Dear Indy...

by Lisa Borst, Will Tavlin & Erin West

Illustration by Sophia Meng

published September 29, 2017

Dear Indy, 
Thoughts on PDA

LB: Despite long being an object of public scrutiny, regulation, judgment, and fantasy, the thing about sexual intimacy is that, for most of us, it finds its most overt expressions in relative private. In bed, in the backseat of a car, in rose-petal-strewn hotel rooms: these are the spaces where normative sex happens, or is imagined to happen. At the same time, a very fun part of being attracted to or in love with someone (at least for me) is that occasional upswelling of affection that surfaces at odd moments, when you feel you just must make out this instant—even if you’re in a public place.

But public displays of affection can easily morph into their nasty counterpart: public displays of exclusion. And this distinction, to me, totally depends on what kind of “public” you’re in. 

My current partner and I are both women, and we tend to regulate the ways we touch each other in direct relation to our surroundings. There are plenty of places where we more or less have at it—for example, at Dyke Night at Aurora (RIP). But if we’re hanging out in smaller-scale settings with our single friends who we know are fundamentally lonely? Maybe we tone it down for the sake of not excluding the people around us. Ditto for places where we know we’ll be subject to uncomfortable, unproductive questions or interpellations—like at the clock repair shop in North Providence, where the elderly owner once told us, after an unwise bit of PDA, that he’d had a lifelong fascination with scissoring. (Reader, I suggest you take your clock-repair business elsewhere.) The aggression, discomfort, or judgment that can surface in response to PDA of all sorts is, I’d argue, a result of the same kind of exclusion that your lonely friend might feel if you and your bae start hooking up in front of them: regardless of whether an onlooker specifically wants to make out with you, there is still something unnerving about a private thing erupting in public, a reminder that two people know each other more intimately than other members of the public can know them. 

But sometimes certain situations all but demand subjecting onlookers to exclusion and discomfort, and sometimes a little bit of public romance is exactly what’s needed to disrupt our sanitized understandings of what public space is for. The uncomfortable fact at the core of PDA, of course, is sex, and the uncomfortable fact at the core of sex is that—as Lauren Berlant, that better, wiser LB, reminds us—it is the means by which we most readily forfeit our own sovereignty. And the metonym of this forfeiture that is PDA has, in many cases, enormous political power: I’m thinking of AIDS-era kiss-ins, for example, which forced people in public to confront queer sexualities at a moment at which they were feared and reviled. If we take as a given the idea that PDA is, in most cases, fundamentally about communicating care, then I think it’s generally helpful to ask yourself: is my communication of care occurring at the discomfort of someone else? If so, what utility might that discomfort have? If you don’t have a great answer to that second question, I’d suggest you get a room. 

I’m looking for help with a friendship that feels really unbalanced. I feel like I spend a lot of time listening to my friend’s concerns, romantic troubles, daily problems, and small annoyances, but I never feel like that interest is fully reciprocated when I take the time to talk about my life apart from my friendship. Their reaction is usually, “Stop worrying so much!” which is a course of action I generally believe in, but also feels reductive and doesn’t leave me space to talk about the complications of any one situation. I’ve tried communicating this to my friend, and being more assertive when I try to make space for myself, but I’ve found that it often leads to a weirdly transactional “You can only talk about yourself if I talk about me first” relationship, which ends up leaving me more bitter than heard. How do I break out of the cycle and build a relationship where both of us feel less possessive of our feelings? Or should I just stop hoping for that from my friend, and look elsewhere? 

WT: You say that you “both” feel “possessive” of your feelings, but it sounds like your friend is the lone offender here. It is your friend who—in telling you not to worry about your problems—refuses to engage with your problems, with the intensity of your emotions, the possibility of being close to you. 

Friends are incredible people. And the ones who changed my life let me wail with them when I needed to, empty my lungs, little spoon in their beds. They didn’t go above and beyond; they were simply there when I asked. In a torrential bad mood, I once apologized to a friend for subjecting them to my unshakeable wrath. “That’s okay,” they responded. “You can be angry.” 

Being yourself is sometimes as simple as hearing that that horrible day you had was horrible, or that thing someone said was shitty and bad. Your friends have different capacities for understanding and care (this is a good thing; no two personal dilemmas are alike and our care for each other should reflect this fact). But it’s important that you trust your emotions with friends who are actually capable handling—receiving, validating, responding to—them. You know who they are. It’s not a matter of skill, but of knowing you’re enough, of loving you dearly. 

It feels like all my friends are in relationships or at least having fun fling-situations, but it has been so long since I’ve met someone I’ve felt something for. When oh when will I find love???

WT: I know your position well, dear advice-seeker. I’ve watched countless friends leave parties together and end up in long-term, loving relationships. We (single people) are amazed by this phenomenon. ‘How did they do it?’ we wonder. Like, how did they literally do it? What conversations, dinners, and dates produced this bond? What kind of intimacy consummated this trust? You might find yourself amazed, wondering when this Providence might shine its divine light on your person.

I propose an intervention: let’s suspend the idea that we merely “find love,” as if love were a faith that could rapture us from worldly despair. It can—no doubt true love can feel otherworldly. But remember that your loving friends likely worked hard to make themselves vulnerable to the possibility of love. They had desires, attractions, and insecurities, and acted upon them. They made plans, sent text messages, drank coffee together, made out! We desire falling in love, or finding love, because the narrative absolves our responsibility to produce the conditions under which love can occur. Last week, I found a rock on the beach, and then I fell into a giant hole in the sand. Lovers aren’t rocks! And love is not a sand pit! 
My suggestion: join Tinder and Bumble. Anything helps.

I have a close friend who I think is going through a hard time, and I am as well, and all I want is for us to have some sort of mutual cathartic release about being low (like crying together in a park, say), but that is really not my friend’s style, and it’s making me feel irrationally hurt. What should I do?

EW: First, there’s no such thing as an irrational feeling. Yes, we can talk back to your feeling and offer some context or counter-points (i.e. how much your friend opens up to you doesn’t directly correlate with how close they feel to you) but your hurt is coming from a real place—and that’s worth paying attention to. 
I would encourage you to exercise some self-compassion (hard to do, actually). You say you’re going through a hard time. I am so sorry to hear that. Does it feel like waking up and not being able to get out of bed? Or like your days are so anxious that your heart seems to run at twice its usual speed? However you’re experiencing this time, I want to recognize and validate your pain. Is someone saying this enough to you? I want to ask if you’re getting the support you need right now. If not, what would full support look like for you? 

I hear you on wanting to cry with your friend. I <3 crying (I’m crying’s biggest fan, crying is one of my favorite activities) and crying with someone has always been powerful for me. (I’ve proposed to friends, multiple times, my idea for a national holiday in which everyone cathartically cries together…hah, silly but I think it has some radical potential…). My guess for you though, is that the moment isn’t about the physical act of crying, but rather would feel helpful primarily as a symbolic moment of mutual recognition, a moment in which you both fully acknowledge each other’s pain and are able to communicate to each other just how big/severe/significant/present that pain is for you.

We all want to be seen as our authentic selves—especially by those we love. How can we make this happen for you? If your friend wouldn’t feel comfortable crying together, is there another moment you can share in which you feel your friend can really see your pain? (And you can see theirs?) What if you wrote a letter to them that lets them know how you’re feeling and reiterates the importance of your friendship? More sneakily, could you suggest watching a movie together that happens to be a tear-jerker? Hah. 

And hey, when I roll out this crying holiday situation, you’ll be on the top of my invite list.