Flirting: Fun? Cheating? Harassment?

Published November 15, 2017 in Warp & Woof

Flirting: Fun? Cheating? Harassment?

It’s Really About Power

William Sundwick

Recently, we’ve all been subjected to a barrage of celebrity sexual malfeasance, both in politics and entertainment, men are caught in truly heinous instances of sexual abuse and harassment. It appears that nothing has changed about men’s awful behavior, but more women are now emboldened by their sisters, and the media, to come forward and name their abusers.
We can choose to hang a political/ideological banner on some of these acts, or we can choose to play a self-righteous “traditional virtue” card on others. Whichever fits, we’ll use it to blame those disgusting Republicans or those disgusting Hollywood types. Unfortunately, the evidence tends to support that the same behavior exists everywhere – not just in these high-profile celebrity arenas.
One of these recent revelations, involving comedian Louis C.K., is slightly different. C.K. did not attempt to deny the accusations, but instead wrote a letter of apology– saying he “asked” for consent from each of his accusers. This highlights a salient feature of civilization going back thousands of years: established patriarchal power relationships. C.K. wielded power over these women, as a prospective employer, or key to their future careers in comedy. He flagrantly abused that power to humiliate and demoralize the women. Patriarchy is bigger and runs deeper than any of us is aware – even such an astute observer of the human condition as Louis C.K. 
An Orgy of Self-Examination

Any “feminist manifesto” needs all the help it can get to begin manifesting change in the culture. If you’re a man, it’s admirable for you to join the fight, but ultimately, you must own the culture. You are a beneficiary of patriarchy as much as women are victims.
Many of us have been indulging in an orgy of self-examination lately. Will any good come from this? Honesty about physical attraction is good, since physical attraction tends to perpetuate the species. But, we also have egos. We all seek, to varying degrees, what psychologists call “narcissistic supply.” Some of us never seem to get enough. And, it’s often collected in a setting of power over the opposite sex – partners, employees, students, people we meet randomly.
We flirt. We flirt when we are single, looking for a mate. We flirt when we are married, thinking we can get away with it. We flirt to test whether we can obtain consent (even if we don’t pursue it). And, we hope we can still justify our behavior to ourselves when the flirtation ends. We do it because it’s fun. We play the game because there is some chance of reward – if we’re good at it. If we’re good at it, the object of our flirting will also feel good.  The narcissistic supply flows in both directions, we tell ourselves.
But, does it? One of the most insidious aspects of patriarchy is that power relationships between men (the aggressors) and women (the victims) make resistance impossible in many cases. Consent cannot be reasonably given when the initiator and recipient of the exchange inhabit very different power positions. It’s easy to determine consent between two people with power differential near zero. They are free actors. Not so much between superior and subordinate, between star and aspiring entertainer (Louis C.K. case), between customer and server. All these unequal power relationships can transform flirtation into harassment. Large age disparity is another unequal power dynamic (Judge Roy Moore and his teen-age “dates”). Even among peers in an office environment, the requirement to always smile and be kind to your coworkers is an imposition of power relations in the workplace.
That Libido

Our libido makes us choose what feels good. Narcissism makes us insensitive to how our actions cause someone else to feel bad. And, an unequal power relationship may prevent an honest answer about how a flirtatious advance makes the recipient feel.
Not everybody is equally narcissistic. Some people are saints. But, look who we elected President. Narcissists often appeal to us. They can relieve us of responsibility for our response. Flirting takes advantage of this – we can “play along” with an advance rather than anxiously guessing about intentions, because we have no expectations. We relax and enjoy the attention!
Flirtingwas invented as a socially acceptable way of expressing physical attraction for another. But, whether it is acceptable to the recipient of an advance is another matter. Most people, including his victims, would not consider Louis C.K.’s advances socially acceptable. But, what could they say to him? Would they shrug it off? Would they pretend to be amused? Flattered? How would they hide their shame?
But, some flirting clearly DOES make the recipient feel good, doesn’t it? Aren’t we all susceptible to flattery? Doesn’t it feel good to be the subject of attention from an attractive member of the opposite sex (or same sex, depending on your orientation)? What about attention from someone you’ve always admired? What about that flirting game? The jockeying for dominance between two people in not obviously different power positions can be a source of amusement — like any competition against a worthy opponent. Superior social skills, correctly guessing the other’s intentions, before they guess yours, give you an advantage. And, it’s not necessarily a preordained advantage based on patriarchal rules. “Toxic masculinity” is usually a disadvantage in this game, but there is also the risk of being subjected to “slut shaming” by peers.
Courage is needed to withdraw from a flirting game that turns abusive. It won’t do you any good to continue playing as if it’s still an innocent diversion, when it turns into harassment – as it often does. Standards of public decency supposedly make it easier to withdraw from some situations, but the aggressor may know this, and use outward appearances of innocence to his advantage. Clearly those standards did not work to extricate Louis C.K.’s accusers.
Eyes of the Beholder

If flirting becomes harassment, or cheating, it is usually in the eyes of the beholder. It is harassment if the victim feels diminished, or shamed. It is cheating if the victim is a third party – a spouse/partner. The interpretation of flirting as cheating depends, again, on the power relationship between the flirting partner and the apparent victim partner. The victimized partner may call out the other’s actions as cheating, or suffer silently, building resentment as the aggressor partner persists in the behavior – much as the victim of harassment feels diminished, but can’t complain because of unequal power distribution. There could be another approach, of course — acceptance and mutuality. If each partner understands the other’s personality, and both engage in the same kind of behavior, mutual acceptance could result. That may work in cases of relatively low power differential between the two partners. If not, best to modify your behavior, and stop flirting!
Finger-pointing is common among partners when it comes to flirting. But, it’s worthwhile to remember that self-righteous accusations and distrust reveal one’s own narcissism. Usually, the more outgoing partner is likely to be on top in the power differential. The more introverted partner will not be as successful at flirting. This may cause envy more than jealousy. Which end of the narcissistic power balance are you on? Are you “the greatest,” or the “worthless piece of crap”?
Don’t Hide

All flirting, if it is ever benevolent, as opposed to malevolent, relies on some degree of honesty. While true that overt intentions are purposely hidden in the flirtatious exchange, it’s important that the initiator and responder both come to an agreement – eventually – about what is happening. Flirting should not be hidden forever. Of course, the flirtatious relationship will come to an end when the “truth” is revealed. This is the way it’s meant to be. It may end when the spouse finds out. It may end when one party to the flirtation finds they are no longer collecting their “narcissistic supply” from the relationship. It may end when it just gets too uncomfortable for either party to continue – when they cannot deal with the honesty required! This is the inherent risk of all flirtatious relationships. They must end sometime. When flirting while single, the hope is that the relationship will lead to a deeper partnership – the flirtation may transform into a marriage. When flirting while married, the hope is that it is ended responsibly, before any damage to the marriage occurs. When flirting from grossly unequal power positions, the hope is that both parties can still respect each other, and themselves, when the relationship ends.
When the “truth” of the flirtation becomes known to both (all three) parties, and they are honest with themselves, some self-examination of motivations may be in order. There’s never anything wrong with learning about yourself. Apologies may also be in order – these should be honest, too.
But, flirting is way too common, and life too short, to flail yourself forever because you didn’t handle the denouement as adroitly as you might have.

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