Prevalence of Public Displays of Affection on a College Campus

ABSTRACT

Using two measures of self-report, we aimed to determine the prevalence of various displays of affection in public places on the campus of the University of the South (Sewanee). A questionnaire was administered to 260 Sewanee students living in dorms on campus and an interview was conducted with a separate, but not necessarily entirely different sample of 140 students. We hypothesized that the college environment of Sewanee would produce a high prevalence of public displays of affection (PDAs) (Afifi and Johnson 1999). The results supported the hypothesis, with 34.1% of questionnaire participants reporting having engaged in prolonged kissing in public in the semester during which the study was conducted. 57.9% of interview participants reported having engaged in prolonged kissing in public at some point during their time at Sewanee. Several nominal-scale correlations between other lifestyle choice responses and those relating to PDAs proved to be statistically significant. Despite some flaws in the wording of several questions, our results show that PDAs are common on the Sewanee campus. Further research will help determine whether the results from this study are characteristic of other environments.

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, a substantial amount of research has examined sexual behavior and especially sexual behavior associated with drug use and intoxication. There is a body of research that examines why and how such behavior occurs; yet there seems to be less research that examines the prevalence of this behavior within the college environment. There is also decidedly less research concerned with the prevalence of public displays of affection (PDAs) within the college environment; such PDAs may be seen as a precursor to at least some sexual encounters. In recent research, such as Sumnall, Beynon, Conchie, Riley, and Cole's (2007) investigation of the subjective experience of sex after substance use, questionnaires and other self-report measures have been used to identify participants' common sexual behavior and drug use.

The aim of this study is to determine the prevalence of PDAs,intimate displays of affection in places where there is no expectation of privacy,on the campus of the University of the South (Sewanee). Two separate measures of self-report, a paper questionnaire and an interview, were used to gather data on the prevalence of such public displays of affection as well as other demographic and lifestyle information. Unlike research that focused on observing such behavior in bars (Afifi and Johnson 1999), questions in this study specifically avoided limiting public interactions to one place because of the variety of different places students congregate socially. We hypothesized that the college environment would foster a high incidence of PDAs, due in part to the unique situation college life presents to young people in terms of dormitory life and the congregation of students on campus.

MATERIALS AND METHODS

Questionnaire Participants

Participants for the questionnaire were selected according to the dorms they lived in. Eight dorms were selected from the 27 unique housing options on campus according to their layout and distribution of male and female residents. Two all-female, two all-male, and four co-ed central campus dorms of varying size and design were chosen for this study. Each dorm housed freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

Apparatus and Materials

The eleven-question questionnaire carried the title "Sewanee Lifestyle Survey" with a school logo located directly below the title. A preface explaining the instructions and aims of the study, without mentioning PDAs or any related phrase, was included on the questionnaire before the questions themselves. The questionnaire included four demographic questions, four questions related to lifestyle choices other than PDAs, and three questions related to PDAs. See Appendix A for a replica of the actual questionnaire in its exact layout and design.

Covered cardboard boxes were used to collect the completed questionnaires. The boxes were used so that the researchers did not handle the completed surveys as they were collected, thus minimizing their ability to identify a particular individual's responses. All questionnaires from one dorm were collected in a given box.

Procedure

The questionnaire was distributed during four consecutive days in early October between 9:30 and 10 pm at the eight dorms selected. Teams of two to three researchers were responsible for the distribution of the questionnaire in one dorm each on a day that was convenient for that particular group within the four-day span mentioned above. Researchers divided each dorm into sections for distribution, with each researcher in a group being responsible for a section. Researchers went door-to-door distributing questionnaires to every room in which occupants answered and agreed to participate. Upon being received by an occupant of a room after knocking politely at the door, researchers explained the general nature of the questionnaire, referring to the aims of the study as investigating "lifestyle choices on campus". Researchers explained that the results were to be used for a psychology class before handing the questionnaire to participants. Researchers also explained that a fellow researcher would return within 15 minutes to collect the questionnaire in a closed box to help preserve anonymity. Following the distribution of questionnaires to every willing occupant of the dorm at the time of distribution, the researchers once again proceeded door-to-door,this time with a box for collection. In most cases, participants were instructed to place their questionnaires in the box, but some participants returned the questionnaires directly to the researchers rather than putting them in the box. Researchers did not return to rooms where occupants declined to participate unless the room contained participants as well.

Interview Participants

In addition to the eleven-question paper questionnaire, each researcher also conducted oral interviews. Each researcher interviewed one male and one female from each class year. Due to the concern that interviewing an unknown student about PDAs would cause discomfort for the interviewer as well as the interviewee, measures were taken to minimize researcher bias while considering this discomfort. Each researcher compiled a list of all freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors that they knew and gave the list to their roommate (or other friend) with no more instruction than for them to choose one male and one female of each class from the list. The roommate was not informed of the study or purpose of the selections. This selection was thus not random but did avoid researcher bias aside from the fact that the population was narrowed to students that each researcher knew. If any participant selected from the list withdrew or declined to participate, another student of the same gender and class was selected from the list.

Apparatus and Materials

The interview was conducted using a set of questions with multiple-choice or yes-or-no responses. The interview was brief, containing several demographic questions, one lifestyle question, and two lifestyle questions pertaining to PDAs. The interview also contained a question at the end asking interviewees to classify their responses to the previous questions as skewed or accurate. A copy of the interview questions is attached as Appendix B.

Responses to Questions 7 and 8.
Question 7: Have you ever engaged in prolonged kissing (making out) in a public place (any place in which you had no expectation of privacy) at Sewanee this semester?
Question 8: Have you ever engaged in more intimate acts than just prolonged kissing in a public place at Sewanee this semester?

Responses to Questions 7 and 8. Question 7: Have you ever engaged in prolonged kissing (making out) in a public place (any place in which you had no expectation of privacy) at Sewanee this semester? Question 8: Have you ever engaged in more intimate acts than just prolonged kissing in a public place at Sewanee this semester?

Procedure

Each researcher conducted interviews with 8 Sewanee students with whom he or she was acquainted. In interviewing students, researchers asked the questions agreed upon, but were also allowed to explain each question within reason if participants needed clarification. This clarification included additional explanation of terms such as "extended kissing" if the researcher deemed such explanation necessary. The researchers had discussed several problem areas in question comprehension, specifically the phrase "extended kissing". The phrase "prolonged kissing" was chosen as the alternative phrase a researcher could use in providing further clarification. If further explanation was still needed to understand questions five and six, the researcher could use the term "making out." Interviews were conducted orally, either face-to-face or by telephone. All participants were informed that the study was investigating "lifestyle choices on campus" and that they were allowed to skip questions, or withdraw from the interview at any time. Participants were also informed before beginning the interview that their confidentiality would be maintained throughout the reporting of the study by avoiding the use of their real names.

RESULTS

Questionnaire

A total of 260 questionnaire responses were collected from the eight dorms selected for study. 158 males and 102 females spanning all four undergraduate classes participated in the study, with 34.6% of those participants coming from the freshman class. The mean age of participants was 19.5 years and the modal age was 18.

We hypothesized that a substantial portion of the sample would report "yes" to having engaged in PDAs. There were two questions directed at discovering the occurrence of PDAs in the semester during which the study was conducted. Figure 1 shows the reported number of "yes" and "no" responses to these questions. 34.1% of participants reported "yes" to engaging in prolonged kissing in public (Question 7), while 65.9% reported "no". 8.1% of participants responded "yes" to having engaged in acts more intimate than prolonged kissing while 91.9% responded "no" (Question 8).

Response to Question 7 in relation to Question 6.
Question 7: Have you ever engaged in prolonged kissing (making out) in a public place (any place in which you had no expectation of privacy) at Sewanee this semester?
Question 6: Do you consume more than 4 drinks when you go out at Sewanee?

Response to Question 7 in relation to Question 6. Question 7: Have you ever engaged in prolonged kissing (making out) in a public place (any place in which you had no expectation of privacy) at Sewanee this semester? Question 6: Do you consume more than 4 drinks when you go out at Sewanee?

Several of the questions originally intended to reduce the perceived importance of Questions 7 and 8 revealed some interesting patterns upon careful examination of the results. The data showed a nominal scale correlation between the responses to Question 6 and Questions 7 and 8. Responses of "yes" to consuming more than four drinks per outing corresponded to a higher indication of "yes" to having engaged in PDAs. Figure 2 shows the number of "yes" and "no" responses to Question 7 in relation to the participants' response to Question 6. This data produced a Cramer's V coefficient of .39, and a Chi Square value of 36.99 (p less than .0001). The p-value indicates this correlation is statistically significant.

Figure 3 shows the correlation between the responses to Question 6 and Question 8. The correlation between a "yes" response to consuming more than four drinks per outing and a "yes" response to having engaged in acts more intimate than prolonged kissing proved to be statistically significant (p less than .05). The data showed a Chi Square value of 4.67 and a Cramer's V coefficient of .15.

Males were more likely to respond "yes" to having engaged in prolonged kissing and more intimate acts in public than were females: 42.2% of males reported "yes" to having engaged in prolonged kissing in public compared to 28.5% of females. These results produced a Chi Square value of 5.88 (df =1, p less than .016)

Question 10 asked participants to register their attitude towards PDAs on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning "Do not care" and 5 meaning "Very offended". Participants' most frequent response to Question 10 was 1. The mean response for Question 10 was 2.03.

Interview

The interview was devised as a separate form of self-report to gather additional data regarding PDAs. This interview was separate from the questionnaire, with fewer and different questions. A total of 140 participants' were interviewed, 35 freshmen, 35 sophomores, 35 juniors, and 35 seniors. 70 of the participants were male and 70 were female.

57.9% of participants responded "yes" to having ever engaged in extended kissing in a public place on the Sewanee campus, while 42.1% responded "no". Figure 4 shows the number of participants that responded "yes" or "no" to Questions 5 and 6. 25% of participants reported "yes" to having engaged in acts more intimate than extended kissing in public, while 75% reported "no". Eight out of 140 interview participants (5.7%) characterized their responses on the interview as being skewed or inaccurate.

DISCUSSION

The results of the questionnaire and the interview reveal that a sizeable percentage of the student body reports having engaged in PDAs at Sewanee, both in the semester during which the study was conducted and during their entire time at Sewanee. The questionnaire and the interview should be treated as two separate measures, since they each aim at answering certain questions in different contexts. The questionnaire gathered data regarding the current semester only, while the interview referred to each participant's entire time at Sewanee thus far.

Response to Question 8 in relation to Question 6.
Question 8: Have you ever engaged in more intimate acts than just prolonged kissing in a public place at Sewanee this semester? 
Question 6: Do you consume more than 4 drinks when you go out at Sewanee?

Response to Question 8 in relation to Question 6. Question 8: Have you ever engaged in more intimate acts than just prolonged kissing in a public place at Sewanee this semester? Question 6: Do you consume more than 4 drinks when you go out at Sewanee?

The questionnaire also revealed some interesting correlations between certain lifestyle choices and PDAs, as well as relationships between demographic characteristics and PDAs. Participants who responded "yes" to consuming more than four drinks per outing were more likely to respond "yes" to having engaged in PDAs, where PDAs were described as prolonged kissing or acts more intimate than prolonged kissing. This correlation could indicate that alcohol consumption affects the probability of a participants' willingness to engage in PDAs. Another explanation could be that excessive alcohol consumption promotes explicit public behavior more generally, or that certain types of individuals are more prone to engage in both excessive alcohol consumption and PDAs. The modal response for Question 10 was 1, or "Do not care", meaning more participants reported little concern about PDAs than any of the other possible responses. There could be many, varying factors that contributed to the relationships between reported alcohol consumption and PDAs, including participants' varying interpretation of the questions. We found a statistically significant difference in the number of "yes" responses to having engaged in PDAs for males and females. This difference could be attributed to many different factors, such as the wording of the questions, differences between female and male interpretations or perceptions regarding terms such as "prolonged" and "extended" kissing, or actual differences in the tendency of males and females to engage in PDAs. The correlation between gender and PDAs is interesting and worth examining in greater detail in a future study.

Several aspects of the wording of some questionnaire items could have contributed to participants' confusion or varying interpretations. It is possible that the parenthetical notations of Question 7 could have confused, rather than clarified, the meaning of the question. Several researchers noted participants' questioning the meaning of questions including numbers 7 and 10. Question 10 contained an awkward qualification that was out-of-line with the definitions of "displays of affection" used in Questions 7 and 8. The use of the term "handholding" in Question 10 is inconsistent with what was originally operationally defined as a PDA. This somewhat invalidates the original aim of the question, to determine participants' attitude towards the acts described in Questions 7 and 8. Researchers noted participants' puzzlement at the use of "handholding" to describe PDAs, rather than "prolonged kissing". The lack of uniformity in the wording of the questionnaire items is due, in part, to the original intent to use these "lifestyle" questions as filler questions.

The questionnaire was also geared toward freshmen students, whereas the interview sought a more evenly distributed response among the four undergraduate classes. Questions asking for data from the current semester alone were perceived by upperclassmen participants as awkward; several participants told researchers their answers might have been different if this qualifier had not been included. The interview had an equal number of participants from each class year, while the questionnaire had substantially more freshman respondents and may thus have produced results less representative of the student body as a whole. Interestingly, 5.7% of interview participants characterized their responses as skewed or inaccurate. We have included their results, yet the fact that some participants classified their responses in this fashion is a testament to the potential fallacies of self-report.

The results from this study show that PDAs are fairly prevalent on the Sewanee campus, supporting the common perception that these acts take place. A correlation also appears to exist between alcohol consumption and the tendency to engage in PDAs. The data from this study does not allow the inference of any causal relationships, nor does it include comparison data from other environments. Further investigations could examine the factors influencing PDAs,including societal and cultural norms regarding acceptable behavior, and specifically compare the behavior of Sewanee students to other groups of individuals in other environments.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thanks go to Dr. Karen Yu, Associate Professor of Psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South and my classmates in the Fall 2007 Research Methods Class, without whose support this project would not have been possible.

REFERENCES

Afifi, W. A. and M. L. Johnson (1999) The use and interpretation of tie signs in a public

setting: Relationship and sex differences. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 16, 9-38.

Sumnall, H. R., C.M. Beynon, S.M. Conchie, S.C.E. Riley, and J.C. Cole (2007) An investigation of the subjective experiences of sex after alcohol or drug intoxication. Journal of Psychopharmacology 21, 525-537.

APPENDIX A

This survey has been made by a psychology class in hopes of gaining knowledge about students' lifestyles on campus. It is completely confidential, and you are allowed to skip questions and/or stop filling it out at any time. Participation is completely voluntary. Information on the results of this survey will be sent out in an email to the entire student body.

1) Circle one: Male or Female

2) What year are you? (Circle one): Freshman Sophomore Junior Senior

3) What age are you?

4) Which dorm do you live in?

5) Approximately how many nights do you go out at Sewanee?

6) Do you consume more than 4 alcoholic drinks when you go out at Sewanee? (Circle one): Yes or No

7) Have you ever engaged in prolonged kissing (making out) in a public place (any place in which you had no expectation of privacy) at Sewanee this semester? (Circle one): Yes or No

8) Have you ever engaged in more intimate acts than just prolonged kissing in a public place at Sewanee this semester? (Circle one): Yes or No

9) Where do you perceive you drink the most at Sewanee? (Circle one):

Dorm Room Greek House Other (Specify):

10) Do you condone PDAs (public displays of affection, such as handholding)? (Circle one):

Do not care 1 2 3 4 5 Very offended

11) Do you smoke cigarettes at Sewanee? (Circle one): Yes or No

APPENDIX B

Interview

How old are you?

What year are you?

Gender? (don't need to ask, but record)

In the past week how many times did you go out to a social event or fraternity/sorority house to socialize?

Have you ever engaged in extended kissing in a public place here on campus, a place in which you had no expectation of privacy?

Have you ever engaged in an action more intimate than extended kissing in a public place here on campus?

Would you qualify your response to these questions as:

a) Accurate

or

b) skewed or inaccurate

JYI has received funding support from several sources, including the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the National Science Foundation, and Duke University.
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