A smooch is just a smooch — until, of course, it lands you in jail. No, this isn’t going to read like the PDA version of a “say no to drugs” commercial. It’s just good to be aware of cultural customs and public display of affection laws when you travel. If you had no idea some places even had public display of affection laws, then it’s probably a good thing you stumbled across this article.
It’s also useful to challenge your assumptions about the way the world works sometimes. For instance, it’s not a given that every culture in the world views kissing as a romantic gesture (or even desirable). A 2015 study by the University of Nevada found that more than half of the 168 cultures surveyed don’t kiss in a romantic or sexual way, particularly those in rural parts of the world. Some would even go so far as to say that it’s gross. Additionally, romantic-sexual kissing happens more frequently in cultures that are socially complex.
Whether you’re reading this to become more culturally enlightened or to avoid getting arrested on your next trip abroad, here’s a guide to where you’d have a green light, yellow light, and full-stop red light when it comes to PDA.
Where Is PDA Socially Acceptable?
Generally speaking, it’s safe to steal a quick kiss on the street just about anywhere in the Americas (that’s North, Central and South America). Mexico and Latin America are both places where PDA is generally even more out in the open than in the United States. The main exception is the Caribbean, where certain islands may have a more conservative culture around public displays of affection.
In Europe, PDA is also fairly acceptable, especially in major cities. However, people tend to be more reserved in Germany and the German-speaking part of Switzerland, as well as the Netherlands. Eastern Europe and Russia are also somewhat more reserved. And honestly, even if you’re in a rural part of Western Europe, it’s still probably best to not go overboard with that sort of thing.
Other countries with Westernized cultures tend to also be more relaxed about PDA, especially Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In fact, a survey by Travel Insurance Direct found that 58 percent of Australians have no issue with French kissing in public.
With all of that said, it’s good to bear in mind that just because you won’t get thrown in jail or accosted by dirty looks doesn’t mean you should abandon all your tact on vacation. If you’re in a place where you’re unfamiliar with the local culture, it’s still good practice to keep things PG when you’re out in public, especially because some places have public indecency laws that are stricter than those you may be used to back home. As always, when in doubt, do your research before you go.
Another important point is that LGBTQ+ couples may find it unsafe to openly express affection in certain places — even those where straight or straight-passing couples won’t run into any issues. You can learn more about this by reading up on the world’s most LGBTQ-friendly travel destinations.
Where Is PDA Frowned Upon?
There are many parts of the world where PDA isn’t technically illegal but is still considered taboo. Kissing and touching in public can make you the subject of disapproving looks, unwanted attention and potentially even harassment.
Most of Eastern and Southeast Asia fall under this category, including China, Japan, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. “Amorous liaisons” are taboo in Vietnam outside of Hanoi and Saigon, and you shouldn’t kiss or hold hands with someone of the opposite gender in Indonesia.
Often, there’s a direct link between the dominant religion and its values around modesty. This is generally true in Buddhist, Islamic and Confucian cultures. In Japan, it’s not so much a religious taboo as it is a cultural one — people here tend to be more reserved. That said, it’s normal for people of the same gender to hold hands in China as a gesture of platonic affection.
PDA is also a no-no in the majority of African countries, though attitudes are slightly more lax in Namibia and Mozambique. In South Africa, it’s fairly permissible. In Tunisia, you can get arrested for kissing on the street, but there are special “kissing cafes” where couples can go.
Countries With Public Display Of Affection Laws
What’s worse than offending the local culture with your tone-deaf tourist mannerisms is finding yourself in a potentially dangerous situation, or getting in trouble with the law in a foreign country.
The Middle East and India are two parts of the world where you’ll encounter the strictest public display of affection laws.
Kissing in public is illegal in Dubai, and couples have been arrested for excessive PDA in Egypt. Generally speaking, you should avoid most physical contact in public in the Middle East. A Scottish man once faced three years of jail time for briefly touching a man in a bar to avoid bumping into him and spilling his drink. That said, hand-holding between friends of the same gender is common in Arabic cultures, especially between men. Just don’t do this with anyone you don’t know very well.
In India, you can be arrested and sent to prison if you do something to offend the sensibilities of onlookers. Under Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, performing an “obscene act” or uttering obscenities can be punished with jail time of up to three months, a fine or both. This means that what counts as “obscene” is somewhat open to interpretation, but PDA almost certainly falls under that umbrella. However, in recent years, young activists have staged public kiss-ins to protest a law they believe is too strict and also too easily abused by corrupt police departments, who have used it to harass innocent citizens.
Though it’s strongly discouraged in Indonesia as a whole, couples have been punished with public floggings and jail time for public displays of affection (and even pre-marital sex) in the country’s conservative Aceh province.
In countries where homosexuality is illegal, PDA between LGBTQ+ couples can net even stricter penalties. Here are some of the world’s least LGBTQ-friendly travel destinations.