Is Flirting a Victim of the New Sexual Campaign?

Amrita Narayanan is a Goa-based psychotherapist and writer
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Responsible pleasures

ON HOLI MORNING, I traipse, along with my daughters, a hundred or so metres to the adjoining apartment, where our new neighbours have invited us to a yard party. We are greeted with warm, gentle caresses of natural, rose-scented, turmeric to our faces; the party invitation read ‘natural dyes only’. Conversation is slow like the late morning sun, and it drifts inevitably to the subject of the ‘Delhi incident’ in which earlier that morning a man flung a semen-filled balloon as part of his Holi festivities. Someone sighs and exclaims how happy she is to live here in Goa, where the playing of Holi among strangers in public spaces is virtually unheard of. Someone else chimes in saying what a huge relief this is and how lucky we are to be with our children at a Holi party where we can all have fun in a safe way.

As talk dwindles to the minimum, food is passed around and everyone seems resplendent in their own world, I look up and a man catches my eye. We exchange a fleeting smile but no words pass between us. I find myself also echoing the relief that the group has named: the relief of total safety, the absence of the tension of desiring (palliated by the oral pleasures of dahi puri and thandai), and the satisfying notion that the children are safe (children also being a metaphor for our vulnerable selves). Yet, while the experience was pleasant, it was also tinged with loss. Having grown up in Tamil Nadu, Holi was not part of my childhood, but I experienced a nostalgia nevertheless for a missed flirtation with danger.

Historically, Holi was about a moment and milieu that symbolised the existence of desire across social boundaries and institutional lines of marriage, caste and class, allowing everyone—particularly those otherwise disallowed—to explore the transgressive and even aggressive nature of their desire on a single day. Humanity is perhaps now too knowledgeable about the contemporary history of violence to have a day on which free rein can be given to aggressive desire. The Holi party I attended, a kind of Holi-light, made safe by carefully chosen culturally homogenous invitees, acknowledges implicitly that if any form of sanction was given to aggressive desire, it would come at someone’s expense. Yet, cordoned off from public spaces and enjoyed ‘safely’, Holi loses some of its symbolic oomph, not to mention its communitarian spirit, the way in which it used to allow, on that day, a free flow of desire across the usually rigid lines of gender, age, class, caste, occupation and physical handicap.

I’m not suggesting we recreate the Holi of yesterday. Rather, I’m suggesting that its disappearance should warn us of our beckoning global destiny as liberal adults. In this global destiny, as we fight gender violence, establish a culture of consent surrounding sexuality, and root out harassment, it seems we have to dampen our knowledge of and wish for the unpredictable nature of desire in order to enjoy the benefits of safety.

Recently, in Kolkata, at a psychoanalytic conference entitled ‘Women and Safety in Dogmatic Times’, I chatted over a coffee with Jadavpur University English Professor Supriya Chaudhuri on paying compliments as a form of flirting. Often the starting point of a flirt, the compliment becomes a problem when it stokes the inevitable power equations present between gender and economic lines. Chaudhuri reminded me that during the #metoo movement, many women spoke up about how something they once saw as a compliment later appeared as the beginning of abuse-of-power.

Chaudhuri seemed to suggest that for women, compliments have become untrustworthy: it might be difficult to read the narrative of love and desire into a compliment when the narrative of abuse and power is writ so large in our consciousness. Yet, embracing safety alone would be a solution to violence that involved a significant loss: a life that is safe, and comfortable is always missing something (that something being a taste of the varied, vast and heterogeneous nature of desire).

To continue the fight against harassment while protecting Eros, I would like to make a case for the protection of flirting in a communitarian space. That is, for flirtation that happens publicly and across societally established lines.

Flirting creatively and in a communitarian spirit resurrects kama without dismissing the gains of #metoo. It does the trick because it resists violence but is tricky in that it resists also the seduction of a safe world

Flirting creatively and in a communitarian spirit resurrects kama without dismissing the gains of #metoo. It does the trick, as it were, because it resists violence but is tricky in that it resists also the seduction of a safe world in which Eros is thoroughly controlled by the social order (even Holi, after all, is underwritten by the control of Eros over the rest of the year). So the purpose of my essay is to ask what would be required for flirting to thrive; or to ask what else we must stay open to when we stay open to flirting.

Symbolic over Literal Conquest

Human flirting has a parallel in the animal world; it is akin to the behavioural displays many animals engage in to signal desire, but its unique quality is that it resists closure. Flirting is about the pleasure of partial satisfied desire. It is a form of desirous play, whose unsaid agreement is that both people can have a taste of what they desire as long as everyone involved can be counted upon to resist making the symbolic concrete; arousal can be enjoyed at the level of potential, taste and levity without devolving into a violent pursuit of the satisfaction of desire. The purpose of flirtation, as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips quips, “is of being promising rather than making a promise”.

By contrast, sexual violence, perhaps the single biggest deterrent to flirting, is based on the idea that the fact of being promising entails a promise, which can be claimed (generally by a man in a position of power).

Flirting has both safety and consent built into it. Indeed the fun of it is that it is mutual, yet there is some danger left: the zone of flirtation is an approaching of—while still resisting— the dangerous wish of desire satisfaction; the flirt risks something in demonstrating desire; when two people flirt in a public space, they risk also the potential judgement of the social gaze upon them. The two emotions here that have the potential to overwhelm are desire and shame. If desire or shame becomes overwhelming, then the symbolic erotic overture in the form of a leaning-in (an act of flirtation) is experienced as excessively concrete , it becomes at someone’s expense.

Masculinity must be flexible

For flirting to become safe, masculinity must not feel threatened by playfulness that resists concrete physicality. In public space flirting, we must acknowledge that public space has been, so far, a power scene that favours men. The single most important variable that makes public spaces unsafe for flirting is the idea that men will fail to keep the symbolic contract of flirting, and insist, violently, that they are entitled to sex.

A masculinity that feels under threat when flirtation does not lead to sex has an underlying fragility to it. As the psychoanalytic thinker and English Professor Jacqueline Rose wrote in London Review of Books (February 2018): ‘These men may hold power but they do what they do precisely because they are anything but cocksure.’ Men who feel entitled to sex as soon as they are aroused suffer from a helplessness in the face of their arousal; when aroused they are at pains to immediately discharge their desire, even if coercion is necessary. Entitlement to sex, particularly when backed by any other form of power, physical, financial or otherwise, is what makes such men dangerous.

Flirtation of course knows that cock-surity is a fallacy: by its very nature, flirtation is both playful and unsure. To have a cock that is not sure in a culture that defines masculinity as phallic (meaning always erect) would mean that the truthful fragility of sexual desire currently borne only by women (‘No thanks, dear, I have a headache’ always a female attribution) is shared equally by both genders.

In flirting gone wrong, the beauty of it, which lies in the fact that it stokes the fragility of human desire, gets re-labelled as a form of sadism on the part of the woman

In flirting gone wrong, the beauty of it, which lies in the fact that it stokes the fragility of human desire, gets re-labelled as a form of sadism on the part of the woman. It’s an attribution best captured in the misogynist title ‘tease’ (‘A person who makes fun of someone playfully or unkindly’ as Oxford English Dictionary has it). The charge of ‘tease’ is levied upon a woman by a man who has turned angry during arousal; that man experiences the promise of arousal as the woman’s sadistic failure to keep promises; he is insulted and this becomes his justification for the violent satisfaction of his desires. The sadistic version of flirtation is based on the idea that men are entitled to, promised, that which was made promising. It suggests that men are unable to bear arousal without saying, ‘Fuck it’ (in the dual meaning of hang the consequences as well as maximally and violently going for the object of desire).

Flirting and public safety

Unlike a private space in which the sex act typically unfolds, flirtation’s uniqueness is that it is often in public. Yet, we never speak about protecting flirtation when we speak about preventing violence: flirtation may have become a casualty of the hyper- vigilance we—particularly women—have developed towards violence. It is a reflection of our collective sadness and desperation in the face of violence and lack of public safety for women, that we have been willing to sacrifice flirting for safety.

However, the most idealistic thinkers in the women’s movement have continually asserted that public safety for women is a need that ought to serve the interest of pleasure and freedom, rather than order and control. ‘Pleasure is an unknown quantity which undermines the very possibility of order and control,’ writes IIT Mumbai Professor Shilpa Phadke, whose famous Gender and Space project determined that the freedom to loiter in public spaces was essential for the women’s movement to flourish.

The idea that pleasure exists outside the boundaries of order and control dovetails well with the seemingly paradoxical one that we demand an end to gender harassment while simultaneously acknowledging that women desire to desire. Following both, I argue that without the possibility of spontaneous flirtation, our hard-won public safety would feel sterile; conversely, regular public flirting that subverts rather than reinforces power lines would signal a communitarian ethos in which Eros has not been sacrificed for safety but which nonetheless does not tolerate violence. With its focus on a symbolic rather than literal transaction, risk but not threat, levity but not gravity, flirting allows us the possibility of Eros at a time in history where the power play of men over women and rich over poor (amongst others) has given Eros a bad name. If communitarian values like public safety uphold the promise of flirtation, then in the community space, flirting can be a moment where two flirts can promote the risks of intimacy without the risk of violence. Playful flirtation across the lines of gender, caste, age, disability, religion and class (‘playful’ means there is no threat of violence) could protest the idea that all Eros involves harassment.

Public Space Empathy

Many years ago, I took a traffic safety class in which the instructor described driving as a social experience, one in which people both follow and at times transgress the rules of the social order. It seemed an idea that was particularly true of traffic in India, which offers only a few guaranteed laws and depends on sociability even more than in other countries. The lesson of traffic should be that we are all equal, with equal needs and desires to get somewhere, but it very often turns out to be a milieu in which some needs are more than others, and these entitlements or needs tend to centre around class, gender and power (think of the SUV that cuts off the small rickshaw, or the other SUV that slows down for a beautiful woman to cross but ignores the lower-class man).

What heterogeneous flirting has in common with traffic is that it is a public-space experience that requires many serious skills, of which empathy for the other is perhaps most critical. Flirtation resists violence via a form of body empathy that communicates the intention of the act: to play but not to consummate. Sexual entitlement, by contrast, reflects an enormous lacuna in body empathy, which allows the perpetrator to ruthlessly ignore the resistance of the other in the consummation of personal desire.

Writing on the sex positive movement in London Review of Books (March 2018), Philosophy Professor Amia Srinivasan muses: ‘Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic: it is instead merely wanted or unwanted.’ What Srinivasan seems to be suggesting is that allowing for the fact that desire is surprising, and emerges in unlikely places, requires a close attunement to the possibilities of mutuality. For flirting to resist violence, flirts have to resist narcissism, choosing instead to tune in and stay tuned in to the other person to know if the wish continues to be mutual. After flirtation begins, at any stage the territories of an exciting and pleasurable brush with the danger of desire can overlap or devolve into an over-stimulating fear, emotional discomfort or terror of actual corporeal danger. The heart beating faster with butterflies of desire is on the same continuum as the heart-racing fearful to sprint away from an unwanted pursuit of desire.

When the territories of pleasurable desire and terrible unwanted pursuit can overlap in a matter of seconds, the only way to keep the other person safe is to stay tuned to their responses, to resist being cocksure. The antidote to harassment is intimacy, a kind of closeness that allows you to know, and care, instinctively, whether you have pleasured, frightened or threatened the person you are flirting with. Once aware of having been threatening, sympathy and apology for that aggression can also make the world safe for further flirting.