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.
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.