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Relationships • Finding Love
Why Flirting Matters
Flirting has a bad name. Too often, it seems a supreme form of duplicity, a sly attempt to excite another person and derive gratification from their interest without any corresponding wish to go to bed with them. It looks like a manipulative promise of sexual affection that, at the last moment, leaves its targets confused and humiliated. In our sadness, back home alone after the nightclub or the party, we may rail against the flirt for ‘only’ flirting, when it had appeared there would be so much more.
But this kind of pattern represents only one, unedifying and regrettable possibility around flirting. At its best, flirting can be a vital social process that generously lends us reassurance and freely redistributes confidence and self-esteem. The task is not to stop flirting, but to learn how better to practice its most honourable versions.
Good flirting is in essence an attempt, driven by kindness and imaginative excitement, to inspire another person to believe more firmly in their own likability, psychological as much as physical. It is a gift offered not in order to manipulate, but out of a pleasure at perceiving what is most attractive in another. Along the way, the good flirt must carefully convince us of three apparently contradictory things: that they would love to sleep with us; that they won’t sleep with us; and that the reason why has nothing to do with any deficiency on our part.
Good flirting exploits – with no evil intent – an important truth about sex: that what is often most enjoyable about sex is not the physical process itself so much as the idea of acceptance that underpins the act, the notion that another person likes us enough to accept us in our most raw and vulnerable state and is, in our name, willing to lose control and surrender aspects of everyday dignity. It is this concept, far more than the deft touching of skin, that is what contributes the dominant share of our pleasure as we undress someone for the first time or heed their request to call them the rudest words we know.
The good flirt knows this and is therefore spared a guilty sense that they might not be in a position to offer their lovers anything valuable. They are wisely convinced that it is eminently possible, simply over a dinner table or in the kitchen at work, to gift a person just about the most wondrous aspect of sex itself – simply through the medium of language.
The good flirt is an expert too in how correctly to frame the fact that there won’t be sex. By a deeply entrenched quirk of the human mind, it is generally hard for us to hear such news without at once reaching one overwhelming and crushing conclusion: that it is because the seducer has suddenly found us deeply and pervasively repulsive. The good flirt loosens us from such punitive narratives. They powerfully appeal to some of the many genuine reasons why two people might not have sex that have nothing to do with one person finding the other disgusting: for example, because one or both party already has a partner, because there is an excessive age gap, a gender incompatibility, an office that would disapprove, a difficult family situation or, most simply, a lack of time.
Freed from the rigid and blunt supposition that flirting has to be the prelude to actual sex, the good flirt can artfully imply how different things might have been if the world had been more ideally arranged. And the recipient of the flirt can, with equal grace, ascent to the story without a need to twist it through self-hatred.
We all stand in need of reminders of what is tolerable and exciting about us. It is a desperate foreshortening of possibilities to insist that such reawakening can only be justified by actual intercourse. Understood properly, flirting can beneficially occur across the largest gulfs: gulfs of political belief, of social, economic or marital status, of sexual inclination and (with obvious caveats) of age. The 26-year-old corporate lawyer and the 52-year-old man behind the counter of the corner shop can flirt; and so may the cleaner and the CEO. It is all the more moving when they do so because it signals a willingness to use the imagination to locate what is most attractive about another person who lies really very far from one’s own area of familiarity. The question of what, if I considered someone, anyone sexually, I would find charming is one of the most intimate, interesting and necessary questions one can ask.
The good flirt needs skill to home in on the less obvious – but still very real – ways in which every one can be attractive. They might, within an elderly or rather large person, draw attention to a nicely shaped elbow or to an intelligent characteristic tilt of the head. They must actively search for the location of another person’s sexual allure, piecing together a portrait like a great novelist gradually revealing the hidden charm of an apparently ordinary character. Like Jesus, they are giving attention to the secret goodness of someone whom (to the hasty glance of others) will appear an outcast or a sinner unworthy of love.
We have for too long been warned against flirting by an unfortunate Romantic ideal of total coherence, one that implies that either we are completely sincere in flirting and so must make love or we are, in effect liars. In many Romantic novels of the 19th century, ‘flirt’ is, therefore, a term of abuse. No hero or heroine could ever adopt a playful, semi-erotic tone with anyone except their true love. But they would thereby miss out on an important enlargement of their sensibilities.
The ideal flirtation is a small work of social art co-created by two people; a civilised artifice that acknowledges limitations, worries about consequences and knows the importance of not letting momentary impulses damage long standing commitments. It knows that avoiding sex is usually very wise, but is intelligently invested in sharing some of the benefits of sex without the act itself.
The good flirter isn’t making things up; they are not merely flattering or manipulating. They are offering us a view we very rarely get of ourselves as desirable. A few people, of course, have an excessive belief in their own attractiveness. But mostly, we suffer gravely in the opposite direction. We generally learn – through a rich sequence of rebuffs and criticisms and via intelligent modesty which quickly alerts us to our own shortcomings – to see ourselves as far from ideal. We know we’re in some ways not terribly lovable or exceptionally alluring. This picture of ourselves is not inaccurate but is isn’t entirely true either. So the good flirt carries out an important psychological mission: to restore balance to our view of ourselves. They remind us that, for all our failings of character and bodily liabilities we are, in fact, in certain ways, properly appealing and in a better situation than the one we find ourselves in, a truly interesting person to want to spend a night with. The flirt supplies an antidote to a characteristic sickness of maturity: an excessively negative view of ourselves. It is because we are so prone to self-hatred, so liable to forget how to appreciate ourselves properly, that we need more vigorously, and with fewer qualms, to engage in the important business of flirting with one another.
The good flirt is doing (via a well timed smirk, a coyly arched eyebrow, a quiet observation or an expectedly warm remark) crucially important social work. They understand that being recognised as erotically appealing is a hugely beneficial and ethical need of the soul, for feeling desirable is key to rendering us more patient, more generous, more energetic and more content. It is a quiet tragedy that this widely consequential need should so often be expected to pass through the desperately narrow gate of sex.
The good flirt is wisely and liberally rebelling against such a stricture. Their mission is to give erotic endorsement (and all the benefits this brings) a larger opportunity in life, liberating it from the tiny, difficult window of opportunity offered by an actual requirement to start to make to love. The flirt knows how to broaden the circle of attractiveness, they know – in essence – how to love someone without needing to give more than they should ever realistically be expected to. The ideal flirt is a pioneer in a crucial democratic science: they are attempting to correctly identify attractiveness in a way that will serve the many rather than the few. We should not only be grateful to good flirts; we should try to become good flirts ourselves.