 'destroying each other' and 'forever' really just hit a nerve.
So, why exactly does seeing two people that we don't have any personal vested interest in, touch tongues on film get to us so much? According to some experts, it's actually pretty natural.
Maybe it's at a park, at the beach or just on the street outside your house (yes, this happens to me often), but we've all had to double-take when a pair of lovers engages in what some might call excessive affection in public spaces. And hey, we've likely all been on the other side, too. Physical connection is a major component of the first stage of a relationship, and it kind of makes us lose our damn minds.
There is a very particular high that comes from new love, and it's disarmingly icky, like when you have a crush or new relationship that makes you feel physically ill. It's called oxytocin or 'the love hormone'. Seeping into our heads and replacing our brains with actual goo, it's no wonder we tend to relax our threshold for affection during these honeymoon periods. And, unfortunately for those around us, when we're bursting with all those potent feelings, we need an outlet.
As relationship coach Megan Luscombe says, "We like showing off when we are happy and we also like showing off something we are crazy about, in this case, our partners!" So whether it's your friends over some mimosas or your ticked-off social media following, you're going to find a way to share your joy, and it's most likely going to be in a way that is mildly self-unaware.
But perhaps those of us on the outside read into this display too much, twisting it into a critique of our own preferences. Do these people really think they're more in love than everyone else? Pfft.
To PDA or not to PDA?
Luscombe explains that it's not black and white, and that people who are less inclined to be affectionate shouldn't feel bad about their personal choices. "This doesn’t mean your feelings of infatuation and lust are any less, at all," she says. "It’s just that you choose and want to experience the relationship in different ways." Some people just are more private, and that's perfectly okay. Neither is necessarily better, though, she urges.
It’s also a mistake to think that people who don’t like PDA don’t like all forms of affection, or that they're just lonely people who wish it was them on the receiving end — which it could be, sometimes. "People’s PDA comfort levels may also vary based on personal feelings," she says. "Some might be comfortable with holding hands but not kissing, hugging but not tongue kissing etc. it’s important we all understand our own levels." It's always worth checking in on any other parties involved though, as your partner may not be as comfortable as you with all the public declarations of love, particularly when it comes to social media.
One of the problems with social media gushing is that it's easy to see it as a possible form of overcompensation. "PDA, when it comes to social media dedications can be used as a way to mask issues inside a relationship," Luscombe explains. "As in, them trying to project a 'perfect' relationship and receive validation through responses." But the thing is, we can't assume everyone sharing their love is desperately trying to pull the wool over our eyes, and it's probably best to just mind our own business and stick to whatever you're comfortable with.
What determines our views on PDA?
Like most of our opinions, our upbringing is mostly at the root of our preferences. Growing up in a ‘hugging’ household might make you more inclined to be publicly mushy and think of it as the norm. Or you may have had a childhood so devoid of physical security that you may actively require more physical attention than the average person. Cultural context is also important as many may have been brought up in cultures or communities where PDA is considered to be rude, obscene or even immoral. And women in particular are socialised from a young age to believe that bodies should be private, something to be hidden. So to see people openly embracing each other, throws a lot of our unconscious learnings for a loop.
Another factor? Judgement. It's human nature to compare yourself to others and want to look at your surroundings with a critical eye (it's evolutionary, after all). It can also help us feel better about what we're doing in our lives. You may have just spent £25 on a book you'll never read, but at least you're not straddling your partner in a park like a lovesick maniac, right?
The issue is that even if you loathe public displays of affection, it's also really hard to look away. Kind of like a car crash. Perhaps it's because romantic relationships demand a certain level of vulnerability that we find fascinating — just look at the viral phenomenon of 'Couch Guy'. As most of us are still part of societies that, while not illegal, don't necessarily promote PDA, seeing others be so uninhibited and free of the constraints of social decorum, for better or worse, draws our attention.
And, of course, the feelings we hold about our own place in life or where we stand in our relationships can also cause us to feel like other people's happiness is being shoved down our throats. Insecurity is one hell of a beast.
So can we overcome the judgement?
For the fellow haters, Luscombe believes in channelling that energy elsewhere. "You can become more accepting of others' PDA by remembering that every relationship is different and will exhibit different behaviours," she says. "It doesn’t make one better than the other, just different!