It is a typical Monday afternoon in the city of Madrid, as I ride the metro home from my university. The subway car is quite busy with the Spaniards returning home for their siesta. I look up from my daily commute reading to take in my surroundings: a few smartly dressed businessmen chat about current events to my left; the abuela seated across from me gently nods off; the street performer at the end of the car strums his guitar for tips; and of course, in the center of the car, on display for all to see, is a young couple in a passionate, sloppy embrace.
This sight is commonplace in Madrid, where on any street or public space the youth seem to be compelled to express their affections plainly and publicly. The metro, parks, restaurants—nowhere is sacred, nowhere exempt. Moreover, no one seems to mind it. While in the United States public displays of affection (PDA) are met with revulsion and condemnation, in Spain the popular response is casual indifference. This is not to be confused with the Spaniards’ more contact-prone demeanor, for example the bis bis, a pair of hello kisses to a friend. While personal space is generally less important in this country, romantic, and often sexual, acts in public remain in a realm of their own. This phenomenon is a result of Spain’s unique economic and social climate, which makes PDA not only a norm but also a necessity to the millennial dating culture.
“He wants to do WHAT in a park?!” is my shocked response to my American friend when she retells the conversation she had with her Spanish courtier. Due to a stagnant economy, this uncomfortable proposition is the unfortunate reality for the majority of jóvenes living with their parents. Either in school or out of work, young adults in Madrid do not have the income to afford soaring rent prices around the city. As a result, they enjoy little privacy and seldom the freedom that most American youths enjoy in their romantic endeavors.
Cohabiting the same apartment as their parents do also exacerbates the generation gap in Spain. While Spain enjoyed an outburst of sexual progressivism at the end of Franco’s dictatorship, in the 1970s, today the country still maintains a strong conservative base of adults. This split is no clearer than in the average Spanish household between the liberal adolescents and their conservative parents. Under this climate of familial conservatism, it is often taboo or even restricted for Spanish youth to bring their significant others around the home.
Paradoxically, while home life continues to remain more conservative, the social conditions of Spain have led to a more progressive public realm. In the case of religion, the increasingly secularized Spanish society lacks the oppressive norms of a strict popular religion. While in the United States much of our public conduct stems from our Puritanical roots, such as our aversion to PDA, Spain is still reconciling with what is considered proper conduct post-dictatorship, an era during which public life was censored by the government and often the Catholic Church. For many Spanish adults, the sexual liberation that occurred after the fall of the dictatorship is a not so distant memory, and religion as a means to dictate behavior has fallen to the wayside as a result.
This fact is evidenced by the prevalence of PDA among both heterosexual and homosexual Spanish youth. In my experience, you are just as likely to see a same-sex couple holding hands walking down the streets of Madrid, as you are a straight couple, which is a testament to how progressive the sexual environment is in Spanish society. While in many cities in the United States same-sex couples must think twice before committing PDA, in Spain they are uninhibited from enjoying the same public privileges of their straight counterparts.
A conservative home life as a result of economic conditions juxtaposed with a progressive public sphere formed by a historical legacy are the two contradictory factors contributing to the alarming amount of PDA on the streets of Madrid. And while shocking to the unaccustomed eye, one has to sympathize with the Spanish youth, having little other choice than to take advantage of their scarce time apart from their parents to express their affection. So, on my Monday afternoon commute, I try my hardest not to mind the “Latin lovers” on display for all to see, and return to my reading.
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