On Flirting

by | November 26, 2017 | General | 2 comments

by Jean Roberta

For most of my adult life, men have told me they are confused about what women want. This question was famously asked long before I was born.

As a result of the recent avalanche of “me too” stories about a spectrum of sexual harassment and abuse, heterosexual men have been asking wistfully whether “flirting” is now considered unacceptable.

I haven’t heard anyone in the “me too” crowd suggest that being casually groped in public is as damaging as gang rape that leaves visible and invisible scars, nor the long-term effects of being murdered. There have been numerous references to a spectrum of abuse ranging from relatively mild to almost unbelievable, yet women who object to actions that feel abusive are accused of lacking a sense of proportion.

None of this is new. The claim that too many women are humorless prudes who want to outlaw all erotic interaction between males and females was made many times when Second Wave Feminism got rolling in the early 1970s.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “flirt” is an intransitive verb which means:

1. To move erratically, e.g. butterflies flirting among the flowers,
2. To behave amorously without serious intent, e.g. a man flirting with every attractive woman he sees,
3. To show superficial or casual interest or liking, e.g. flirting with a idea,
4. To experiment with something new, e.g. a novelist flirting with poetry,
5. To come close to experiencing something, e.g. flirting with disaster.

One essential quality of “flirting,” according to these definitions, is a lack of commitment or serious intent. A man or a woman who flirts is not promising anything beyond the pleasure of the moment. If flirting is generally accepted as a flattering exchange of interest between two (or more) people, then:

-no one who flirts should be accused of “asking for trouble” by appearing to offer sexual service to everyone who sees them. “Flirting” is not a promise.

– no one who flirts is entitled to blame the object of attention for responding positively.

In my experience, the biggest opponents of flirting are heterosexual men. Before I started high school, my father warned me that women “get themselves raped” by flirting with men, especially in bars, and accepting free drinks. I was too young to get into a bar, and it hadn’t occurred to me to venture into one in search of free drinks. However, my father seemed to think I should be warned early. On other occasions, he claimed that “real rape” was impossible to commit.

After I passed through puberty, I began having alarming encounters with guys of various ages. These experiences started out (in my perception) as harmless flirting, a fun conversation. A guy would see me walking past and make a cheerful comment about the weather. (In Canada, this could be “Nice day, eh?” or “Aren’t you glad the temperature warmed up?” meaning it had gone from 40 degrees below zero to minus 20.)

I should probably mention here that I love conversation, and I’m not bored by “small talk” because it is often interesting in itself, and it can lead to longer-term relationships. In my youth, I didn’t consider an offer of conversation to be as dangerous as the offer of a free drink. I’ve usually responded to people who speak to me, regardless of who they are.

This has often turned out to be a mistake on my part. The guy would ask where I lived, then show annoyance when I wouldn’t tell him. He would invite me to his place, and assume I wasn’t serious when I tried to reject the invitation politely. Once when I was coming home from work on a city bus, a guy persistently told me (didn’t ask) that I was going out with him for a drink, although I repeatedly told him I was going home to my husband. After dashing off the bus, I thought it prudent to take a long, indirect route home to avoid bringing trouble to my door.

A word of advice to the confused: grabbing the ass of a person you do not know (and who might not be interested in sexual interaction with a stranger) is not “harmless flirting.” If flirting is defined as harmless by definition, then ass-grabbing is not flirtatious. It is abusive. And to those who think ass-grabbing shouldn’t even be mentioned as part of the spectrum of abuse because it is less harmful than other forms of assault, consider how quickly assault can escalate. Many women know this from experience.

If a woman whose ass you grabbed takes offense, pushes you away, or tells you off, do you feel entitled to retaliate? If a woman whose ass you grabbed doesn’t seem offended enough, do you interpret her passivity as a sign that she wants sex with you as soon as possible? Do you think women who don’t reject your “flirting” fast enough, or firmly enough, are sluts who want you to try harder? Do you think women who don’t want to be touched by men they don’t know are frigid killjoys?

None of these reactions fall into the definition of “flirting.” And if you think flirting should make a glorious comeback, it would be wise of you not to complain that: 1) it’s hard to respect women when so many of them are sluts without shame, and 2) it’s hard to respect women when so many are self-righteous about “boundaries.”

As an example of sexually-explicit but non-abusive flirting, I offer you the following anecdote from my distant past. I was crossing the street to my apartment, where my belongings were half-packed. I was planning to move myself and my daughter into a bigger apartment across town with my first woman lover. This was a milestone event in my life, and I had reached the milestone age of thirty.

A fresh-faced young man who looked like a teenage skater dude approached me, said I looked like a fun person to know, and asked if I would like to come to his place to fool around for awhile. His intentions were clear. I felt flattered, and I couldn’t help wondering if Fate were offering me a chance to change my mind.

I was dressed for moving (old jeans, faded T-shirt), not for seduction. I can only assume that my hope for my future was giving me a visible glow that attracted an unlikely suitor. I thought about trains that pass in the night, or the day.

Accepting Young Dude’s offer would have complicated my life more than I wanted. I told him no, I was involved with someone.

To my relief, Young Dude smiled, let me know he was disappointed, but wished me a nice day. He didn’t demand any information from me, nor did he offer an insult, a warning, or a threat.

Now there was a man who knew how to flirt, as young and inexperienced as he looked. I hope he has had a good life, including lots of good sex.
I never knew the stranger’s name, but I wish more men would follow his example.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica (http://excessica.com). Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, www.eroticanthology.com. Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links: www.JeanRoberta.com http://eroticaforall.co.uk/category/author-profiles


  1. La coquette

    Nice column, babe. I hope you had as much fun writing it as I had reading it. 😉

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    You’re certainly right that for some men, we’re damned if we do or if we don’t.

    I do love flirting, though. I could read — or write– an erotic story that never went beyond flirting and still feel turned on.

    Thanks for an excellent post.

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