At a dinner party several years ago, a woman of a certain age introduced herself to me and initiated an artful flirtation that eventuated in a warm friendship, not just with me but with my wife.
The age-old art of flirting is at grave risk in this new age of accelerated “hooking up” and “friends with benefits.” In fact, we may be losing the underlying allure of healthy eroticism.
A friend of ours, a former photographic editor of New York Magazine, recently produced a coffee table book that posed this question somewhat differently but effectively. It’s a collection of porn film stars standing nude on the left page and posed elegantly clothed on the right. Without making the question explicit, (no pun intended), the book leaves us little doubt as to which is the more erotic image.
After all, it’s the anticipation of physical joy that imbues us with desire in all its tantalizing urgency. It’s the richly imagined but totally unknown outcome that entices us and feeds that desire.
Flirting is indeed the beginning of seduction. But that seduction does not need to culminate in sex. It may lead to lifelong friendship rather than to a bedroom. Done right, it is a delightful game that allows for a choice about which direction the relationship will go, a bantering interplay or a serious relationship. Think tango rather than pole-dancing.
Like the fully-clothed photographs, flirting engages partners slowly, the as-yet-unknown sparking attraction in part because the direction of the relationship is up in the air and the imagination holds sway.
The accomplished flirter uses his or her skill carefully, turning on their charm as another species might initiate the slow release of pheromones when meeting a possible mate.
Akin to the art of grooming and elegant dress, flirting is a subtle expression of a desire to attract, possibly sexually but possibly not. Flirting conveys by movement, demeanor, and wit, sometimes bluntly and sometimes subtly, the desire to know someone better.
Today’s tawdry come-ons leave little to the imagination, accelerate at warp speed and often leave partners disappointed and adrift in the sexuality of loneliness, gorging on sex to feed an emptiness that only slowly-crafted friendships can alleviate.
Even married people can flirt, as the goal of a flirtation is not necessarily infidelity. The person, however, who overuses their peacock charms becomes known as a flirt in the same way that an overused clever expression soon becomes a cliché.
The sexual taboos of many cultures inevitably led to subtler forms of seduction. Many of these taboos had an important function in their society and may have developed out of an innate human understanding that the rush to procreate often accelerates beyond the capacity of young people to develop meaningful relationships. By slowing down those nature urges, society could strengthen the very relationships that protect its offspring.
And, best of all, this slowing down has the added benefit of enhancing desire and the joy of a possible union between human beings – sexual or not.