I distinctly remember my thoughts when I heard of the Kiss of Love protest for the first time. Youngsters had thronged the streets to protest against the moral policing and censorship of physical and verbal expressions of love, which was then followed by debates on what should constitute public indecency, and who decides it. I was exhilarated by the revolutionary way in which love and its different manifestations were celebrated, and how love, a concept traditionally contained inside the private, spilled into the public to reclaim its spaces. It was inspiring to see people standing against the State, to demand their right to express messy emotions; to rip apart carefully hidden sentiments and desires and display them. On the streets. In bus stands. In parks. In public institutions. They screamed that love belonged to the streets as much it belongs to closed rooms and beds, that love meant more than socially sanctioned traditional institutions of marriage and family, that love had the power of emancipation.
Underneath all the exhilaration and solidarity that I felt with the movement, there was an unease that crept at the back of my neck. I had, in the past, kissed and engaged in various physical activities in public, and had been rebuked for the same. I have been driven out from parks, and asked to not ‘be obscene’ by men and women alike. I have faced disapproval from the actors of the State to residents of a residential society alike for being found in ‘compromising positions’, and have fought back as well. Yet, none of it felt emancipatory, neither did such activities seem to arise from my own agency as a woman participating in (consensual?) sexual activities in the public. On the contrary, all of it felt like part and parcel of being in a heterosexual relationship, as well as the compulsory activities (and needs of my boyfriend) that I needed to participate in as a ‘girlfriend’. Kisses of love in public didn’t present itself as a liberation from regressive norms of love, but foregrounded the ways in which I viewed my body in public as well as in the private. Through them, I negotiated with the dynamics of compulsory heterosexuality, gendered forms of romantic love and gestures, the peculiar form of the public sphere itself, as well as (the lack) of my own agency.
I was introduced to Public Displays of Affection (or PDA, as it is known in common parlance) as a phenomenon; a behaviour that (heterosexual) romantic couples generally engaged in. I didn’t contest such a mandatory correlation of PDA with couples though, and I had recognised it as a phenomenon that people in love participated in that would inevitably attract censure and castigation, either from the police or from political bodies that vest onto themselves the responsibility of maintaining a social, moral order. Yet, I still saw love there, finding its way through cracks in the socially erupted walls that mercilessly divide the public and the private. The more regressive the norms, the more creative the ways lovers find to meet. The socio-cultural milieu around constantly reminded me of the phenomenon that a couple ‘must’ face: poetry, music and performing arts depicting how the heroine stealthily leaves her home to meet her lover at their secret spot; under a tree, on the bank of a river, under cool moonlight, where nobody can find them and separate them. Or how undisguised, public declarations of love have been celebrated through Bollywood songs such as “Khullam khulla pyaar karenge ham dono, is duniya se nahi darenge ham dono” (We will love openly, we will not fear the world), and “Pyaar kiya koi chori nahi ki, chhup chhup aahe bharna kya” (I have loved, not stolen something; I don’t have to suffer in silence). It was something that made its appearance felt everywhere through media, art, literature etc, yet was something understood as tabooed and punishable.
It was precisely the dominant presence of the concept of PDA that I did not think much about when my (now ex) boyfriend demanded sexual intimacy in public. His reasons were simple, completely understandable to me at that point of time; we were in a long distance relationship, he had needs that could not be fulfilled in the private sphere as we both stayed within joint families and we were both and too scared to avail of couple-friendly hotel rooms. Therefore, it made sense to do what we (he) wanted to do in public, precisely because we had no other place to go. It needs to be mentioned at this point that my consent wasn’t taken, only because it was perceived as something perfectly normal and something I would ‘want’ to do as well, since I was in a romantic relationship with him. My first lesson about heterosexual romantic relationships, thus, was to follow and not question the socio-culturally scripted ways of intimacy prescribed to a heterosexual relationship, PDA being one of its ‘perks’. Thus, we ventured out on an exploration to seek private spheres within the public arena, and found it extremely difficult to find safe spaces. But that did not seem to bother my boyfriend and he led us to a park near my school, fully aware of the illegal activities that occurred there. And he insisted in overtly sexual activities that required me to even take off my clothes. While we were in the midst of the act, I was aware of how uncomfortable I felt, yet I never knew I had a choice to say it out aloud. Further, wasn’t this something all (heterosexual) couples did? Why did I have to feel any different?
I did not have any distinct thoughts or feelings about PDA until, one day, I found a man watching us and masturbating. That was the first time I was overcome with fear, confusion and disgust. I remember stammering and expressing my fear to my boyfriend who immediately asked me to shut up and never bring it up again. I dutifully obeyed. Yet, the feelings stayed. The heat of the afternoon had still not left my skin as I felt it crawling with disgust and I had an immediate desire to cover my body. I recognised how my body became a sexual spectacle for male eyes, how my body and the sexual activities that it was engaging in gave pornographic pleasure to a stranger. I felt my body reduced to a sexual object that existed to provide sexual pleasure, with or without physical contact. I found those luring, invasive eyes in every man who looked at me everytime I was in the public, and I became aware that covering my body with clothes would not take away the sexual image that my body was painted into. And, I had internalised it to the extent of normalising those stares and gazes. I had come to actively recognise my body as a sexual object, devoid of humanness and agency.
Through the seven years of my relationship with that particular boyfriend, PDA was understood as mandatory every time we met. It didn’t matter where we were, it didn’t matter if we had even not had a conversation, but sexual activities needed to be performed in the public space. One distinct memory that I have is of my boyfriend coaxing me to travel 10 kilometres at 9 p.m. to go to a Ridge, just so he could satisfy his sexual needs. It was dark and quiet, and there were men who saw me with him and immediately reduced me to a piece of meat ready to be devoured by a man. I remember being scared stiff of the darkness, of the presence of those men, and I pleaded endlessly with him to let me go home, but he didn’t oblige. He pushed himself on me, and I kept saying how scared I was, when he finally let go and ‘allowed’ me to go home, only after letting me know how angry he was with me for not kissing and fondling him. That day, I remember feeling relief and guilt at the same time. I was relieved because I was no longer a pornographic spectacle to those men watching, and guilt because I had let my fear overcome me and gone against the norm of kissing your boyfriend every time you meet, because we were in a long distance relationship and he ‘had needs’. To make things up to him, I remember silently obliging him every time he wanted to make out in public. I saw, helplessly, passers-by watching me and my naked chest with disgust and with lust. I felt my body wanting to shrink, till it became invisible to those invasive glances. But mostly, I felt my body transforming into an object that was despised and desired, that was abject, and that was disgusting and necessary at the same time.
Six years later (and out of such an abusive relationship), as I sit in a Gender Studies classroom discussing public and private spheres, being introduced to the feminist ideology of the personal being political, I reflect back and see my experiences as emerging from a complex discursive pattern. The peculiar way in which heterosexual romantic relationships are envisaged and the potentiality of them being disruptive of traditional arrangements of companionship requires them to be manifested outside of the four walls of home and family. Yet, one faces a situation of a pathetic lack of safe spaces within the public sphere and the traditional discourse of love being private and contained within the private sphere. It is in between these conflicting ideologies that romance and love find their manifestations. Yet, the gendered dynamics of heterosexual romantic relationships made it even harder for me to negotiate my identity as a heterosexual woman in love who brings it out on the streets, not quite willingly.
I extend my support and solidarity to people, across the spectrum of gender and sexuality, who want to break closed doors and walls to establish safe spaces where one can love freely, without inhibitions; people who seek to re-define love and intimacy in their own independent, non-patriarchal terms. But, my personal experiences of ‘public love’ as a cisgender, heterosexual woman, taught me to censure my own body, to tread carefully in hostile public spaces; a lesson I am trying hard to unlearn. It is time one needs to re-imagine love, to critically problematise it whenever necessary, and to reclaim its emancipatory properties. Love that has enthusiastic celebrants when it declares itself on the streets. Kisses of love between equally desiring partners. A love revolutionary, and safe, as that.