Society for East Asian Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In South Korea, young couples (20s-30s) conspicuously communicating their relationship status, affection, and desire through physical contact in public spaces by holding hands, walking arm in arm, and myriad other forms are ubiquitous. In the anthropology of love and intimacy, attitudes towards the verbal expression of love have received substantial attention, highlighting how love discourses are adopted and practiced. Far less scholarly attention has been paid to how love and intimacy are communicated non-verbally. In this paper, I take up questions of what South Koreans’ public displays of affection (PDA) communicate to onlookers about a couple’s relationship status and sexuality, and what these expressions mean to the individuals engaging in them. Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork from 2016-2019, interviews, survey data, and systematic observations of PDA in Seoul, I illustrate that there is a broad cultural consensus that most common forms of PDA, such as hand, arm and waist-holding, signal the couple to be in an exclusive and likely sexual relationship. There is also consensus around gendered norms that prescribe male initiation of PDA and on the inappropriateness of PDA in the presence of one’s parents. However, relative to younger informants, older Koreans tend to overestimate the level of commitment implied by PDA among young couples. My findings suggest not only a greater concern for sexual propriety among Korean women than men but also a generational diminishment of Korea’s sexual double standard.