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The lust art of flirting

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

My eye was caught last week by a newspaper story documenting the apparent decline of flirting. Or at the very least its abridgement and coarsening. Doesn't that kind of spoil the fun?

The story, in The Washington Post, described a kind of post-apocalyptic suburban nightmare in which half-clothed teenage girls strut around like prostitutes, accosting boys, hugging them -- one even lets a youth pull up her skirt.

What ever happened to pretending not to know the chemistry homework assignment and calling a boy to get it? Or getting your best friend to ask his best friend if he likes you? Remember when you knew Bobby liked you because he threw snowballs at you at recess?

I suppose getting right to the come-on is an inevitable development in a society obsessed with saving time, and the kids are just copying adults. Why dither around making eye contact, gently touching an arm, talking, drinking coffee, going to museums, when you can just text-message a hottie in a bar and hook up?

True, flirting has grown more perilous in modern times. We have so many casual, fleeting contacts with people, some of whom come from different cultures, that it's hard to express playful attraction without being misunderstood, slapped, groped, stalked or sued.

It doesn't help that as our society gets faster, busier and more crowded, we're losing the social skills to observe and listen to people and interact with them in an appropriate way. E-mail and instant messaging allow us to get right to the point with a bluntness that is easier than face-to-face interaction.

A story last month in the Toronto Star described a party at a nightclub where guests were told to bring a phone and given a code sticker that let other guests text message them.

Let me say this again, in case it didn't astound you the first time: They were at a party, sending text messages to people IN THE SAME ROOM, within view. Hundreds of dolled-up revelers smiling into the aquatic glow of their cell phones, typing. Sure, it solves the problem of trying to scream over the music. But wasn't that always a handy excuse to bend a little closer to someone attractive, perhaps even let a hand alight on a shoulder?

According to the Social Issues Research Centre's Guide to Flirting, by Kate Fox (if that's not a pseudonym, it should be), we are supposed to flirt. Anthropologists find that all cultures flirt somehow. Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that our "large human brain -- our superior intelligence, complex language, everything that distinguishes us from animals -- is the equivalent of the peacock's tail: a courtship device evolved to attract and retain sexual partners."

I'd find that theory more convincing if I saw more evidence that superior intelligence and complex language skills were anything but an impediment to sexual popularity. Frankly, this sounds like wishful thinking on the part of evolutionary psychologists.

Like me, they were probably brought up to believe a woman could attract and charm a man with intelligence, wit and kindness, and a man could woo a woman by inviting her on dates and being gallant and funny and attentive, until they either got married or suffered disappointment. Or both.

But all that tedious dating, courtship, talking, getting to know one another -- waste of time! Now it's as simple as sidling up to a guy and putting your arms around him. If he grabs back, you can get right to the hooking up. It works for animals. And there's no denying that emotional investment and commitment can ultimately result in agony.

Still, isn't it better to feel something? Other than unadorned lust, I mean?

Maybe simpler is better -- a yes or a drop dead, a squeeze or a slap. Negotiating nuance can be very frustrating, especially for guys. "Mixed signals" has been the scourge of the last few generations. Even Victorians didn't have that problem; a lady's fan was used to convey very specific messages to a gentleman. Fanning herself slowly, for example, signaled rejection. Fanning fast signaled availability. Snapping the fan shut and whacking the guy in the jaw signaled that if he looked down her bodice again, he was going to get a corset-stay in the ribs.

Ah, the good old days.

Now courtship is reduced to button-pushing and navel-gazing, a relationship to a "thing." Oh well. Ain't love grand?

Samantha Bennett can be reached at or 412-263-3572.

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