Don't quash gooey affection sessions

I recently took a brief vacation in Mexico City. The visit allowed me to remark on differences between Mexican and American social mores that seemed to emerge in an unfamiliar environment.

One thing I noticed was the large number of couples kissing every which way — a sight to which I had grown very accustomed during my adolescence in Italy, but as I now live in San Diego it is a sight rare enough to catch my eye when I see it.

Every park bench, little wall and piece of lawn was filled with people tightly connected by the tongue, with hands touching places that nobody would dare to touch on American television and unspeakable body parts brushing against each other. Scenes like this are quite common in Latin countries.

I remember seeing a couple in Naples, Italy, decide in the middle of a busy boulevard that it was a good time to kiss. They stopped the car in the middle of the lane and did things that, in the United States, would garner at least a PG-13 rating.

The decision was criticizable from a traffic circulation viewpoint — traffic is very bad in Naples to begin with — but heartwarming otherwise.

This explosion of the senses always appeared to me very beautiful and very natural. We are, after all, talking about guys and girls in the middle of adolescence, with hormones raging and all that.

Why aren’t displays of this kind seen in San Diego? All external circumstances would conspire to bring lovers together: the mild weather, the beach, the parks … what happened to San Diego’s lovers?

Since nature sends its calls across boundaries to hormones of all countries, it seems logical to assume that the behavioral differences between San Diego teenagers and their Latin counterparts are cultural.

There are indeed two streaks of American culture that could explain this restrained attitude. On the one hand, American culture places a very high value on privacy — not only in the sense of protection from undue intrusion, but also in the creation of almost impenetrable barriers between one’s private lives and one’s public life.

Americans are not fond of displaying their private life in public places, but their Latin counterparts do not seem to have a problem with it. The idiom “”public display of affection”” doesn’t even have an equivalent in Latin languages — the practice doesn’t constitute a problem.

One can trace the evolution of this attitude in American culture through a survey of structural development — tracing the progressive reduction and eventual elimination of public areas of social aggregation in the cities.

Most East Coast cities still have plazas and streets designed for strolling and socializing. On most of the West Coast, and especially in newly built areas, walking areas are restricted to privately owned shopping malls and, as such, are subject to the primacy of consumption over socialization. Suburban areas are the triumph of private land over public spaces.

This lack of public life should be added to the well-planted myth of self-reliance, which is on a collision course with displays of affection: Displaying affection entails admitting a break in self-reliance, a need. It entails admitting that one cannot do by himself, but needs an emotional complement, and kissing or caressing on the street means admitting this publicly.

I believe that it is this belief of vulnerability that makes displays of affection hard, especially for men. Men have been assigned the gender role of lonely heroes who do not need anybody. At the end of the movie, the Western hero has to depart alone, leaving broken hearts behind, but never giving up his freedom. This well-ingrained mechanism makes it almost shameful for a man to be affectionate.

To this, we should add a second streak of American culture: its essentially Puritan origin, with the well-known repression of public sexual discourse that comes with it. The influence of this point is so powerful that even curious ideas, such as the fact that schools shouldn’t teach sexual education to children, have an almost axiomatic acceptance.

The same attitude prevents public sexual manifestations unless they take place in a strictly coded way. The display of scantily dressed women to advertise a product is well-accepted. The extreme situation in which these displays take place — on remote beaches, with women conforming so well to the accepted canons that they look almost abstract — keeps the display of sexuality removed from the sphere of everyday life.

In a sense, the women displayed in the sexually charged display that one sees on TV are not human beings, but sexual products. We know that American culture is accustomed to the role of products in society.

It would be much less accepted if normal people, apart from any act of consumption, displayed sexual behavior in public.

The force preventing people from freely showing their affection is powerful: a cultural heritage dating back hundreds of years. The only defense in these cases is to set the right example in an open and forceful manner. Fortunately, UCSD is full of young people with the right level of hormones for such an operation.

My invitation to them is: Start kissing. Take your favorite public spot on campus and start kissing your girlfriend or boyfriend. Touch each other, walk around campus embracing so tightly that there will be no light between your bodies. Start necking in the Price Center and on Library Walk. Learn that it is pleasant to show the world that you love to stay together.

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