Public displays of affection: frisky business

Paris is cavorting on the Croisette, Ronnie's getting carried away in a cab... Enough with all this public affection, says Harriet Walker
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The days of chaperones and chastity belts are, thankfully, over. But while few of us would mourn their passing, certain public figures, who should know better, may have furthered the cause of those dusty purists who believe that affectionate pats and hand-holding should stay behind closed doors.

After a week of heavy public petting from the likes of Paris Hilton, Brangelina and Ronnie Wood, it seems apposite to wonder: how much is too much? "It's something we get asked about a fair bit," says Jo Bryant, etiquette advisor for Debrett's and "It's bad manners in any situation to make other people feel uncomfortable, and being overly intimate in public is likely to do this."

We've all suffered the slurping and gyrating of overly enthusiastic couples, whether on buses, in clubs or, these days, via Facebook - "David misses his special lady. I love u baby!" Reactions tend to range from indignation to outright contempt. And of course, there's always the cry of 'Get a room!', although there's some irony in the fact that, where nowadays this is normally contributed by a gleeful teenage boy or lager lout, 30 years ago it would have been Mary Whitehouse shouting in the street. It's nothing to do with decency anymore: separating face-eating couples has become a sport in itself, with the main aim of embarrassing the concupiscent pair, rather than sparing the general public's blushes.

"It's a generational difference," continues Bryant. "People used to be more restrained in public, but we're a much freer society now. And while that's a good thing, it's still advisable to gauge your level of intimacy according to who's around, and fit in appropriately."

Last week there were gasps (and raised eyebrows) at the Cannes Film Festival, where airhead heiress Paris Hilton allowed her boyfriend to film her doing a raunchy dance for him at a party. (It's like that notorious sex tape never happened.) They were also snapped mid-lunge for each other's tonsils, and Hilton was later seen straddling her beau on a barstool.

Elsewhere in Cannes, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie struck a distinctly less nauseating note, laying affectionate hands on each other's shoulders, backs and knees. Their public kiss was an easy peck on the (closed) lips, with friendly, un-intimidating eye contact maintained throughout - unlike Hilton, whose eyelids shut in ecstatic rapture. (Of course, thanks to that sex tape, many of us have seen her doing rather more than that.)

Couples and their strange rituals have long been a spectator sport - there are few things more fascinating than watching how well people do or do not get along. King Arthur publicly kisses Guinevere at a pivotal moment of the Round Table soap opera; in the 18th century, avid subjects would queue for hours to watch Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette merely eating their dejeuner at Versailles. So wanting to see Barack with his arm round Michelle, or Posh and Becks dining out at Nobu is just in our nature. What we don't want (or need) to see, however, is what happens after Nobu. "That sort of thing needs to stay behind closed doors, really," says Jo Bryant. You need to use your judgment and decide what constitutes a fitting spectacle." Things to consider while weighing this up should include the number of people nearby and your venue's maximum occupancy, as well as your own noise and moisture levels.

But of course, creating a spectacle is what the public display of affection (or PDA) is all about. Would you lick your other half's neck in a supermarket if you didn't have anything to prove? Perhaps. But the geriatric Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood is a case in point, having been caught last week making out with the 20-year-old girlfriend for whom he left his wife. Granted, they were in the back of a taxi, but there's still the driver's feelings to consider. Not to mention the paparazzi.

Oxford psychologist and body language expert Dr. Peter Collett takes the view that the PDA is not necessarily personal in nature, but economic. "Relationships are fragile in tough times, and people get insecure," he says. "Excessive public displays are a way of reassuring yourself, because there's an audience." It's true that Brad and Angelina's affectionate display came on the back of several rumours of a rift in their relationship; certainly it's the first appearance they've made together for a few months.

But where insecurity might be the reason why those lovebirds next you in McDonald's are going at it, there's a slightly different trigger for the A-list trend. "In a recession, there's a split between the haves and the have-nots," Collett adds. "Exaggerated displays are often linked to tough times, because they're a way in which the rich can publicise their capacity to withstand economic hardship. This applies as much to signs of affection and public snogging as it does to cars and clothing, which are widely known to be barometers of the health of our economy."

So, the frivolity of the rich and famous during hard times is nothing new, but this time it's clearly a case of "let them eat face".