Sometimes I think it’s more fun to flirt than to fuck.
Of course, I’ve always been focused more on the experience of arousal than on the ultimate release. That’s just the way I’m wired. When I recall my most intense erotic adventures, I don’t remember the orgasms, but rather, the inexorable upward ramp of desire, the thrilling anticipation of what was to come.
You get a lot of the same pay-off from flirting, without the attendant risks.
Knowing someone wants me—realizing the power I have over my partner’s body and imagination— it’s heady, almost addictive. Kick me out of the feminist union if you want, but I love being seen as a sex object. I don’t mind the fact that men (or women) might be watching and lusting after me. Quite the contrary. I do the same, after all, discretely ogling strangers, fantasizing about their hidden charms.
Flirting goes a bit further, but not much. Flirting requires an acknowledgment. A smile. A wave. An exchange of greetings, moving on perhaps to compliments or double-entendres. Underneath it all, there’s the excitement of mutual attraction, the pleasurable buzz of arousal that doesn’t need to be consummated to be enjoyed.
When you flirt, you don’t need to worry about practicality or propriety. I can chat up the lanky twenty-something barista at my local coffee shop, basking in the heat I feel in his gaze, despite the fact that I’m forty years older and happily married. I can shoot back some clever response to the burly construction worker who gives an appreciative whistle as I walk past, though I know we have nothing in common. I’ve brightened his day. He’s done the same for mine. Maybe he’ll fantasize about me as he’s jerking off. That doesn’t bother me. I might take the same liberties.
Flirting is most satisfying, though, with an intellectual equal. I remember a small party, years ago, with some university friends, hosted by a very appealing philosophy professor and his wife. We’d gathered to create homemade cheese tortellini. Christopher had dark eyes, the graceful long-fingered hands of a musician, a devilish smile and a delightfully agile mind. As we worked together—he cutting neat squares of pasta dough which I filled and twisted closed—we discussed politics, solipsism, and the works of Robertson Davies.
At one level, the topics of our conversation hardly mattered. The focus was the magnetism, the sexual tension that flickered between us. At the same time, the mental gymnastics in which we engaged added to the pleasure. If we were ever to connect, we knew the bond would be more than physical. Not that either of us really considered going further— well, of course, I don’t know in detail what was going on in his mind, but both our spouses were present, and I had no inkling his marriage was in any way less satisfying than mine. But reality was irrelevant. Flirting is all about fantasy, about possibilities that will very likely never materialize but which nevertheless excite.
The detail with which I remember this particular long-past incident of flirtation is testimony to how much it affected me.
I worry, however, that flirting will become a dying art. These days, flirting is often conflated with unwanted sexual attention. A respectful and well-meaning compliment is likely to be interpreted as inappropriate, offensive or threatening, while a friendly wolf whistle will get you roundly condemned as a sexual predator. I mentioned above that flirting involved lower risks than full-out sex, but in today’s hyper-vigilant climate that might not be true.
Where’s the line, though, between flirtation and harassment? How can someone distinguish between innocent innuendo and potential abuse? When does sexual objectification become demeaning or dangerous, rather than fun?
I don’t have an easy answer to these questions. It might depend on mutuality, or on the certainty that a lack of reciprocity would immediately put a halt to the unwanted attention. I do know that individual reactions vary. I’m sure that some of the actions that I’d accept as flirtatious behavior would be condemned as unacceptably sexist by some women.
At the same time, I’m certain that life would be far less colorful and entertaining if every expression of sexual interest between strangers were banned.
Given my appreciation of flirting, you’d expect it to show up frequently in my writing. In fact, I have very few stories that feature this sort of interaction. I know most readers aren’t like me. They’re looking for physical, not just fantasy, sex.
I did find a few prominent examples, though. Here’s one of my favorites, from the short story “Test Drive”, which appears in the altruistic erotica anthology Coming Together: On Wheels, edited by Leigh Ellwood and benefiting UNHCR.
“Hey there, pretty lady.”
His drawl rumbled through me, an avalanche of heat, melting everything in its path. My hair flew as I turned back in his direction.
I’d intended to scold him for his barely polite greeting. The words caught in my throat as I took him in.
He lounged in the doorway of the Indian motorcycle showroom, hands in his pockets, broad shoulders braced against the frame, one lean, denim-clad leg crossed over the other—six feet of loose-limbed masculinity. A sand-colored braid hung down across his solid chest, almost to his waist. The rolled-up sleeves of his plaid shirt revealed tanned forearms furred with golden down. His sun-bronzed face wasn’t classically handsome, but when his bright blue eyes snagged mine, I couldn’t look away.
Thirty. Thirty five at most. I could almost be his mother. Shocking that all I wanted to do was tear off my conservative skirt and blouse and throw myself into those obviously strong arms.
“Want to come for a ride, darlin’?”
“Ah—huh—what?” A master’s degree in library science, reduced to inarticulate mumbling by a bit of flirting. What was I, a teenager?
“Got a sale going on, through next week. Discounts of twenty to thirty percent on all our models. I have to say you’d look fantastic on a bike, Miss.” He unfolded himself from his casual pose and handed me a business card. “I’m Jack Taggart. Top sales associate in the Midwest, three years running. And you are…?”
It’s none of your business who I am, I wanted to tell him. Fat chance. “Um—Alice. Alice Robinson.”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Robinson.” Apparently helpless to resist, I accepted the large, calloused hand he held out. Lighting sizzled through me as our palms connected. “Or is it Mrs. Robinson?”
His cocky grin sent blood rushing to my cheeks. I straightened my spine and tried to regain some sort of control over my autonomic functions. “Mrs. My husband died four years ago.”
“Oh—I’m so sorry…”
He gave my hand a sympathetic squeeze. With some difficulty, I pried it out of his grasp. What if one of my co-workers came by? “That’s okay. He was sick for quite some time. In some ways it was a blessing.”
“Still, it must be hard for you—being alone and all.”
I shrugged. I missed Ben, but I had to admit I enjoyed some aspects of being single. Aside from work, my time was my own. I didn’t have to answer to anyone—except, occasionally, my daughter on the West Coast. I smiled up into those sky-colored eyes, noting the crinkles at the corners. Perhaps he wasn’t quite as young as I thought.
“What makes you think I’m alone?”
“Well, I admit that it’s unlikely a woman as lovely as you would be unattached…”
“Is this how you got to be the top-ranked salesman? Flattering the customers?” I flipped a lock of hair over my shoulder and smoothed my skirt down over my lap, very aware of the dampness underneath. It might be the purest bull, but that didn’t stop me from reacting.
“That’s not fair, Alice—can I call you Alice?” He continued without waiting for my nod. “First of all, it’s the God honest truth. You are the most beautiful woman who’s walked by the shop in days.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll bet you told the same thing to the last half dozen.”
“No way! Secondly, I’m the best because I love the bikes. I know pretty much everything about the full Indian line, from the Scout to the Roadmaster. I don’t just sell them. I can repair ‘em, too—did a six month mechanics training course in Minnesota. And of course I ride, these days a Chief Dark Horse. Started on a vintage 1950 Black Hawk, when I was sixteen.”
He paused his monologue to give me another appreciative once over. “You ever been on a bike, Alice? I know you’d love it.”
“I’ve never been that inclined to risk my life,” I replied with a chuckle. It was difficult for me to maintain an attitude of skepticism in the face of his enthusiasm and his obvious admiration.
“It’s no riskier than driving a car. And so much more fun! The speed—the freedom—the sense of control—there’s nothing like it. It’s addictive. Come on, Alice. Let me take you on a test drive.”
Of course, in this story, the protagonists do eventually have sex. But they have an awful lot of fun flirting first.