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Flirting – Humour: innocence, playfulness, fun, vive la difference

subtlety is just lost on guys

subtlety is just lost on guys

More film reviews to come. For now, by way of a change…….

Flirting – Zettel

When did we let the important little things go? Was there a debate and a vote? I must have been away – no one asked me. When did a teacher comforting a distressed child with an arm on the shoulder first become a shameful sexual overture? When did a smiled ‘good morning’ to a stranger in the street first elicit a scowl or a nervous quickening of step? When children used to splash and shriek with laughter in the sea and small persons of about 5 years old, bucket in hand, began their endless fiercely concentrated, delightfully pointless, iterative journeys back and forth; was every smiling, fascinated, watching man always a lurking paedophile? When did we first start telling our kids that if they got lost, they should only seek help from a policeman or a woman, never a man? To put it generally: was there a moment in time, a definitive event which marked the total sexualisation, (ugly word for an ugly thought), of our culture? Maybe it was about the time our bank managers swapped exhorting thrift and financial prudence in favour of selling profligacy and debt. Economically: gotta buy, so gotta sell and nothing sells like sex.

As a bear of very little brain, these go in the ‘too hard’ box for me, so I just want to mourn the loss of one little practice – flirting. And I should immediately point out that I do not mean what used to be called with a certain linguistic insouciance, ‘chatting up’. I am sure that there is a more charmless, execrable neologism in current use for this perfectly legitimate undertaking. I suppose seriously trying to ‘get off’ with someone does not have quite the same mellifluous ring to it but I am sure you get my drift, even if in my case the objects of my exertions in this area seldom did: or at least pretended not to.

To clarify the subject of my nostalgia, I shall have to use some strange words: like innocence, spontaneity, playful, fun, and affection. First we must remark a curious logical feature of what we use these words to speak about: there is an essential ‘givenness’ about them – each we might say is a kind of gift. Let me show, not explain: ” try to be more spontaneous”; “now, we are all going to have lots of fun”; “he has the innocence of a child”; “come on let’s be playful”; “you should be more affectionate”. These words all refer to a state of being, not something we bring about. A quality that behaviour displays, not one we can intentionally practice or develop. They cannot be pursued, commanded or demanded. We might say they express states of being not acts of doing. A bit like happiness.

Flirting, proper flirting, not concealed seduction, sexual insinuation or any form of manipulation, displays all these precious qualities. Flirting is to sexual gratification what skipping is to the Olympic Triple Jump or whistling the Archers theme tune in the bath is to a night at the opera, (though not ‘A Night At The Opera’ – closer). It is an art: sadly, perhaps an art that is dying out. There is a degree of equality and mutual respect between the sexes displayed in flirting seldom achieved when overt or repressed sexual desire is the underlying motivation. It can be the expression of delight in “la difference,”

The demands of sexual reductionism are tyrannical. Engendered by Freud (though to his eternal credit, rejected by Jung) and exploited ruthlessly by our rapacious, commercialised, sexualised culture, it leaves no ‘space’ for honest flirting to be innocently enjoyed. Just as our, in many ways, degenerate culture is robbing our children of their childhood, so it is denying us as adults, the possibility of spontaneity, playfulness, a sense of fun between the sexes. This robs our gender relationships of subtlety, nuance and genuine friendship. It is entirely consistent with this perspective that many women find it easier, i.e. safer, to establish genuine friendships with gay, rather than straight men. Only here is the implacable assumption of sexual design neutralised. Somewhere along the line we all bought in to the lie that all men are always on the make, and all women, at all times, in all circumstances, are under sexual threat.

I can hear now the justified, cries of feminine protest. Of course all the dreadful attitudes I am questioning exist: escalating rape, sexual exploitation and abuse of women, and tragically, children, testifies only too clearly to that. I deny none of this. What man could? I only deny that because something sometimes happens, it must always happen. To accept that principle is destructively self-fulfilling. If irresistible sexual gratification or physical domination of women by men is held to be a universal truth then this drives us into a vicious spiral of escalating fear and anxiety, separation and mutual distrust. Cumulatively this corrodes any possibility of increased understanding, mutual respect and enrichment of gender relationships. The $64,000 question: is this exclusively a men’s problem? Or does it require courage, insight and reciprocal support by both sexes to the reverse the current inexorable downward spiral?

Some signs aren’t good: at a recent public meeting I asked Germaine Greer the following question: “You have been using a distinction between masculinity and maleness all evening. Could you unpack a little, what you consider to be the difference?” She replied “masculinity is always a construct of social conditioning and pressure: maleness is biological genetic endowment.” As a follow-up I posed “If that’s true, then surely boys have to struggle against powerful social pressures in order to achieve their own healthy form of masculine gender identity in just the same way as girls?” Ms Greer’s reply was “That’s not my problem. Next question please.” I think the mothers in the audience bringing up male children, found that as unsatisfactory an answer as I did.

There is surely, no serious progress to be made in relationships between the sexes unless it is accepted as a joint, not a one-sided problem; if for no other reason than that the issue is irreducibly, a relationship problem. And although I know it is a dangerous line of thought needing careful examination, can we ignore the fact that women as mothers, have an immensely powerful influence on their sons’ gender attitudes?

Flirting is a learning process: it undeniably has a sexual element. It should have, as that way it does not seek to deny the reality of physical attraction. It is at its best a kind of gender ‘dance’, one of the vital ways that children and adults of different genders have in the past got to know something about one another without the weight of serious emotional commitment or actual sexual contact. Because of its potential for abuse, its decline may be seen from some feminine perspectives as a positive sign. I argue quite the reverse is the case. It is a very real form of connecting, especially and importantly, across age differences. It should be light, playful, insightful and fun.

Two questions to finish. First the ‘Harry’ question (from the film ‘When Harry Met Sally’): can a man have a genuine friendship with a woman unless he has first been to bed with her? Answer: yes he just has to grow up a bit first. And perhaps the most perplexing question of all – to which I really do not know the answer: can men and a women respond to one another first as human beings, people; and only secondarily, however importantly, as of a particular gender? And if they can – do we want them to? Pass.

Zettel (September 2004)

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