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Flirting Is Easy*

A few days ago, JT put up a post, “Flirting, sex, and lines“, on sorting through the signals of con mating rituals with someone you don’t know well. The discussion will inevitably turn that direction when the subject of harassment comes up, and I’m happy to say his post served at least one of its purposes. The discussion on my posts did not get derailed, even briefly, by the “awkward flirting” discussion.

JT and I chatted a little before he wrote his post, both about keeping the topics separate and about whether it’s hard to tell when someone is flirting with you. I maintained then, and maintain now that it’s not. If you think it is, that’s probably because you’re unclear on exactly what flirting is.

There are two basic things you need to know about flirting.

  1. Flirting is the creation of intimacy, which is only rarely a search for sex.
  2. Flirting cannot be done by one person. It takes two (or more).

We do have problems understanding flirting, as a culture, but most of those problems come from associating flirting with sex. They’re different things. Flirting may be used to get to know someone we might consider having sex with. Flirting may be used to increase the level of intimacy between to people to the point that it becomes socially acceptable to ask for sex. But flirting itself isn’t about seeking sex.

Chili's gets flirting.

Flirting is about creating a more intimate connection between two people than usually happens in our daily meeting and greeting. For that reason, it involves behavior we don’t engage in with everyone. Touch and the signaling of sexual interest fall into that category, but so do much simpler behaviors. Maintaining eye contact longer than polite, sharing secrets, giving very personal compliments, monopolizing someone’s time, teasing someone–all these can be part of flirting.

As an aside, this is why salespeople can be so creepy and annoying. They are often taught to employ techniques for creating intimacy and rarely to never taught the downside of using them on people who don’t want them.

One thing you may have noticed about the behaviors I listed: We consider all of these (at least) rude outside the context of flirting. There are other flirting behaviors that aren’t otherwise rude, but there are plenty that are. Flirting changes the rules of what’s acceptable, which I’ll talk more on in a moment. However, first I want to take a moment to talk about awkwardness.

Feel awkward about flirting? It isn’t you. It’s flirting. Seriously, look at how rude all of that stuff would be in any other context. Look at how creepy it is when it comes from that salesperson. Gah! There’s no way to make this not potentially awkward. On the other hand, being willing to be a bit awkward around somebody is part of what makes flirting work. One of the intimacies you’re creating when you flirt is letting your guard down and opening yourself up to criticism. Scary? Yes, but there it is.

By now it should be obvious why one person can’t flirt unilaterally with someone else. If you force intimacy on someone, that is not flirting. It is, at best, creepy salesperson tactics. From there, it ranges up to assault, depending on the type of intimacy forced.

This is also why it isn’t difficult to tell whether someone is flirting with you. Flirting should be fun for both of you. Are they enjoying it when you create little intimacies? Are you enjoying it when they do something that would annoy you from most people? Then yay! You’re flirting.

If not, stop. If either of you stops having fun, stop or dial it back to something that was fun. If one of you still isn’t having fun after dialing it back, stop.

If you really can’t tell, ask a question where “No” is the answer you’ll need to hear to know the flirting is wanted. “Is that too much information?” “I’m taking up a lot of your time. Should I let you get back to your friends?” “Should I stop teasing you?” Anything but a clear “No” in that situation should be taken as “Yes.”

However, wanting to flirt still doesn’t mean the person you’re flirting with wants to have sex with you. Most flirting isn’t about getting to sex. Emotional and social intimacy are enjoyable in their own rights. They are perfectly good reasons to take that potentially awkward path.

So how do you know whether someone wants to have sex with you? You can use flirting to create an ever-more-intimate atmosphere in which you can be more comfortably convinced, but that still doesn’t tell you for sure. At some point, one of you is going to have to ask. It may be a coded question. It may be (if you think you can be certain enough) handled nonverbally. But you’ll still have to ask.

That, of course, is the actual hard part and the part that people get confused over. Flirting itself, however, is easy.

* Flirting is about as easy as any other social transaction with multiple moving parts, which means it varies from person to person. We’re just more invested in it emotionally.

Comments

  1. D. C. Sessions says

    Most flirting isn’t about getting to sex.

    In fact, flirting is often more enjoyable when sex is totally off the table. Being a boringly hetero serial monogamist, for instance, makes it much more comfortable for me to flirt with other men.

    The funny thing is that the same behaviors that are recognized as “flirting” in a potentially sexual context are quite common in others but don’t get labeled as “flirting.” My favorite is the unspoken invitation to shared humor — the side glance with raised eyebrow conveying, “does he really know how that sounds?” for instance. Guys do it all the time but most would never recognize it as flirtatious.

  2. says

    I think the term ‘flirting’ is probably a big part of the issue, because to me, there is always at least an undercurrent of sexual tension inherent in ‘flirting’.

    Teasing, joking, sharing secrets, and other forms of breaking through barriers of intimacy are not necessarily flirting.

    It’s only when there is that sexual component does that barrier-breaking become ‘flirting’. And though maybe 99.9999999% of flirting doesn’t lead to sex, the implication of flirting is always that it could.

    Add to that the fact that — well, let’s face it — we’re nerds with bad social skills who might not pick up on “back off, numbnuts” nonverbal clues, you have a recipe for misunderstanding, if not outright disaster.

    With all the minefields to pick through, it’s a wonder anyone gets laid, ever.

  3. busterggi says

    Not for Aspies like me. I’ve never been able to pick up on it or do it. Just don’t have the ability.

    Same goes for music, pretty much all white noise to me.

  4. says

    At least sometimes, the whole point of flirting is that it’s not meant to lead to sex; it’s a substitute or sublimation of sex. The subtext is “we could have sex if ______ were otherwise, but we can at least flirt.”

    Also at least sometimes, one party sees it that way while the other party does see it as meant to lead to sex. Awkward.

  5. oldebabe says

    Yes, flirting is easy, and fun as you say. Good article. But, and it’s a big BUT… IMO and experience… most men DO think it’s a prelude, or at least an invitation, to sex, when they understand it at all.

  6. D. C. Sessions says

    Add to that the fact that — well, let’s face it — we’re nerds with bad social skills who might not pick up on “back off, numbnuts” nonverbal clues, you have a recipe for misunderstanding, if not outright disaster.

    One of the most basic social cues is just a smile. If, for instance, something funny happens and you catch a companion’s eye and smile one of two things will happen: your companion will look you in the eye and smile back — or not.

    It’s pretty binary. Nerds or not, it’s learnable.

  7. Pteryxx says

    Also, aspie-ish folks like me can always ASK. “Should I back off?” and “Are you flirting with me?” aren’t some sort of admission of failure. How do you know the OTHER person isn’t bad at indirect communication also?

  8. says

    I actually had to learn to turn down the flirting a little bit after someone I was dating pointed out that I was doing it constantly, because I had always assumed that it wasn’t flirting if I wasn’t trying to steer the situation towards sex. So I was doing a lot of the eye contact, joking, teasing, but not touching stuff pretty much all of the time with everyone. I’m just naturally really shy, and I think creating sort of a fake intimacy with people around me allows me to feel like I’ve got the person on my side and I can relax a little bit.

  9. D. C. Sessions says

    Being on the spectrum makes learning social skills more difficult (and being ADHD may mean missing some of the best developmental times to learn them) but that doesn’t mean being incapable of learning them as adults.

    I suspect that there are “social skills for nerds” classes out there that I’ve just never heard of.

    One I have heard of, interestingly enough, is taught by the Naval Academy. They don’t assume that every middie knows how to behave in social situations so they put them all through a uniform training program complete with table manners and (from one report) dancing. Sounds like a great idea.

  10. Pteryxx says

    I’m not as coherent right now as I’d like to be. I gave my own example in a comment some months back, so for y’all socially dense types out there, maybe this will help. This is what flirting, edging into foreplay, looks like when it’s explicitly spelled out… and it did work for us.

    Frankly, if I’m talking about something as important as intimacy with another person, I don’t want them hinting that I should read their mind. I don’t want that on my conscience.

    Want to know how I talked to my most recent partner?

    Me: Are you flirting with me?
    X: *blush* Maybe.
    Me: Okay, just make sure to let me know.

    Later:
    Me: Are you trying to flirt or just hug?
    X: Well…
    Me: You can flirt with me, you know, but I might flirt back.
    X: Okay.
    Me: You can move your hands further down if you like.
    X: *does so*
    Me: Mind if I touch you back?
    X: *takes my hands and moves them down*

    Real romantic, huh? Sheesh. (Xe’s gotten better about speaking plainly now that we know each other better, and I know xe’s shy, but I still ask “Are you okay with this?” whenever something changes. Even so, xe’ll say “But I’ve been flirting with you for hours…” and then we laugh about how long it took me to catch on.)

    Honestly, if the OTHER person wants intimacy with YOU, they’re motivated to keep trying as long as YOU give them a clear yes. If you say “I’m not sure if you’re flirting, but if you are, go right ahead.” then it’s THEIR job to say “Yes I am” – and they probably will.

  11. says

    Kevin, that definition of flirting is wrong and will probably cause you problems if you rely on it. It’s not surprising that it’s wrong, since flirting is rarely studied or talked about outside the context of romantic relationships, but a subset of the same behaviors serve the same functions in other relationships.

    busterggi, that’s part of what that footnote is about. If you’re not comfortable with any but rules-based interactions, you’re going to have a much harder time negotiating a form of interaction that relies on rule-breaking. It’s still worth understanding that some of the rule-breaking that probably confuses you is meant to bring you closer to other people. Then you can decide whether that’s something you’d want. If you do, Pteryxx’s sample discussions are a great way to go. If not, a decent person will listen and support you when you say so.

  12. says

    Stephanie,

    Are you saying that flirting does not necessarily (or at least usually) involved a sexual component? I agree that it’s not usually “a search for sex,” but I think part of the fun of flirting is that there is a sexual edge to it. I disagree that the creation of intimacy is equivalent to flirting. I create intimacy with family, coworkers, and others in which I have no sexual interest. I wouldn’t describe that as “flirting.” Sometimes, I DO flirt with people in which I have no sexual interest, but the way to tell the difference is the sexual component. I don’t think that this is a merely semantic difference, because I think any honest discussion of flirting needs to acknowledge the sexual component. Segregating the two does not speak to my experience of flirting, as I understand the use of the term.

    I do really like the description of flirting as “creating intimacy,” as I think that’s a much more accurate description of what’s going on than just negotiating sex. I just think that there’s another part to flirting (sexuality) which separates what goes on at a singles mixer from what goes on at a family reunion (with exceptions, of course).

    I DO think it’s important to acknowledge that just because there is a sexual component to the interactions doesn’t mean that either party wants to do anything beyond flirting, or is somehow signaling that desire. Just like consenting to be kissed isn’t consenting to be groped, consenting to flirting is not consenting to being kissed or otherwise touched.

  13. says

    Wes, defining flirting as the subset of this type of behavior that does include a sexual component limits the usefulness of the definition because it limits our understanding of the phenomenon. Sexual flirting is a subset of flirting. It relies on the same mechanisms. And I think that understanding that sexual flirting is flirting because it relies on doing things that would be off limits if both parties didn’t agree to it is important. You only fully get that understanding by looking at flirting generally.

  14. Wes says

    Ah, so your distinction between flirting and other forms of creating intimacy is that flirting involves overt behavior that would be off-limits without consent of both parties? That makes sense. The definition is a little broad to me (as it encompasses a lot of behavior that I wouldn’t normally consider “flirting”) but I see the utility of looking at it that way. Thanks for the clarification.

  15. mas528 says

    Two things I find interesting.

    First, it seems that so-called “male bonding” falls right into your definition.

    Second, I find flirting much easier when sex is totally off the table as well.

    I have no problem flirting with single gay women, married women, women in commited relationships, younger and older women, or gay men. . By the way, I use a lot of the things I did with male bonding, I do tend to So I do flirt and quite easily.

    But an unfamiliar woman, where sex is potentially on the table? Egads!

    Found a solution though. Take it off the table in your mind. If it comes back on the table, great, of not maybe you’ve started a friendship.

  16. says

    I flirt often with no intention of sex myself, because I like it when people are happy. Flirting (especially, in my case, teasingly) is a way to help group cohesion in small groups. It does create intimacy, and gives people in the group the sense that they are noticed.

    I heartily agree with the post.

  17. says

    I agree as well, especially with those who commented that flirting is fun when sex is totally off the table. I too am a mostly hetro serially monogamous male who is totally clueless with appropriate signals. Since my marriage ended in 1997, pretty well all of my dates and both of my long term relationships have begun on the internet. On dating sites, you know the othe person is looking for a date, and much of the initial flirting is through semi-anonymous messages. You know that onceyou meet face-to-face thatthe possibility of future intimacy is on the table. It may not develop, but for me, the really awkward part is over.

    I have my own boundaries around flirting – I know I not going too far, and if the other person does, I make my monogamy plain. Of course, as a male, it is only a very few women who get too pushy.

    I like to think that those very few times help me understand (a little bit anyway) how difficult it must be to constantly have that type of push. On the other hand, I have the advantage of being a reasonably burly guy and fear isnt a factor for me. On that side I must only imagine the time I have been in a position of weakness.

    All of this is a rambling way to say I do my best to keep things non-threatening, and I hope I don;t fail too often.

  18. Emptyell says

    @ Stephanie, OP

    1. Flirting is the creation of intimacy, which is only rarely a search for sex.

    & @ 14

    …defining flirting as the subset of this type of behavior that does include a sexual component limits the usefulness of the definition because it limits our understanding of the phenomenon. Sexual flirting is a subset of flirting. It relies on the same mechanisms.

    This seems like a significant redefinition of the popular understanding of the word. (One that I am personally quite uncomfortable with, but the pros and cons haven’t penetrated the thick jungle of my thoughts and feelings yet.)

    A quick review of definitions at the top of Mt Google show a very consistent presumption of a sexual component. I agree that having clear language for the superset of intimacy building interactions would be extremely useful but it’s not clear that expanding the common understanding of “flirt”, “to flirt”, “flirtatious”, etc is the best approach (even aside from it’s seeming more Sisyphean than Heraclean).

    . . .

    FWIW, Some of my personal objections are:

    1. Intimacy building activities include a very broad range that seems to extend beyond any expanded definition of flirting such as: sports, collaboration, correspondence, argumentation, etc.

    2. My interactions with close personal friends do at times resemble sexual flirtation. It is very important in these cases not to conflate these concepts/feelings.

    3. I have had (quite delightful) experiences flirting with women that, once sex was clearly (or at least for the time being) off the table, the same behavior shifted from active flirtation to friendly banter. There is a very distinct and notable shift in the relationship when this happens and I find it very helpful to distinguish between them as either actually flirting or just playing. Calling them “sexual flirting” vs “friendly flirting” (or whatever) feels overwrought and unsatisfying.

    4, The word is too deeply embedded and trying to change that, even if it is entirely reasonable, will create more heat than light and waste time that is better spent developing language that works.

    5. Interactions for purposes of determining mutual sexual availability are important enough to have a single word signifier. Having to add an adjective unduly diminishes its importance (to my mind anyway).

    . . .

    I guess in the end I’m not sure I can separate the sexual implications from the word or that I could be convinced that I should. I suspect there are many who will have the same problem.

    Isn’t there some other term that could apply to the broader subject of humans building interpersonal intimacy in various ways so we can leave “flirt” as it is commonly understood? I recognize that it can’t be some long, academic sounding, multi-adjectival phrase. Candidates that come immediately to mind are “bonding” and “socializing”. These aren’t immediately satisfying but perhaps in the context of a complete taxonomy/vocabulary they would serve well.

  19. wanderfound says

    Backing up what a few others have said (and what was hinted at by you in the last sentence): what you wrote is, to me, a useful and accurate description of flirting, but “easy” would be the last word I’d choose for it.

    “The most difficult thing aspect of your life by a hefty margin” would be closer to the mark. Thesis-writing is easier than doing this stuff right.

    That’s my problem to deal with, and my #1 duty is ensuring that my incompetence in this area doesn’t negatively affect anyone apart from me (not always possible, but I do the best I can), but easy it ain’t.

    Although I’m a deep-geek science boy who’s probably a fair bit closer to the pathological end of the Aspie/Autism spectrum than the average person on the street (I’m somewhat of a socially inept freak even by the standards of scientific academia), I wouldn’t claim to be far enough along it to actually qualify for a diagnosis of an ASD.

  20. says

    I’ve been married for 9 years, yet my wife and I still flirt shamelessly with our intimate friends. Neither of us are in need of extra nookie. It’s just a fun way to be. I’d knock it off if anyone asked, or even if I picked up some bad feedback.

    But I suppose that’s a nonsequiter of sorts.

  21. says

    Emptyell, regarding those personal objections:

    1. The definition of flirting is restricted beyond intimacy-building. The other behaviors you mention don’t meet the rest of the criteria.

    2. All the more reason to understand what you’re actually doing and to understand the part that the behavior related to sex actually plays.

    3. The fact that you don’t require the same level of intimacy if you’re not considering sex isn’t an argument against this definition of flirting.

    4. I don’t really care what we call it going forward. I care that we understand what we’re doing and how it does–or frequently doesn’t–relate to sex.

    5. Flirting behavior doesn’t tell you whether someone is sexually available, or interested. If you’re not willing to take the word of almost everyone in this thread, you’ve said so yourself. The word for that behavior is “asking”.

  22. Pineapples says

    Aren’t you married, middle-aged, and obese? No disrespect, just pointing out that you may not be a good match for this topic. For the year 2012, at least.

  23. says

    Congratulations, Pineapples. You’ve demonstrated just how much you don’t understand about flirting. Pity you don’t have the guts to do it under your real name so people will know to avoid you.

  24. Kevin says

    Steph, although you claim that my definition of flirting is “wrong”, well, that’s the definition I’ve been using for a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG time. And never before has anyone implied that my definition was “wrong”. In fact, I’m kinda good with words and their definitions and their social/cultural contexts, and I’m almost 100% sure that my understanding that flirting usually contains a sexual undercurrent is correct.

    So, at the risk of being deemed a total asshole, let me go to the interwebs and look it up.

    First one I come across is from the ever-popular Wikipedia.

    Flirting (or coquetry) is a playful activity involving verbal communication as well as body language by one person to another, indicating an interest in a deeper relationship with the other person. Usually, flirting is therefore, either seriously or jokingly, intended to be interpreted as a romantic or sexual overture.

    Webster’s Dictionary says:

    Flirt 2. a: to behave amorously without serious intent.

    From an article on flirting from Psychology Today:

    “Flirting is a negotiation process that takes place after there has been some initial attraction,” observes Steven W. Gangestad, Ph.D., an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who is currently studying how people choose their mates. “Two people have to share with each other the information that they are attracted, and then test each other” on an array of attributes. Simply announcing, ‘I’m attracted to you, are you attracted to me?’ doesn’t work so well. “It works much better to reveal this and have it revealed to you in smaller doses,” explains Gangestad. “The flirting then becomes something that enhances the attraction.”

    I’m sorry, but it seems to be you who is trying to redefine flirting, not me. And maybe that’s part of the problem. You think that “flirting” is not inherently sexual. I think you’re trying to redefine flirting in a way that — well, few people seem to agree with based on my initial research into the subject.

    Seriously. I invite you to do your own research on flirting as a serious academic subject — because it can be studied seriously and academically. And when you do, I think you’re going to find that despite the usual outcome of the vast majority of flirting (no sex, as I alluded to in my first post), there is almost always a sexual undercurrent to flirting.

    And it is perhaps that disconnect between a woman’s perception of flirting as nonsexual and a male’s perception of flirting as being sexual by definition that is part of the problem here.

    In short, just because you don’t think it’s sexual, that doesn’t mean that’s the way it’s perceived by the flirtee.

  25. says

    @pineapples – was there an argument there? Or just a personal attack? I think Stephanie has proved herself a hundred times over to be a reasonable, skeptical, intelligent person. It is those characteristics that make her view worth considering, not any of the things you mentioned.

  26. says

    Pineapples, whomever you are, if you think the only thing to attractiveness is matching the physical template presented in movies, advertisements and TV, I feel sorry for you, for anyone you interact with.

    That’s a damn shallow and stupid view of flirting and/or attractiveness.

  27. Emptyell says

    Stephanie,

    I can’t tell if you are interested in a response so I will be brief.

    1. Our definitions of flirting are different. For me playing sports (which for me is strictly recreational with friends, collaborating (particularly in intense late night or all night sessions on tight deadlines), and so on are often intimacy building activities

    2. I have no idea what you mean here. Because the behaviors can be so similar I find it very important to have a clear distinction. Flirting = sexual/romantic. Not flirting = friendship. It is very useful to have a single word distinction.

    3. Aside from the physical part I am at least as intimate with my close friends as with romantic partners. Since the physical part is very significant o the nature of the realationship, again I find the distinction very useful.

    4. Obviously I do care what we call it. Language matters and how we frame and describe intimate human relationships is very important. If not why are we even discussing it here?

    5. In my experience when a woman is open to flirting it is an indication that she <i

  28. Emptyell says

    Damn iPad. Somehow I must have brushed the submit button in error. Oh well, to finish up…

    5. In my experience when a woman is open to flirting it is an indication that she may be sexually available. Flirtation in my experience is the step by step process of finding out what’s actually possible. Outcomes range from:

    What I thought was flirtatious is just her way of being friendly.

    to…

    Yes we’re available but this isn’t going there.

    to.

    Stop flirting already and get those clothes off.

    . . .

    Since you did not reply to my more general remarks on language and definitions I will assume we’re done for now.

  29. anon atheist says

    Can you provide the source for the data of what the intentions of flirting are. I would particularly be interested in a break down concerning sex and culture.

  30. says

    anon atheist, the source for what the intentions of flirting are is the person doing the flirting. There is no culture and no sex in which flirting always means one thing.

    Emptyell, you’re calling it what you want to, but you still don’t understand what kinds of behavior make it up. It is not solely about intimacy. Collaborating is not an activity that creates intimacy because it would otherwise be frowned upon by society. Try rereading the post.

    Kevin, the number of Os you include in a word has no more effect on whether you’re right than does the length of time you’ve held an idea without examining it closely. Or, for that matter, whether an evolutionary psychologist thinks something is about sex (hint: the answer is never “No”).

    What makes you an asshole isn’t that you went to Wikipedia. What makes you an asshole is that you assumed I wrote this without being familiar with research on the topic and that you imply the “flirtee” doesn’t have a responsibility to be as accurate as possible in his or her perceptions.

  31. Emptyell says

    Stephanie

    It seems we also differ in our understanding of intimacy.

    Between your certainty and our lack of common language I guess we’re done here.

    Cheers.

  32. Kevin says

    Steph:

    Please provide me with the research citations, preferably in peer-review evolutionary psychology journals, that state that flirting does not normally have a sexual undercurrent.

    You’re attempting to invalidate me in exactly the same way that MRAs tried to invalidate Rebecca Watson. You’re denying that the recipient of flirtatious behavior might perceive such behavior as sexual. Sorry, but you don’t get to interact with me (in any way, flirtatious or otherwise) and determine what subjective experience that interaction evokes within me. It’s my perception (the recipient’s) that matters, not yours (the sender).

    Your beliefs appear to be in conflict with the research I did (and there were many, many other citations I could have put in that post, but didn’t for brevity’s sake).

    So, now I’m going to ask you to do me the favor and prove to me I’m wrong. Not with assertion, but with evidence.

    That’s not being an asshole, that’s being a right-proper skeptic. I’m skeptical of your claim. My research showed you were incorrect in your assumptions.

    Your turn.

  33. says

    Kevin, first, my name is Stephanie. Use it properly.

    Secondly, I’ll be happy to provide citations from fields other than evolutionary psychology like, say, communications studies and anthropology. I’ve discussed enough evolutionary psychology under the Science category that you can go figure out for yourself why I won’t be citing any of it.

    Thirdly, you’re not getting a single one of those citations at the moment because we’re going to deal with the flagrantly toxic nature of this:

    Sorry, but you don’t get to interact with me (in any way, flirtatious or otherwise) and determine what subjective experience that interaction evokes within me. It’s my perception (the recipient’s) that matters, not yours (the sender).

    You’ve just told me it’s up to you to decide whether my interactions with you are sexual. That is complete and utter bullshit. Beyond that, it’s propping up a whole bunch of rape narrative of the “I could tell what she wanted” sort. And you said it in response to my telling you you have a responsibility to get this shit right.

    Are you saying you don’t have that responsibility? Answer carefully, or your precious citations will come after you’ve been banned from this blog.

  34. Kevin says

    Reference Type: Journal Article
    Author: Henningsen, David
    Author: Henningsen, Mary
    Author: Valde, Kathleen
    Primary Title: Gender Differences in Perceptions of Women’s Sexual Interest during Cross-Sex Interactions: An Application and Extension of Cognitive Valence Theory
    Journal Name: Sex Roles
    Cover Date: 2006-06-01
    Publisher: Springer Netherlands
    Issn: 0360-0025
    Subject: Behavioral Science
    Start Page: 821
    End Page: 829
    Volume: 54
    Issue: 11
    Url: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9050-y
    Doi: 10.1007/s11199-006-9050-y

  35. Kevin says

    Your claim is that the recipient’s perceptions of an interpersonal interaction are invalid. That the only thing that matters is the sender’s intent.

    That is exactly the same claim that the MRAs made (of which I am most assuredly not one) with regard to the EG incident. That Ms. Watson was not entitled to her opinion as to the nature of the interaction by EG. She interpreted the interaction as sexual. Therefore, as the recipient — it was. Doesn’t matter what he thought it was (if we’ll ever really know). She thought it was. It was. QED.

    You appear to be claiming a double standard. That women get to assign a subjective meaning to an interpersonal reaction, but that men somehow can’t.

    You’re raising an impossible standard for men to follow — indeed for anyone to follow. You are quite literally asking the recipient to read the mind of the initiator of an interpersonal action to divine its underlying intent.

    I think you can see that you’ve backed yourself into a corner and are now using anger and the hurt feelings card to get out of it.

    So, again. I just provided you with a very nice citation from someone who happens to agree with me. In a scientific journal. In fact, that author has quite a bit of research on the perceptual disconnect between women and men with regard to flirtatious behavior.

    If you’re going to ban me, then I expect you to base that on countervailing evidence from the peer-review literature.

    A good scientist would pwn me with evidence. Not with anger.

  36. Emptyell says

    Ms Zvan

    I originally came to this topic excited by the possibility of a lively discussion of matters I find important and interesting. I apologize if my manner and presentation have offended you.

    Re your last post: I am confident in my opinions but not certain of them and always open to reconsidering, revising or altogether overthrowing them in light of evidence and strong argument. I am sorry this did not turn out to be an opportunity to do so.

    Best wishes.

  37. says

    And Kevin is toast because he apparently can’t find any way to take responsibility for straightening out his perceptions other than mind reading. That he did so while claiming to be a skeptic is extra toxic. *slow clap*

    anon atheist, that post is a commentary on the direct effects of behavior. If you want a banning, feel free to tell me why you really think it has any bearing on having a responsibility to get your perceptions straightened out before you use them to determine your behavior with someone else.

    Now, as for citations, I’m amused that Kevin thinks that a study that says men and women perceive the same behavior as having differing degrees of sexual content and meaning could possibly support the idea that all flirting has sexual undertones. That not only undercuts his point, but it tells me he knows he could be wrong about what the behavior in front of him is telling him and he doesn’t care. Charming.

    For those who want to read more on that research, I suggest this meta-analysis (pdf). Much of it is very readable.

    Then there’s the work of David Henningsen, a communications professor who has studied why and how people flirt. Unfortunately, his “Flirting with meaning: An examination of miscommunication in flirting interactions” isn’t open access. You can find some discussion of those reasons here. Note that many of the styles of flirting discussed do not reflect sexual interest.

    Studies that demonstrate that non-sexual behavior is part of flirting are more rare, because most of the literature is on sexual flirting and most of the behavioral classification is, thus, based around that idea. It is, however, documented that transgressive behavior and its acceptance are used to build intimacy. Teasing is as well. Neither is a sexual behavior, though both are recognized to be part of flirting.

    That seems like a good place to stop unless people have specific statements they think are controversial.

  38. Woo_Monster says

    Stephanie re Kevin,

    You’ve just told me it’s up to you to decide whether my interactions with you are sexual. That is complete and utter bullshit.

    Yeah Kevin, what an idiot you are. How dare you think that your experience of an interaction is valid? Don’t you know that intent is magic?

    It is your DUTY to “straighten out your perceptions”.

    Same to all you uppity gays who object to homophobic jokes without first confirming that the person making it was actually homophobic, as oppose to just a hilarious ironic hipster homophobe.

    Hey victims, get your perceptions straight yo! The intent of the speaker is what matters.

  39. says

    You know, Woo_Monster, that would look much less like bullshit posturing if you’d paid attention to the fact that anon atheist had done it first and been answered. My answer to him goes for you too.

  40. says

    I know Kevin is gone, but I couldn’t help but notice that his original citation backs Stephanie’s position, not his own.

    Flirting (or coquetry) is a playful activity involving verbal communication as well as body language by one person to another, indicating an interest in a deeper relationship with the other person.

    In other words, a building of intimacy and:

    Usually, flirting is therefore, either seriously or jokingly, intended to be interpreted as a romantic or sexual overture.

    The important bits being “usually” and “either seriously or jokingly.”

  41. Woo_Monster says

    Stephanie, there were a couple of comments of yours that seemed to place the onus on the victims of creepers to ensure that their perception, that what they are experiencing is a sexual advance, is valid.

    What makes you an asshole is that you assumed I wrote this without being familiar with research on the topic and that you imply the “flirtee” doesn’t have a responsibility to be as accurate as possible in his or her perceptions.

    I thought Kevin’s response to this was decent*, and I would like to see it addressed. Kevin’s response,

    You’re denying that the recipient of flirtatious behavior might perceive such behavior as sexual. Sorry, but you don’t get to interact with me (in any way, flirtatious or otherwise) and determine what subjective experience that interaction evokes within me. It’s my perception (the recipient’s) that matters, not yours (the sender).

    Your response to this was unsatisfactory. Stephanie,

    You’ve just told me it’s up to you to decide whether my interactions with you are sexual.

    Newsflash, it is up to the recipient of the communication to decide whether they perceive the interaction as sexual. Your intent certainly doesn’t determine if the interaction will be experienced as a sexual advance.

    That is complete and utter bullshit.

    Elaborate please? Why is it bullshit that the “flirtee” gets to make the call about whether the interaction is sexual (and possibly skeevy to them)?

    Beyond that, it’s propping up a whole bunch of rape narrative of the “I could tell what she wanted” sort.

    I am not following this (really, I am not passively aggressively saying that your argument is silly. I just don’t get what you are getting at in regards to how Kevin’s point about placing the onus of clear communication on the speaker contributes to rape culture)

    And you said it in response to my telling you you have a responsibility to get this shit right.
    Are you saying you don’t have that responsibility?

    I think that is what Kevin was saying, and I agree. I do not think that the “flirtee” has the responsibility of making sure that their perceptions are accurate. If someone starts flirting at me in what I experience to be a sexual manner, I may be creeped out by that. Regardless of if the flirter was thinking nothing about sex. Don’t tell me my experience of a sexual advance is invalid. Tell the flirter that their communication needs to be more clear. It is the duty of potential skeevers to be clear about what they are trying to communicate. It is not the responsibility of the victims of creepers making sexual advances to apply great intellectual analysis to determining if their experience of being creeped on is valid or not.

    And Kevin is toast because he apparently can’t find any way to take responsibility for straightening out his perceptions other than mind reading.

    Yeah, it is slightly disingenuous to say that the *only* way to “straighten out one’s perceptions” is to be a mind-reader**. However, Stephanie, it still seems that you are ignoring hir basic point. It is possible for the flirtee to “take responsibility for straightening out hir perceptions”, sans mind-reading, by asking explicitly about the intent behind the interaction. This, however, places the flirtee asking for clarification at risk (think responses like “fuck you, of course I wasn’t hitting on you”, or possibly physical violence)

    For example, a man pops up behind a woman and puts his arms around her, kind of hugging her from behind. The woman in the example perceives this an unwanted sexual advance. You say that it is the responsibility of this women to make sure her perception of this is accurate. I think that is wrong. The intent of the creeper hugging someone from behind does not matter to the experience of the skeeved out woman.

    *though his diminution of your name to “Steph” was an asshole move.

    **Even though it is the only completely safe way to check to see if a perceived sexual advance was intended as such.

  42. Gretchen says

    Hmm… it may be a bit late for this thought, but I’ll throw it out there anyway.

    Re: “flirting” being linked explicitly (or not) with sexuality, or perhaps more precisely, seduction.

    Perhaps those who feel like flirtation = seduction can tell us if they often feel “led on” by those they see as potential partners, or find them “playing hard to get”? No judgement on this, btw – I fully accept that there are those who seduce with no intention of completing the transaction, but I wonder if misinterpretation of the initial encounter & intent might be part of the problem? If you don’t realize there’s an option B, it’s really hard to see it.

    Being raised extremely conservatively, flirting = going straight to hell (oh, and sex, too), so it took me a long time to understand it’s a far more nuanced topic. But I’ll throw my hat in with those who say the two are definitely not the same thing. Overlapping, yes. Equal, no.

    And for those who need help with signals, I’ve found it nearly fail proof to pay attention to what one’s flirting partner does with his/her hands. Where and how they touch themselves and you is almost always a good indicator of whether or not there’s a sexual component to the conversation from their end.

    And heck, you can always, always ask.

  43. says

    Woo_Monster, Kevin started this by saying flirting is always sexual. He followed up by quoting Wikipedia and a paraphrase of an evolutionary psychologist at me to say that flirting was always sexual. Then he made a reference to male and female perceptions of flirting that in context made him both the flirtee and the person who was going to always think that flirting was sexual. Then, when given the chance to clarify that, yes, he understood he had a responsibility to confirm that any such flirting was sexual before acting on it, he declined to do so and invoked my “hurt feelings” instead. In case you can’t tell, that’s not just a non-answer. It’s another one of those asshole moves meant to diminish me.

    Beyond that, while declining to concede any responsibilities on his part, he brought up Rebecca Watson as a “double standard”, despite the only interpersonal action she took in that situation being saying, “No, thank you.” Her behavior to Elevator Guy was appropriate whatever he meant. If she’d punched him or kissed him without any further interaction, then yes, Rebecca would have have been shirking a responsibility for clarity. She didn’t do that. It’s a bullshit distraction from the actual question at hand.

    As for the responsibilities of someone who is flirting, those are already in the post. They’ve been there the whole time. Feel free to ask questions if you think they’re unclear.

  44. says

    I think it’s not just a distraction by Kevin and Woo_monster, but an outright conflation of two diametrically opposed questions: first, that someone should determine intent before allowing themselves to be creeped out by an unexpected or unwanted bit of flirting (especially one with a physical component that is a rather large transgression), and second, that one should try to determine intent before incrementally escalating a pre-existing conversation.

    Also, intent doesn’t magically wipe away how severe any particular transgression might be. If the goal is to flirt and to determine whether there’s a sexual component, having someone randomly grab you from behind is a good bit more sexual than any particular person in any particular relationship with someone else might be willing to take. There’s a reason some people (myself included) shy away from hugs from people they’re not already *really* close with.

  45. ibelieveindog says

    Kevin,

    If you had read the Wikipedia entry a bit further, you would have seen:

    “In order to bond or to express sexual interest, people flirt. According to Kate Fox, there are two main types of flirting: flirting for fun and flirting with intent.[2] Flirting for fun can take place between friends, co-workers, or total strangers that wish to get to know each other. This type of flirting does not intend to lead to sexual intercourse or romantic relationship, but increases the bonds between two people.”

    From merriam-webster.com, just below the definition you chose:

    2. b: to show superficial or casual interest or liking

  46. Emptyell says

    FWIW: On further review I realize that there is more to flirting in the literature and definitions than I knew. I’m still not convinced that the non-sexual/romantic meanings are much in common use and it doesn’t really change my feelings or opinions so won’t bore you any more on this.

    . . .

    Gretchen,

    Since no one else has responded…

    To me seduction is a more intense form of flirting when sex is likely to be immanent, usually with an existing partner or at least after the preliminary rounds have passed, and is really more a form of foreplay.

    Since I see flirting as a step by step process to explore what is possible I have never felt “led on”. I remember once being quite angry at being stood up, but that was a long time ago and likely due to a naive misreading of the cues. I do think I lot of guys get their hopes up when flirting starts and can get angry when it doesn’t go the way they want it to.

    I do recall boys being angry with girls they considered teases but this always seemed unfair to me for all the obvious reasons and I don’t run into this much any more. It may be an age thing, the circles I am in or it just doesn’t come up. I certainly did a lot more clueless, clumsy and embarrassing things in my youth.

    I have known men and women who are flirtatious by nature. Either just as their way of being friendly or to maximize the likelihood of meeting someone special or both, but in these cases you can’t assume the flirting is really particular to you and requires a bit of playful escalation if you want to find out. I have also known guys where this behavior crosses the line and becomes overbearing and creepy.

    I haven’t (knowingly) had experience with women playing hard to get since I don’t pursue the matter unless I get encouraging signals. I’m sure I’ve missed a fair number of opportunities but that’s OK since I am more interested in quality than quantity. There have been times when I have upped the pressure a bit to show the intensity of my interest, but since these have been favorably received I guess I read the situation right.

    Of course, my point of view seems to be pretty atypical so I don’t know how useful it is.

  47. John Morales says

    I don’t flirt, but I understand flirting to be playful behaviour intended to arouse a romantic or sexual interest in the recipient.

  48. D. C. Sessions says

    I’ll try to summarize a pretty basic ethical position on flirting:

    1) Flirting is transgressive. At each stage, it risks rejection. Deal.
    2) Initiating flirting can be either nonsexual or sexual in intent.
    3) The recipient of a flirting overture has three basic alternatives:
    3a) Reject the overture
    3b) Respond positively with non-sexual intent
    3c) Respond positively with sexual intent.
    4) At this point, assuming that the recipient hasn’t pulled the plug, there are four possibilities that need to be mutually resolved:
    4a) Both are interested in non-sexual intimacy
    4b) Both are interested in sexual intimacy
    4c) There’s a mismatch

    In other words, both parties need to determine the intent of the other before anything remotely like intimacy can really develop. The topic is one of the most popular ever for dramatists; I’m not going to compete out of my league here.

    The key point is pretty basic: flirting is transgressive behavior. It is, therefore, socially and emotionally risky. It’s ethically necessary for the party expanding the scope of intimacy at each step to accept that risk and be prepared to be rebuffed.

    Communication, people. In insular societies, there were rituals for negotiating this kind of dance. Most of those rituals were essentially arbitrary conventions, so an outsider was bound to get the dance wrong. Thereby livelihood for may generations of playwrights.

    We don’t live in an insular society any more, so those rituals don’t work: pretty much everyone gets the signals wrong. So if you’re going to play the game, you have to be pretty literal.

  49. John Morales says

    D. C. wrote:

    2) Initiating flirting can be either nonsexual or sexual in intent.

    I challenge this claim, because you’re overloading the term; being friendly ain’t flirting (cf. my previous).

  50. says

    In what way does it differ, John? At this point, you’re essentially begging the question. Flirting is sexual or romantic in nature because…flirting is sexual or romantic in nature?

  51. John Morales says

    Stephanie, yes.

    I refer to your contention:

    Flirting is about creating a more intimate connection between two people than usually happens in our daily meeting and greeting.

    I acknowledge that this is true, but I put it to you that flirting is a subset of the set of behaviours intended to create a more intimate connection between two people than usually happens in our daily meeting and greeting, rather than the entirety of the set. In short, the two terms are not interchangeable, and thus your definition suffers accordingly.

    What is the salient difference between sexual or romantic flirting and its complement (i.e. that which is still flirting, but is neither sexual or romantic)?

    BTW, thank you for not assuming that I’ve not read the OP or comment-stream before opining. Sincerely.

  52. says

    John, there isn’t a set of behaviors that are used in flirting without romantic or sexual intent and a set of behaviors that are used in flirting with romantic or sexual intent. Behavior that is sexual in nature serves both intents. Behavior that isn’t sexual in nature serves both intents. Moreover, the behaviors serve the same purpose through the same mechanism.

    None of that is to say that the intent is unimportant, just that the behavior, while flexible, is one behavior. Also, we actually understand it better as a behavior if we don’t try to label it differently based on intent.

  53. John Morales says

    Stephanie,

    What is the salient difference between sexual or romantic flirting and its complement (i.e. that which is still flirting, but is neither sexual or romantic)?

    there isn’t a set of behaviors that are used in flirting without romantic or sexual intent and a set of behaviors that are used in flirting with romantic or sexual intent. Behavior that is sexual in nature serves both intents. Behavior that isn’t sexual in nature serves both intents. Moreover, the behaviors serve the same purpose through the same mechanism.

    I understand you to mean that there is no such salient difference.

    Fair enough, I think otherwise. For example, a knowing look to another oldster when a youth naively opines is not what I consider to be ‘flirting’, but I think it establishes camaraderie.

    (Terms and their semantics, always a tricky discussion)

  54. says

    I agree that there is no salient difference, John Morales. I further believe that this contributes a great deal to why people often have trouble telling the difference.

  55. Pteryxx says

    my two cents:

    What is the salient difference between sexual or romantic flirting and its complement (i.e. that which is still flirting, but is neither sexual or romantic)?

    Whether the flirting is agreed upon as being sexual/romantic, by both partners. Really. That’s the distinction.

    Usually this gets described as “serious” flirting versus “playful” flirting, a distinction that makes no sense to me. Neurotypical people can, sometimes, perceive each others’ intent through nonverbal cues such as timing. For me, when I flirt, I flat out SAY “I’m not serious/I don’t mean it” or “I AM serious/Yes, I mean it” and I also ask my partner “Are you serious” or “How far do you want to go with this” or similar.

  56. D. C. Sessions says

    Neurotypical people can, sometimes, perceive each others’ intent through nonverbal cues such as timing.

    Emphasis added. More often, they think they can even when they haven’t a clue. Please see above regarding insular cultures.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Flirting is Easy* UPDATE 6/128:25 PDT: As you might imagine, there’s been a lot of discussion, and perhaps even controversy over our take on this subject.   Since we jettisoned a lot of our actual content in favor of a discussion with Stephanie Zvan and our lack of discussion on those points has been mentioned, we’ve taken the time to produce another podcast to explain more of our position and respond to some of the criticism.  It was recorded early this morning and will be released in at least two parts: [...]

  2. [...] want to tell rape jokes that may help them avoid jokes that reinforce rape culture. I explained how consent and boundaries are important to understanding even something as simple as flirting. I also did little more than point to an [...]

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