How Do You Feel Holding Hands With Your Partner in Public?

New research helps to contextualize same-sex couples' PDA experiences.

Posted Jun 08, 2019

Recently, a same-sex couple was attacked on a London double-decker bus by a group of four young men[1]. The two women were minding their own business when the group of men started taunting them and asking them to kiss each other. The women don’t quite remember what happened, but believe that perhaps they had already shared a kiss or some other form of PDA, which apparently made this group of men feel entitled to ask them to keep kissing. When the women refused, the group began to call them homophobic slurs, and the event escalated to the point where the two women were brutally beaten. Police have since arrested four young men between the ages of 15 and 18 [1].

While many on social media have expressed shock and outrage over the event, for those in same-sex relationships, this story is not shocking, but simply a confirmation of their worst fears. A recent study in the UK found that, of 100,000 LGBTQ individuals surveyed, 68 percent reported that they avoided holding hands with a partner in public for fear of negative or violent responses [2]. Indeed, news stories about gay male couples being attacked for holding hands or kissing in public are not infrequent. What makes this most recent story somewhat different is the fact that the women were attacked for refusing to kiss. Thus, while affection shared between two men is often deemed disgusting [3], affection between two women is viewed as a source of sexual entertainment for heterosexual men. In a recent paper published in Sex Roles, Dr. Rhea Hoskin discusses how the objectification of femme and feminine women and the assumption that female same-sex sexual activity is inherently done "for" the pleasure of men is part of a larger social phenomenon referred to as femmephobia [4]. Femmephobia refers to the societal devaluation of all people and things deemed feminine. In this particular situation, the women’s autonomy and capacity for being in a loving relationship with each other, for no other purpose than their own gratification, was entirely disregarded by a group of young men who felt they had the right to make requests of this couple for their own sexual gratification and entertainment. In other words, these men were exercising what Hoskin refers to as the “masculine right of access.” 

Despite the progress that has been made with respect to societal support for same-sex relationship rights and LGBTQ rights in general, one of the last remaining hurdles appears to be the simple ability to show expressions of those relationships and identities in public spaces without fear of violence. As Irish drag queen Panti Bliss put it in her TED Talk, what should be a “careless, thoughtless, tiny act of affection” instead becomes a “calculated, deliberate, and monitored” behavior. 

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Beyond the data from the large UK study, other research also confirms that many same-sex couples are hesitant to share affection in public. Recent research presented at the Canadian Psychological Association’s Annual Convention in Halifax examined how same-sex experiences of sharing affection in public differ from those reported by individuals in mixed-sex relationships. Despite no differences in how couples shared affection in private settings, individuals in same-sex relationships reported significantly less comfort sharing affection in public, and, consequently, significantly less frequency of sharing affection in public [5]. In other words, the common refrain that LGBTQ people are “flaunting” their sexuality in public and that if they would just “keep it to themselves” they would be more accepted seems to fall flat on its face, as same-sex couples, especially male same-sex couples, are simply not sharing affection in public anywhere near as frequently as individuals in mixed-sex relationships.

Same-sex couples report being acutely aware of stigma directed at same-sex public displays of affection.
Source: Pexels.

One of the reasons why same-sex couples are less likely to share affection in public is because they also report significantly higher levels of PDA-related vigilance [5]. In other words, when they do express affection in public, or even think about sharing affection with their partner in public, they become acutely aware of their surroundings, constantly monitoring their environment for signs of danger or disapproving onlookers. This vigilance not only reduces their comfort with sharing affection in public, but also has a direct association with their mental well-being, thereby leading their experiences of affection with their partner in public to be a potential strain on their mental health.

A couple of years ago, for Pride, ANZ Banking in Australia and New Zealand really drove this issue home with their #HoldTight campaign, which highlighted the discomfort and fear that same-sex couples experience when they share affection in public. The message behind the campaign (besides demonstrating the company’s support and sponsorship of Pride) was that same-sex couples should keep holding hands and not give in to the negative responses of those around them. It was an admirable message, but at the same time, it is questionable to what extent it is actually safe for same-sex couples to #HoldTight.

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This most recent incident in the UK suggests that we are still far from living in a society where it is safe for same-sex couples to express their affection for one another freely and openly in public. As for what the couple from the bus have to say about same-sex couples sharing affection in public, Chris told BBC News, "I am not scared about being visibly queer. If anything, you should do it more." Her partner, Melania Geymonat, agreed and stated that, although it was a scary situation, it was "not a novel situation." 

What have your experiences of sharing affection in public been like? Do you and your partner share similar or different preferences for PDA? Whatever your relationship type or experiences, you are invited to participate in an online survey about experiences of sharing affection with your partner both in public and in private. For more information, visit

Facebook image: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock


1 - Brito, C. (June 7, 2019). Lesbian couple brutally beaten by group of teens on London bus for refusing to kiss. CBS News. Retrieved From.

2 - Government Equalities Office. (2018). National LGBT Survey: Research Report. Retrieved from: 

5 - McKenna, O., Blair, K.L., Holmberg, D. & Hoskin, R.A. (2019). Public Displays of Affection in Same-Sex vs. Mixed-Sex Couples: A Lack of Safety Not Desire. Paper presented at the 80th Annual Convention of the Canadian Psychological Association, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Retrieved from: 

BBC News. (June 7, 2019). London bus attack women: 'We are not scared to be visibly queer'. Retrieved from: