The Fearful and Wonderful Art of Flirting
Seven Warnings for the Digital Age
One of the weirdest, most enchanting, and most delicate gifts God has given us is the gift of flirtation.
Flirting gets expressed in a million different customizable ways as a key part of romantic bonding. Its potency is found in how subtly we communicate availability and interest. This force has been in play at least since Isaac and Rebekah were caught “laughing” together (Genesis 26:8), a type of “laughing” that was of course far beyond simple spicy talk (ahem). But flirting was apparently part of it.
If we rewind all the way back to the beginning of time, perhaps the first human interaction began with an awkward silence, a head-to-toe curiosity of the other, and then a flirtatious moment between Adam and Eve?
I’m guessing here, but whenever it first started, flirting seems to be a primal phenomenon in human relationships and sexuality. But with the rise of digital technology, flirting also becomes more blunt, more convenient, and often more misleading and confusing.
“The fun of flirting is that you are never sure what it means,” writes one modern author. Except we do. Flirting is fun and playful, but it’s anything but meaningless. Flirtation is a gesture of sexual availability. It is a way to say that I am not sexually available to another. Learning when and where to appropriately signal sexual availability is at the heart of ancient concerns faced by the earliest church leaders (see the head-covering controversy in Corinth, according to Winter).
Flirting is not to be confused with sexual consent or sexual immediacy; it’s merely a sign of sexual availability (as in: single and looking). And the act of flirting can be as simple as a comment or facial expression to signal your attraction to a member of the opposite sex. It could be the batting of eyelashes, the passing of a folded note, or the use of a pickup line.
“In the digital age, flirting has become more blunt, more convenient, and often more misleading and confusing.”
Except in the cases of serial “players” who make a quick mockery of true romance, flirting signals exclusivity. It would be disingenuous to flirt with two people at the same time. And because of its power to lock on to one other person, it naturally finds a home in the magic of early attraction between singles, leading to a dating relationship, which carries at least some potential for a marriage covenant.
To flirt is to tantalize another with your attention and tease with future possibility. Ideally, this play continues over time. Long after the wedding day, flirting maintains a healthy sense of play between a couple. The giggling of Isaac and Rebekah is a flirting most beautiful within the frolicking of marriage — a special blessing of a covenant bond, generating a unique laughter that signals to each other, and to the world, an exclusive love.
While couples are apart, they find remote ways to flirt, such as sending texts and hiding notes. I was reminded of this recently when a colleague of mine opened his lunch bag and accidentally dropped a note from his wife on the break room floor. It was a rare opportunity to make the colleague blush with embarrassment. But it was also a beautiful moment, because the spicy note was made incredibly discrete through an encrypted code — specially coined terms and metaphors and nicknames of affection with meanings only fully known to him and his wife.
Over time couples create their own complex lexicon of terms and phrases and nicknames, subtle metaphors with not-so-subtle meanings, that can only be decoded by one another. It’s a beautiful example of flirtatious play within marriage.
Flirting with Disaster
Sadly, the beauty of flirtatious play in marriage contrasts the ugliness of selfish flirting among those who are not sexually available. The flirtations of a married man with a woman not his wife is contrary to his covenant promise, and his flirtation is destructive. It makes signals where intentions do not (or should not) follow. It can also become manipulative, a vain giving of temporary attention in order to lead another along a forbidden path into sexual sin.
The playfulness of flirting goes wrong in serial flirting, when these types of advances are the only way an immature man knows how to interact with women, or vice versa.
Just as beautiful flirting has been around for millennia, so too has been the twisted form of flirting, long before Pepys recorded his ongoing philandering with his wife’s chambermaid. But for some reason, the digital age tempts us to say things we would never have the opportunity to say otherwise, like in this recent Facebook comment and discussion.
On the contrary, a single woman has a better “read” on what type of digital comments on Twitter are appropriate from a man. More on that in a moment.
But back to the digital dalliances of this married man. Any married man who thinks his online flirtation with other women will not be found out is a fool. Hopefully the man in this case is confronted soon, because adulterous flirtation, even if it’s a fantasy in his own twisted brain, needs to be killed for the sake of his own soul and marriage and family. His flirtations are robbery; stolen attention from the woman God has given him. He is flirting with disaster.
Mentioned above was a flirtatious pastor, and although I wish the theme of flirting pastors was one we didn’t have to address, we do. And in the unfortunate subject, there’s a lesson for us all.
When one notable pastor was caught in adultery (allegedly with two different women), one of the women spoke out about the role of social media.
This pastor targeted certain women on Twitter. “He had a ‘type,’” she writes, looking back. “Usually athletic, often long blonde hair, spiritually inclined, fans of ‘grace,’ and emotionally vulnerable enough to share their worst secrets with him.” He would respond to women in public. To some it looked harmless. To her, “it was obvious, simply from looking at his Twitter feed, that he was flirting with another woman. He would often tweet song lyrics for me and other women.” From messages in public, the pastor would eventually move his flirtations over to private texts and then personal meetings.
“Opportunities to connect are limitless, and the etiquette for digital flirting is more and more vague.”
Social media normalizes voyeurism and makes it possible to stare at pictures of attractive people. On social media, perhaps flirtations begin with studying a woman’s picture. She follows you on Twitter or Facebook, or she makes a kind comment. Her interest in you sparks in you a kind of curiosity in her images. You open her profile picture and study it. Your eyes linger on her profile longer than they should. You go to her Facebook or Instagram feed and you scroll for more images. Maybe she has a boyfriend or a husband, but it doesn’t matter. You respond. Maybe it begins with a follow back. And then maybe a direct message, or a text, or an otherwise obscure comment in public, or even something more private.
It’s not hard to imagine how it begins. Soon enough, digital flirting leads to private conversations where you share your dreams and disappointments, your hopes and longings. Soon enough two smartphones have carved out a private space — now you’re on a digital date — and nobody else knows.
Earlier we met a single woman who was disturbed by a pastor’s activity online. She has a good vantage point because living the single life in the digital age quickly makes one an expert in picking up on e-flirting.
Single women, if you are part of a church and you think your pastor is acting in a way inappropriate with other women in the church, do not shrug this off, but ask questions privately.
I say this because single women are more expert in the methods of flirting than probably anyone, and by necessity. Apps like Tinder render a first move toward flirting as simple as touching an image and swiping right or left, to show interest or to ignore.
On one hand, flirting in the digital age is unspeakably bold and disturbing. As journalist Nancy Jo Sales has documented in her book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, it has become commonplace for teen girls to be texted or snapped an unsolicited nude image of a teen boy as an act to initiate romantic interest, as if to say, “I like you, and to prove it, here’s a picture of my boyhood.” And the activity is not isolated to youth.
On the other hand, flirting in the digital age has become incredibly subtle, now an extension of what can be read into what someone else clicks or likes or retweets. Does a “heart” on my Instagram image signal romantic attraction?
Singles face more subtle forms of flirting that we didn’t have to deal with a decade ago.
Did Facebook Kill Dating?
I asked pastor Matt Chandler: How has technology changed dating? For the better and worse, he said. First, between a man and woman who are serious about one another, technology is a hugely beneficial way to facilitate even long-distance relationships. And even at the beginning, when the relationship is being defined, what better way than to “call on” a potential suitor initially than through texting? Texts, used wisely, can create an incredibly deep and authentic way to communicate.
But for two people not in a committed relationship, Facebook poses several challenges, Chandler said. “The convenience of texting or tweeting or writing on someone’s Facebook wall enables you to flirt and tease without ever having a ‘what-exactly-is-this-relationship’ moment. And so in that regard, when you have not established what the relationship is, I think it can be hurtful to constantly be involved in the technological realm, rather than the face-to-face realm.”
Chandler sees this trend in his church. “I see a lot of our young women at The Village Church get teased by guys who simply like every Facebook post of theirs, or constantly text the young woman, without ever having defined the relationship.”
“For all its potential dangers, flirtation is a gift from God worth celebrating, protecting, and mastering.”
In these days of nudes and likes, the art of flirting has changed a lot since Victorian men “called on” a woman by dropping by her parent’s parlor in hopes of fifteen minutes of witty conversation, all carefully bounded by heavily dressed etiquette and cultural protocol. But with every new social media platform and the ubiquity of smartphones, opportunities to connect are limitless, and the etiquette for digital flirting becomes more and more vague.
Stop Flirting with Sin
To flirt is to tantalize others with your attention and to tease them with possibility, and that means flirting can become anything between the beautiful play of initial interest, foolish misleading of another, or even paving a path of sexual self-destruction. Like all good gifts, we must flirt wisely.
Blanket digital prohibitions are not the solution. In agreement with Samuel James, commanding married men and women to stop texting or Facebook-following or Instagram-liking each other is not a fix. We must learn to live and love among brothers and sisters, offline and online. This will magnify the heart issues for us to consider as we pursue purity before God.
If you only know how to engage the opposite sex with flirtation, grow up. Seriously. It’s time to learn that souls are eternal, time is short, and you have opportunities to speak grace into the gospel-needing, grace-deficient people around you, no matter their physical attraction or sexual availability to you. That will always be a secondary issue.
Flirting is not child’s play; flirting is the play of wisdom. I can explain with a purposeful exaggeration. “Every flirtation is a marriage,” said G. K. Chesterton. “It is a marriage in this frightful sense; that it is irrevocable.” To flirt and to wed are not disconnected realities, as our culture seems to assume. A flirt (to you alone I now give my attention) echoes in a future vow (to you alone I give my life). And what Chesterton is saying here is that once you offer a flirt to someone of the opposite sex, it cannot be taken back; it pushes toward the next step. Now, to “flirt with” someone (or something) has at its essence a “trying out” — and Christian singles need to be encouraged to meet multiple potential spouses over time. But this reality also makes flirting tricky for single Christians (in signaling sexual availability, but withholding sexual immediacy). Thus, if flirting sounds only whimsical, it’s not. Advances linger. Words and winks of exclusive affection are potent with force, meaning, and innuendo that cannot be taken back, and will long endure in the minds of others. Chesterton knew this side to the play. All flirting is some form of fore-play, and when fueled over time it must lead toward the “laughter” of physical oneness. If you intend to remain pure, the manner of your flirting before marriage must be wise.
If you are single, and you dote on the pages of singles of the opposite sex, every interaction, like, favorite, or share speaks something subtle to them and to others who see your patterns of behavior. In your clicks, be vigilant not to leave the wrong impression. If you are interested in someone, let him or her know. Be open and upfront. Define the relationship. Let your relationship status be made clear on your Facebook profile. If it’s not ambiguous, don’t leave it ambiguous.
Obviously, if you are married, and you are taking advantage of digital technology to cultivate a flirtatious relationship with someone else online, either through email, texting, Snapchat, direct messaging, or other digital media, end it immediately, and repent of the emotional adultery in your heart, and be broken over your willingness to lead another into sin. How little do you care for an eternal soul that you would turn the impression that you are sexually available into a plaything, when God clearly forbids the sin for both of you?
If you’re a pastor, or aspire to pastoral ministry, and you find yourself helplessly addicted to the thrill of flirting with various women, and you find yourself feeding off the attention that attractive women give you back, you are no longer qualified for the work (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Please take steps now to leave pastoral work before you’re given a stage, a pulpit, and a chance to wreck a local church. You will see your addiction here in your flirting, long before it becomes apparent to others. Be honest with yourself, and care for your future congregants now before they find out, and you leave a heartbroken church to fix a trail of busted-up families while you try to salvage your own.
Your flirting patterns reveal a lot about you. A man who flirts with multiple women, giving them all the sense that his attention is on each of them, is a man with all his attention on himself. He is self-absorbed. A woman who flirts with multiple men simultaneously is lacking self-worth. She too is self-absorbed by her giving of attention. The philandering man and the vamping woman are both acting from selfish motives.
Master the Art of Flirtation
Yet for all its potential dangers, flirtation is a gift from God worth celebrating, protecting, and mastering. God created it for a beautiful purpose, to build one woman and one man together into a marriage union to mimic the Son’s bliss in his bride. It is a gift for this age only, yes. But if God intends for you to marry, make flirting with your husband or wife an art. Invest in it. Send handwritten notes in lunches. Use the digital gifts of technology and send discreet texts. Create your own emoji combinations that only your lover can decode. Draw from the encrypted language of your shared intimacy, and connect with your spouse throughout the day.
Flirtation, like all of human love and sexuality, is a glorious mystery full of profound potential. May God give us wisdom to wield the gift wisely with the aim of experiencing every wonderful, explosive joy possible in our marriages.