I recently moved back from the United States to a Spanish-speaking country. While walking down the street in my new neighborhood the other day, I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye that seemed strangely familiar – something reminiscent of home, like a deep voice narrating a soccer match on the radio or the smell of fried plantains coming out of a window at noon. It was the sight of a couple passionately kissing on a bench. I realized that it had been some time since I had seen such a clear and direct example of what my U.S. friends would label P.D.A. (a Public Display of Affection).
When I was growing up in Costa Rica, many bars and restaurants had signs in bright red letters saying “No se permiten escenas amorosas” (“No love scenes allowed”). You can still see those signs in some – mostly old – places, where the food tends to be greasy and oftentimes delicious. I remember reading the words and asking my parents about the scope of the “love ban.” Was a kiss OK? Tongue or no tongue? Hands on the thigh? Turns out, the definition was rather vague.
Few aspects of life are as fraught with contradictions in Latin America as sexuality. Our culture is simultaneously filled with sensual stimulus and religious censure. We spin in a whirlwind of seduction and shame, of pleasure and guilt. This collective schizophrenia leads to odd rules concerning what we can and cannot do in the eyes of others. There are still many Costa Ricans who would raise their eyebrows at an unmarried couple walking into an apartment late at night, yet French kissing in the park is fairly OK. People can be weirded out by the mention of your birth control method, yet twerking on the dance floor is totally acceptable. If life were a spectrum with a reggaeton video on one end and a string quartet recital on the other, then Costa Rica would be swinging back and forth like a morally confused pendulum.
I wish a lot of this would change. I wish Costa Ricans, especially women, were able to express their sexuality without the weight of centuries of anxiety and blame. I wish we would quit passing judgment on the decisions people make regarding their private lives. But can we please maintain our nonchalant attitude towards P.D.A.?
To me, there’s something liberating in walking past a couple kissing in a corner or holding hands on the street. It’s a reminder that human beings have been using their bodies to communicate way longer than they’ve been using speech. When we greet our partner with a peck on the mouth, we are not only saying that we are romantically involved with them, we are also saying that our involvement implies physicality – and that that’s natural. I’m not advocating for people to have sex in the town square, nor am I claiming that there’s anything wrong with those who just don’t feel like smooching on the sidewalk. I’m only saying that public demonstrations of feelings are one of the most innate human activities that some cultures suppress.
This is made evident by an important difference between the U.S. (and Europe) and Latin America: P.D.A. among members of the LGBT community. In all my time in Costa Rica, I’ve seen very few instances of same-sex couples holding hands or kissing in a public place. Every time it’s happened, there’s a force that comes with it, a non-apologetic defiance of all the unwritten rules that prevent them from engaging in behavior that is ordinary to others. I can’t help but think that Costa Rica would be a better place to live – certainly a more coherent one – if we allowed LGBT couples the same freedom we grant teenagers in the back of a school bus.
Human progress has always been determined by the tensions between the interests and the sensitivities of some, against the wants and needs of others. The balance is never obvious and rarely permanent; it is a moving target, an ever-changing limit. Redefining what is decent is what’s landed us in a world where people can divorce and women can attend school, among countless other achievements. At the same time, one must concede that not every behavior can be permitted in a functioning society, especially behavior that is verifiably harmful to others. Deciding what we deem acceptable, agreeing on what we will allow to see and hear on the street –whether we like it or not – is a much more delicate task than you would first assume.
So, think about that the next time you see a pair of fourteen-year-old kids engaged in mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (how did we manage to do that, by the way? I remember kissing for hours without getting bored. These days, I’d probably faint from exhaustion).
Think how far we’ve come since the times of the chaperones, when women used to walk arm in arm, circling the park in one direction while guys walked in the opposite.
Think of that glorious moment in Cinema Paradiso, made up of all the cut-out scenes the local priest had censured, unleashed in one single gasp of nostalgic sensuality.
And think about what it feels to stand in a corner, grab the person you love, and not give a rat’s ass about what someone’s grandmother would say if she saw you behaving in such distasteful manner.
Read previous Please Send Coffee! columns here.
Raquel Chanto is a lawyer and policy wonk trying to survive international bureaucracy abroad. In her monthly column “Please Send Coffee!” she explores aspects of Costa Rican culture and how they contrast with life as an expat.