If you don’t know how to flirt, you shouldn’t be having sex with anyone.
I admit it… I used to love flirting. It can be incredibly fun. I flirted outrageously with guys I had no intention of dating, and guys flirted with me who weren’t interested in dating me. It wasn’t about sex, either. It was just awesomely fun. The only time I minded was if it turned out they were married/in a committed relationship.
Flirting is like dancing. Both people have to agree to participate. It involves a lot of asking the other person what s/he is comfortable with. Sometimes it is kind of sexual, sometimes it is beautifully spiritual or exciting intellectually. Sometimes it’s tequila body shots, sometimes it’s holding a gaze just a little longer than normal, sometimes it’s making witty but not cruel jokes at the other person’s expense. But it has to be fun, it has to be happy. Like sexual intimacy. If at any point, one party becomes uncomfortable, the other party has to back up and figure out why, and what is needed now.
The fundamental question of flirting can differ. Sometimes the question is, “will you play with me?” And that’s really all it is: dancing, or a back rub, or some verbal sparring, etc. Whether or not it leads to anything romantic or sexual isn’t a big deal, isn’t the point, isn’t obsessing anyone.
Other times, it’s a more serious question: should we be more than friends? Could this go somewhere important?” Then the flirting has much higher stakes. It’s not nearly so sexual (though it has a sexual component); rather, it’s testing the interest level, personality, and even the character of each other to see whether you are compatible.
But by far, by reeeeeeeallyrealllyreallyreally FAAARRRR, the most important aspect of flirting is consent. It is absolutely, fundamentally crucial that both people are paying careful attention to whether the other party is happy, comfortable, and having fun… and power differentials make that assessment quite, quite hard. That’s why flirting (and dating) between a boss and an employee, or a pastor and a parishioner, or a doctor and a patient/client, involves such risk. Of course, sometimes the person with less power worries that if she rejects his attempts at flirting, she will suffer negative social or professional consequences. Even if she might be attracted to him, the person with less power will have trouble understanding how to interact with him in a way that does not put her at social or professional risk. She might even have trouble understanding how much of her willingness to respond to his overtures comes from genuine, healthy attraction, and how much comes from anxiety about pleasing someone who has power over her.
Even in supposedly balanced, power-neutral situations, men automatically have more social power (i.e. male privilege) than women, and men often have more physical power as well. So it’s part of a man’s job, if he wants to flirt with a woman, to be aware of the ways in which he might inadvertently be reinforcing or capitalizing on those power imbalances, which will undermine the consent necessary for healthy, consensual flirting to take place. How can he tell? He must learn to pay attention to her signals, verbal and nonverbal, that communicate to what degree she is feeling happy, comfortable, and having fun. It’s like learning a language – the language of checking in with how someone is doing.
Women are socialized to pay attention to men this way. It’s harder for men to learn as adults if they haven’t been constantly expected to do this. But it’s a good skill to have. Makes for a better friend, human, and lover, too. And if he refuses to learn it, he will never be a safe sexual partner. Like any language, it takes practice. Think of it as practicing how not to be a rapist. It’s worth the time.
I also want to point out the difference between flirting vs coming on to someone. To come on to someone is to try to get sex. Flirting is not the same. It is not nearly so goal oriented. The goal of flirting is flirting- having fun, getting to know each other, playing, feeling excited and stimulated but not necessarily aroused.
Flirting can sometimes lead to sex, but it really is not the same as a come on. If flirting leads to sex, it is because the flirting has been so fun, or so reassuring in the ways it let the parties get to know each other, that they both eventually realize they want to have sex. Maybe the flirting led to dating, and deep conversations that built trust. Or maybe it led to more and more sexual flirting, which got both parties aroused, and they decided to jump in bed. But pick up lines, leering, catcalls, street harassment- those are not flirting. Those are come ons. For flirting to happen, both parties must be demonstrating interest and willingness. You can’t get there from a come on.
You get there from normal interactions- general conversation, time spent together not flirting. Over time (minutes or hours or days or weeks etc) tiny signals are exchanged that indicate a willingness to flirt. He makes a very subtle comment about the fact that I have long hair, and I respond by encouraging the topic somehow. Or he asks if I like tequila, and I say “only in body shots.” Or he teases me about being a terrifying feminist, and I tease him back about being terrified of women. But it’s less about the content than the trust and mutuality. Two guys could make the same comment the same way, and one has built trust with me, but the other hasn’t, so i will respond positively to one but not the other.
So if the other guy mentions my hair being long, I’ll change the subject. If he asks if I like tequila, I’ll shrug and look away. If he teases me about being a terrifying feminist, I’ll say “only to the insecure” or something else a bit cutting. Or just grunt noncommittally and talk to someone else.
If he can’t understand (or refuses to accept) those signals, he’s not interested in flirting. He just wants gratification. Either attention or sex. He’s not capable of healthy consent. Red flag. Bye.
Finally, as fun as flirting can be with people who barely know each other, or who know they probably don’t want to date, it is nothing compared with the cosmic thrill of flirting with someone you know well enough to think s/he might be “The One.” That transition from friendship to romance, the sweet, daring dance of asking and answering “yes… maybe… I hope so…” in tiny, subtle ways, when you have built so much trust that no part of you is even the tiniest bit worried that s/he will turn out to be a creep, or a big let down… when it feels as though the stakes have never been higher in your life… eclipses all other flirting the way an ocean wave surges past a snail! YAHOOOOOOOO! Consent is damned sexy. It’s the ride of a lifetime! ;)
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. Previously a fellow at the Institute of Culture, Religion, and World Affairs and at the Earhart Foundation, Grenfell-Muir has conducted field research in situations of ongoing conflict in Syria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. Her dissertation explores the methodology, constraints, and effectiveness of clergy peacebuilders in Northern Ireland. She has been an invited speaker in community settings and at MIT, Boston University, Tufts, and Boston College on topics of gender violence, economic injustice, and religious or ethnic conflicts and has also moderated panels on genetic engineering, cloning, and other bioethics issues. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.