When you get a lot of adults together, you’re going to get flirting. Before I go any further, I want to clarify now that flirting is good. Flirting is awesome. Flirting may be one of my favorite things in the world, following the potential (though not guaranteed) results of flirting, sex, and being distantly followed by rock n’ roll, fencing, and anything Japan-related. So this not me saying that adults shouldn’t flirt, and it’s certainly not be saying that adults shouldn’t have sex.
However, a conversation I keep seeing come up and one I’m incredibly familiar with is the conversation about people who go too far and take liberties they simply shouldn’t. Most of the time, let’s be fair, this is men being far too forward with women. Let me give you some examples:
In the old club I was a part of, there was a very specific list of people to avoid being in private with. They wouldn’t do anything particularly violent in any commonly understood form of the word, but they were very adept at badgering women into sex, not leaving them alone until they agreed to get the guys off in some fashion. The victims of the members of this list never felt comfortable making an issue out of it because they felt like they had technically consented (much like Jack Woltz consented to Don Corleone’s request to cast Johnny Fontane in that war picture), they knew that the guys in question had a lot of friends (including women who were happy to actually consent to sleep with them), and they were afraid that if they made an issue of it, people would assume the worst of them. This was all too common, and their fears were not unfounded.
This is, of course, not an exclusively male thing. Sometimes it’s couples, like in this article just posted on Skepchick. Basically, the author went to be keynote speaker at an event and while signing books was given a business card with a naked picture of the couple and contact information in case she wanted to fuck them. Sorry, but as Elyse points out, randomly handing out naked pictures of yourself to a professional when they’re doing their job is right out, and adults shouldn’t need to be told this. That they retreated behind the “it was just a joke” excuse is more indicative to me that they were following an all too familiar system:
Throw it at the wall, see if it sticks.
People like the guys in my old club and the couple above made a habit of flirting aggressively with everybody. They did this from the moment of attraction and continued to put on pressure until given a firm denial, and sometimes even past that point. They’re not really interested in the people, they’re interested in getting laid, and so they play the numbers game that if you attempt to fuck enough people, eventually somebody will say yes.
Do I really need to tell anybody who does this that they’re an asshole? I mean, I would think that is self-evident, but let me be very clear on this point: if your method of flirting with people is to flirt with everybody on the theory that somebody will agree to fuck you if you just keep bothering them about it, then you’re an asshole. End of story, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
Another thing that made me think about this was the flurry of discussion last week in the atheosphere set off by Jen McCreight’s offhand comment that there is a list similar to the one in my old club, but of speakers at skeptic conventions to be avoided by female attendees. It’s passed quietly by word of mouth, an incredibly inefficient system, because there’s no way to justify publishing these names. It’s hearsay, and it’s not a crime to make other people uncomfortable. Moreover, in this case, many are big names, important people in the movement who you do not piss off for fear of Wrathful Reprisals. When I talk about power disparity and privilege, this is the kind of thing I mean: women are afraid of publicly discussing the harassment they’ve received because they’re as likely, if not moreso, to be treated as reactionary, irrational, or simply liars just because it’s their word against the word of a more established person.
And this brings me to the final point. It’s not going to make me a lot of friends, but it needs to be mentioned. This weekend I was thanked for being polite to somebody. This really took me back, since the event I was part of is for a group that really holds virtues like courtesy and honor in high regard. Yet, this person felt that they should thank me for not hanging all over them while we were drinking, presumably for not groping them without asking, and generally acting as if they were a real human being and not a thing that feels good to touch. The thing is, I had just met this person that afternoon and while they are fantastically interesting, really cute, and anywhere from 12-27 levels of awesome that I’ve discovered so far, it would never occur to me to get seriously handsey with them until I knew them better. It’s why I’ve been somewhat muted since I left my old hobby and started this new one: I don’t really know anybody, so I don’t know where their lines are. I see plenty of people who know one another do all sorts of wonderful things together, and that’s fine. But if if I haven’t established what’s ok and not, I don’t presume I can do whatever.
Again, I’m going to point out, this is not me shaking a finger and telling people not to flirt. This is me saying that if you’re flirting because your objective is to get laid that evening and you find yourself either losing interest or pushing harder when the other person isn’t responding, you’re doing it wrong. I’m saying that harassment is a serious problem, one that people shouldn’t have to worry about when they go to do something fun. And no, macho offers to beat people up if they step out of line are not sufficient as the people making the offer are just as likely to be or to know the person causing the problem.
There are ways to flirt and not be a jerk, though. JT Eberhard had a great post about it recently, mostly focused on atheist conferences, but the rules can apply any place. Seriously, check it out. You can be part of the solution by checking in with people who look like they’re being made uncomfortable, giving them an out by just saying hi and providing a convenient excuse for the person to leave the conversation, one they can easily and subtly refuse if they are actually enjoying themselves (i.e. if they’re feeling trapped, they can say they’ve been looking for you and excuse themselves, if they’re not they can give some signals to get lost). You can stop focusing on getting laid and try to establish a friendship (there is no “Friendzone,” she’s just not attracted to you, get over it, I covered this on Valentine’s Day) that may or may not lead to sex at one point and not worry about if it does or not.
Now, people are going to make mistakes. They’re going to cross lines, get far too drunk and do something stupid, not know what sort of kiss, if any, is appropriate for the end of the evening, etc. The thing is, if you make a mistake, you can apologize and not do it again. And you can pay attention for nonverbal cues that you’re getting too close. If your first response to, “That made me uncomfortable” is “I’m not doing anything” rather than, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize and won’t do it again,” you are, again, doing it wrong. Mistakes happen, but they stop being mistakes when you’re not interested in fixing them.
Does following this advice mean you’re less likely to get somebody into bed? Yes, it does. Sorry, hate to break it to you, but another person’s comfort trumps your desire to get off. The benefit is that you get to make a whole lot of new friends and learn a bunch of stuff about people you might not otherwise have been able to. If that doesn’t sound awesome to you, I recommend examining your priorities.
Again, I suspect that this won’t win me a lot of friends. There’s no way I can write any of this without sounding like a prude. I’m not and those who have known me for a while will tell you as much. But I’m not willing to infringe on somebody else’s right to enjoy themselves free of the fear that they’ll be attacked in some way, and that’s what much of that discomfort boils down to. Either physically attacked if they refuse somebody’s advances, socially attacked if they say something about unwanted flirting, or even worse social attacks if they do agree to do something and then gain a reputation for sleeping around (don’t get me started on sex positivity and how much I want to kick slut-shamers in the junk). It’s a severely fine line to walk, and I don’t want to make anybody have to walk it if possible. And neither should you.