Those public displays of affecttion spark pretty passionate objections

September 20, 1993|By Loraine O'Connell | Loraine O'Connell,Orlando Sentinel

Among their friends, Robert and Sandra Clay are known for their kissy-huggy ways.

The Florida couple "are always cuddling and calling each other ++ 'Babe,' " says Gary Lambert, a friend of the Clays for 26 years. "They make you sick."

Mr. Lambert says this jokingly, of course, but the Clays are used to similar reactions.

"People make those comments all the time," laughs Sandra Clay, a nail technician in Mr. Lambert's salon.

In a country saturated with sex -- on TV, in movies, in magazines, on billboards and even on the phone, thanks to those 900 numbers -- people still get peeved at the sight of public affection.

What's going on here?

Jealousy, for one thing.

Another couple's public wooing "may reflect something they [the peeved and aggrieved] don't have and would like to have with their own partner," explains Max Fitz-Gerald, a Florida clinical sexologist.

More often, though, couples who can't get enough of each other elicit skepticism. People think "there's something fakey about it," Mr. Fitz-Gerald says. "Most all of us experience that type of affection in the honeymoon phase, but it doesn't last.

"When we find a couple where it's lasted, we're suspicious. We think the affection is put on, that behind closed doors they're really not like that."

Oh, but we are, the Clays gleefully confess.

After 27 years of marriage, "he still gives me butterflies when I look at him," says Mrs. Clay, 49.

Mr. Clay's butterflies typically become pinches, hugs and other physical displays at home and in public.

It's not that he tries to attract anyone's attention. It just happens.

"Sometimes I can goose her a little bit without anybody looking," says Mr. Clay, 55, a retired tire-store manager.

Another reason many people disdain public affection is plain old stodginess -- masquerading as maturity, Mr. Fitz-Gerald says.

"That kind of frivolity isn't considered mature and adult," he says.

Such thinking stems from American society's Puritan background, he says.

"The concept is, 'that's for teen-agers,' " Mr. Fitz-Gerald says, "and when you get to be an adult, you have to think and act like an adult, and there's a script an adult has to follow" -- a script that evidently precludes goosing one's beloved outside the bedroom.

But some folks are just plain embarrassed by passionate affection.

"I feel as if I'm unexpectedly intruding into something very private," says Tim Saxon, an Orlando, floral designer. "I've seen some extreme examples, like a couple obviously in their 50s were carrying on right in front of everybody in a club. They probably had had too much to drink and were letting loose."

More recently, Mr. Saxon says, he was confronted with lust in the dust at Epcot.

"It was a couple in their 20s who I guess were turned on by the big silver globe and just having [a go] at each other."

Mr. Saxon, 39, is a tad more tolerant when the affection is between younger people.

"Very young kids being affectionate with each other, you almost attribute it to their innocence," he says.

But lots of adults see nothing innocent at all about the full-body groping that goes on in public among some teens.

Artist Deborah Groff has been known to go ballistic over her son's version of affection toward his girlfriends.

"I guess because I'm a New Englander, I just wouldn't . . . grope like that [in public]," says Ms. Groff, 38.

She and husband, Bill, don't hesitate to let son Erik, 18, know of their disapproval -- for example, by slamming on the brakes while he and a sweetie are necking in the back seat.

Naturally, Erik thinks his parents are overreacting, but he does what he can to be accommodating.

"I take things like that as their opinion," he says, "which I will respect if I'm in their presence."

Erik has his own theory on what's really upsetting Mom and Dad.

"It's probably just the noise we make" while kissing, he says. "Usually we're in the back seat of the car or behind them on a different chair in the room, and you can hear the little noises all the time. We don't go, like, 'Hey, guys! Watch this.' "

Even quiet affection among teens can draw harrumphs from adults.

"I've seen in the street where a couple are walking arm in arm, with his hand around her waist," says Claire Rosen, a retired social worker. "Every now and then the man will tease and let his hand slide down to her butt. I think that's a private thing that shouldn't be done in public.

"I don't mind public affection a bit as long as it doesn't have any sexual connotation."

There's the rub, says sexologist Mr. Fitz-Gerald.

Many people are uneasy about public affection simply because of what it could lead to: S-E-X.

"We're an uncomfortable culture when it comes to sex," Mr. Fitz-Gerald says.

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