Social Class, Sex, and Public Space: A Recent Trip to Walmart

I saw them as soon as I pulled into the Walmart parking lot.

The couple in the faded red sedan, about three spots over. She was stroking his face, pulling him in for a deep kiss. Their bodies pressed against the middle console.

I walked past, crabby toddler in tow, and headed for the Lawn and Garden entrance.  I could see them making out, like teenagers in someone’s basement.

I was there to get painter’s tape.

The lady who’d owned our house had a penchant for peach: band-aid colored walls, backsplash in pale cantaloupe, orangey front door. After two years in our home, I finally got around to painting, but I’d run out of tape just in time to start the bathroom.

Walmart is not a classy establishment. Or, rather, it’s specifically known for being un-classy. A one-stop shop for bottom-line prices on bananas, fishing line, and enormous panties. We’ve probably all seen People of Walmart, know the stereotypes.

Of course, such sites paint a too-uniform picture of Walmart’s role in the American retail landscape. Still, I hadn’t seen anyone in the Publix parking lot making out at 5pm.

“Keepin’ it classy, Walmart,” I thought, as I wove through discounted garden supplies.


The couple was still there when I came out,  now skooched  into one seat, still going at it.

Something welled up inside me. Disgust, anger, disapproval. A mix of these.

I flagged down a cart-kid, the one who’d been using his walkie-talkie, and awkwardly explained the situation.

His eyes widened a bit, mouth forming an “O.”

“Is there any chance you could get someone to come talk to them, a manager or something?”

“Well,” he said,  “I could try, but I don’t know they’d be able to stop them.”

To be fair, there’s no law against making out, especially in one’s  car. Let’s just say I couldn’t see any hands.

“I know, it’s just the middle of the afternoon,” I explained, “People have kids with them.”

“Aaaaaok, I’ll see what I can do,” he replied, as I walked off.

I turned back just in time to see the car speeding off, the couple obviously clued into my intent.

Keepin’ it classy, Walmart. Keepin’ it classy.


Something still bothers me about that day.

What exactly went on there? (Not in terms of actual, physical goings-on but motivation.) The incident seemed (and still seems) icky. Who makes out in a Walmart parking lot at 5pm on a Tuesday? Did they-of-the-red-sedan come to that lot specifically, or were they bringing out groceries when the mood struck them? The store was busy with people getting off work, buying food for dinner. If this were a lover’s tryst, why not pick a more secluded spot?

Clearly, at least one of them was with-it enough to realize they’d been spotted and reported. It was the “reported” part that ran them off.


I consider myself pretty openminded about sex. So long as people are willing and in a state to offer consent, they can do what they like. I see the appeal of some risqué behavior – of public sex or sexual encounters in usual places. Humans are complex beings, our appetites and what satisfies us no less so.

The kicker in this situation, I think, and what prompted me to intervene, was the crabby two year old on my hip.  Part of what makes public sex enticing is the danger of detection and the thrill of an audience. I have to assume this couple knew people saw them, even wanted to be seen.

Which gets into the issue of consent.

I was an unwilling participant in their public display. More importantly, so was my two-year-old daughter, which is unequivocally not okay. Beastie didn’t see anything indecent, per se, but her presence alone made her a participant. I repeat: Not. Okay.


There’s another layer to my disapproval, though, one that troubles me equally.

Would I have responded the same way to a couple in a Volvo in the Publix parking lot? Would I have read the situation similarly: as a tasteless and disgusting display by people too trashy to know any better, or who got off by having an audience.

I would still have found the Volvo couple tasteless and disgusting, but I wouldn’t have reported them. There’s the difference.

Part of me – the classist yuppy I don’t like to claim – was unsurprised at the couple’s behavior. They simply affirmed my preconceived notions of who shops at Walmart and how they behave. (This from the person who was, indeed, shopping at Walmart.)

I’ve been to such sites as The People of Walmart and marveled at the grotesque strangeness of what some people wear when buying milk. But part of that strangeness comes from class disparity and prejudice. The site’s pictures reveal as much about poverty, obesity, mental illness, and transphobia as they demonstrate tackiness on the subject’s part. A central factor motivating these pictures – usually taken on the sly – is a satisfied sense of superiority. “Who would dress like that? Can you believe it?” Posted examples become carnivalesque objects, put online for the entertainment and titilation of more in-the-know, wealthier viewers.

In all honesty, as I walked over to report the couple, I felt superior to them because of their appearance. That part of my reaction had nothing to do with what they were doing and was integrally tied to how I perceived them.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s recent Salon article takes up a similar issue. She explains how her son, who has autism, threw a tantrum in the middle of Whole Foods. While letting the boy calm himself in the car, an anonymous bystander – misreading the situation – called the cops, accusing Lee and her husband of mistreating the child. Fortunately, they were able to convince the cop otherwise. One of Lee’s realizations, though, is that her  middle-class  appearance neutralized the situation: “It seems all one has to do is add a little race or class difference to a dollop of self-righteousness [in cases of disapproval]…, and you’re off to the races.” Here, races = possible jail time.

My story is not analogous to Lee’s. The Walmart couple was clearly acting inappropriately, regardless of their motivation.  Yet, how I responded to them hinged on my own prejudices regarding behavior and class. I know for a fact I wouldn’t have bothered a wealthier-looking couple. Judged them, yes. Notified a passing cart collector, no. It’s this distinction that keeps me thinking about the situation, and it’s one I find deeply troubling.

This entry was posted in Thoughts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s