What Ever Happened to Flirting?

By assuming that any approach is malign unless proven otherwise, we lose something potentially risky—but also potentially wonderful.

The #MeToo movement has performed a true service by revealing both gross workplace offenses and all-too-common forms of sexual harassment. But I’m increasingly concerned that the dominant discourse about sex now sends young women the message that their lives will forever remain fenced in by the workings of abusive male power; that men as a category are unable to keep their hands or eyes or inappropriate words off them; and that to make their way in the world will require constant vigilance against criminally desirous men.

When the entire gamut of male attention becomes suspect, the narrative of male rapacity distends beyond what is truly objectionable. This harms and diminishes both women and men, turning each into caricatures: women as perpetual victims, men as perpetual perpetrators.

The freedom to speak openly about disturbing or unwanted sexual experiences has been one of #MeToo’s good and important legacies. The compulsion to share all instances of male interest, as if all of it were terrible and unwanted, is a bad one. This second impulse fails to capture or acknowledge how ambiguous and complicated sexual relations are, and it dismisses wholesale the idea of female desire.

Indeed, as the many women craving touch after over a year of lockdowns can tell you, the question of sexual attention is far muddier than #MeToo discourse would suggest. It’s time to recognize female desire and put it back into the picture.

Britain has recently been shaken by a school sex scandal, with over 15,000 allegations made against boys at schools across the country in an anonymous online forum. The allegations included non-consensual sharing of nude photos and instances of assault. Soma Sara, the founder of the Everyone’s Invited website—the forum in which many of the allegations were made—took a clear lesson from these incidents: The website, she wrote, is documenting a “universal problem—it’s everywhere, in all schools, all universities and all of society.”

In the 1990s, I was at an elite high school in Britain of the sort now being denounced, and since the scandal broke I’ve talked to many of my former classmates. We remember hankering after, and sometimes dating or hooking up with, boys. But being sexually harassed or made afraid of them? Not a single one of us remembers anything like that. If anything, the boys were scared of us. Not only have I searched my memory, I’ve also been re-reading my diaries from back then, and they’re packed with a kind of boy-related anger and misery that would seem strange and possibly offensive to the likes of Soma Sara. I was angry not because I was receiving unwanted sexual attention, but because I was getting none at all. 

Is it possible my friends and I are in denial about what we experienced? I don’t think so. Is it possible that boys in the 1990s were kinder and gentler? Highly unlikely. I am not for a minute denying the bad things done to women by men. But I am saying both sexes, especially when people are young and inexperienced, can fumble towards each other with a combination of awkwardness, desire, and trepidation that is also universal. We lose something potentially risky, but also potentially wonderful, when we assume any approach is malign unless proven otherwise.

In a 2018 article for The Atlantic, Kate Julian set out to investigate “Why Young People [Are] Having So Little Sex.” In it, she describes how she and her now-husband met while riding the elevator at work. When she told this story to the young, single people she was interviewing, she writes, “I was fascinated by the extent to which this prompted other women to sigh and say that they’d just love to meet someone that way. And yet quite a few of them suggested that if a random guy started talking to them in an elevator, they would be weirded out. ‘Creeper! Get away from me,’ one woman imagined thinking.”

Young men have gotten the message. Julian describes the romantic experiences of a young man she calls Simon who told her that “his parents had met in a chorus a few years after college, but he couldn’t see himself pulling off something similar. ‘I play volleyball,’ he added. ‘I had somebody on the volleyball team two years ago who I thought was cute, and we’d been playing together for a while.’ Simon wanted to ask her out, but ultimately concluded that this would be ‘incredibly awkward,’ even ‘boorish.’”

Today, anybody who owns up to the fact that the audacious flirt, the yearning look, and indeed the male gaze full stop can be a source of pleasure and reinforcement for many straight women runs the risk of sounding like an apologist for misogyny and “rape culture.” But there are many women who aren’t constantly harassed, who indeed feel too invisible to men. Confronted with story after story about yet another encounter, exchange, or meeting ending in inappropriate attention or a sexual proposition, these less sexually visible women can feel downtrodden by the current dominance of a vaunted parade of endless, unwanted lewdness.

Women who are plain, overweight, older, disabled, or endowed with some other attribute that many men consider undesirable may struggle to find sexual attention at all. And yet, women’s libidos are, as in-depth studies have shown, omnivorous, and female sexual frustration is real. The nagging misery of women who struggle to find suitable men to date or have sex with is therefore also real. 

There was a moving piece in The New York Times in 2016 titled “Longing for the Male Gaze,” by Jennifer Bartlett, who has cerebral palsy with some impairment to her gait and speech. Bartlett wrote that being looked at in a sexual way was alien to her. She had never been harassed in college or at work. And on the street and in bars, having attracted pity, anxiety, or avoidance, she would much prefer to be stared at with desire: “Am I blessed to be sexually invisible and given a reprieve from something that has troubled women for centuries? It certainly does not feel that way … I like it when men look at me,” she concluded. “It feels empowering. Frankly, it makes me feel like I’m not being excluded.”

She is not the only one. Humans live to look at each other. So let’s not lose sight of the fact that, while the male gaze has the power to discomfit, it also has the potential to arouse and delight.

Zoe Strimpel is a historian, journalist, author, and commentator based in London.