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by Zettel 

Posted: 02 October 2004
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When did we let the important little things go? Was there a debate and a vote? I must have been away - no one asked me. When did a teacher comforting a distressed child with an arm on the shoulder first become a shameful sexual overture? When did a smiled 'good morning' to a stranger in the street first elicit a scowl or a nervous quickening of step? When children used to splash and shriek with laughter in the sea and small persons of about 5 years old, bucket in hand, began their endless fiercely concentrated, delightfully pointless, endlessly iterative journeys back and forth; was every smiling, fascinated, watching man always a lurking paedophile? When did we first start telling our kids that if they got lost, they should only seek help from a policeman or a woman, never a man? To put it generally: was there a moment in time, a definitive event which marked the total sexualisation, (ugly word for an ugly thought), of our culture? Maybe it was about the time our bank managers swapped exhorting thrift and financial prudence in favour of selling profligacy and debt. Economically: gotta buy, so gotta sell and nothing sells like sex.

As a bear of very little brain, these go in the 'too hard' box for me, so I just want to mourn the loss of one little practice - flirting. And I should immediately point out that I do not mean what used to be called with a certain linguistic insouciance, 'chatting up'. I am sure that there is a more charmless, execrable neologism in current use for this perfectly legitimate undertaking. I suppose seriously trying to 'get off' with someone does not have quite the same mellifluous ring to it but I am sure you get my drift, even if in my case the objects of my exertions in this area seldom did: or at least pretended not to.

To clarify the subject of my nostalgia, I shall have to use some strange words: like innocence, spontaneity, playful, fun, and affection. First we must remark a curious logical feature of what we use these words to speak about: there is an essential 'givenness' about them - each we might say is a kind of gift. Let me show, not explain: " try to be more spontaneous"; "now, we are all going to have lots of fun"; "he has the innocence of a child"; "come on let's be playful"; "you should be more affectionate". These words all refer to a state of being, not something we bring about. A quality that behaviour displays, not one we can intentionally practice or develop. They cannot be pursued, commanded or demanded. We might say they express states of being not acts of doing. A bit like happiness.

Flirting, proper flirting, not concealed seduction, sexual insinuation or any form of manipulation, displays all these precious qualities. Flirting is to sexual gratification what skipping is to the Olympic Triple Jump or whistling the Archers theme tune in the bath is to a night at the opera, (though not 'A Night At The Opera' - closer). It is an art: sadly, perhaps an art that is dying out. There is a degree of equality and mutual respect between the sexes displayed in flirting seldom achieved when overt or repressed sexual desire is the underlying motivation. It can be the expression of delight in "la difference,"

The demands of sexual reductionism are tyrannical. Engendered by Freud (though to his eternal credit, rejected by Jung) and exploited ruthlessly by our rapacious, commercialised, sexualised culture, it leaves no 'space' for honest flirting to be innocently enjoyed. Just as our, in many ways, degenerate culture is robbing our children of their childhood, so it is denying us as adults, the possibility of spontaneity, playfulness, a sense of fun between the sexes. This robs our gender relationships of subtlety, nuance and genuine friendship. It is entirely consistent with this perspective that many women find it easier, i.e. safer, to establish genuine friendships with gay, rather than straight men. Only here is the implacable assumption of sexual design neutralised. Somewhere along the line we all bought in to the lie that all men are always on the make, and all women, at all times, in all circumstances, are under sexual threat.

I can hear now the justified, cries of feminine protest. Of course all the dreadful attitudes I am questioning exist: escalating rape, sexual exploitation and abuse of women, and tragically, children, testifies only too clearly to that. I deny none of this. What man could? I only deny that because something sometimes happens, it must always happen. To accept that principle is destructively self-fulfilling. If irresistible sexual gratification or physical domination of women by men is held to be a universal truth then this drives us into a vicious spiral of escalating fear and anxiety, separation and mutual distrust. Cumulatively this corrodes any possibility of increased understanding, mutual respect and enrichment of gender relationships. The $64,000 question: is this exclusively a men's problem? Or does it require courage, insight and reciprocal support by both sexes to the reverse the current inexorable downward spiral?

Some signs aren't good: at a recent public meeting I asked Germaine Greer the following question: "You have been using a distinction between masculinity and maleness all evening. Could you unpack a little, what you consider to be the difference?" She replied "masculinity is always a construct of social conditioning and pressure: maleness is biological genetic endowment." As a follow-up I posed "If that's true, then surely boys have to struggle against powerful social pressures in order to achieve their own healthy form of masculine gender identity in just the same way as girls?" Ms Greer's reply was "That's not my problem. Next question please." I think the mothers in the audience bringing up male children, found that as unsatisfactory an answer as I did.

There is surely, no serious progress to be made in relationships between the sexes unless it is accepted as a joint, not a one-sided problem; if for no other reason than that the issue is irreducibly, a relationship problem. And although I know it is a dangerous line of thought needing careful examination, can we ignore the fact that women as mothers, have an immensely powerful influence on their sons' gender attitudes?

Flirting is a learning process: it undeniably has a sexual element. It should have, as that way it does not seek to deny the reality of physical attraction. It is at its best a kind of gender 'dance', one of the vital ways that children and adults of different genders have in the past got to know something about one another without the weight of serious emotional commitment or actual sexual contact. Because of its potential for abuse, its decline may be seen from some feminine perspectives as a positive sign. I argue quite the reverse is the case. It is a very real form of connecting, especially and importantly, across age differences. It should be light, playful, insightful and fun.

Two questions to finish. First the 'Harry' question (from the film 'When Harry Met Sally'): can a man have a genuine friendship with a woman unless he has first been to bed with her? Answer: yes he just has to grow up a bit first. And perhaps the most perplexing question of all - to which I really do not know the answer: can men and a women respond to one another first as human beings, people; and only secondarily, however importantly, as of a particular gender? And if they can - do we want them to? Pass.


September 2004

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Comments by other Members

Account Closed at 08:05 on 03 October 2004  Report this post
Hi Zettel,
Very interesting subject. As the article is about flirting, I would have liked to have seen an example. If you're short of one, I can provide you with many - I live in France where flirting is definately not dead!

I think you introduce a lot of other subjects here - notably the issues of children, and in the first paragraph, I wondered how this related to flirting (at first, after I understood where you were going with it). Then you dismiss the heavier subjects in your second para. I'm not experienced enough to know if this is a good technique, I would just say that the heavy subject matter dampens the tone of flirting, which is essentially light.

In fact on reading on, perhaps the title is misleading - you are discussing the development/demise of m/f relationships - the loss of innocence and flirting with it.

Very thought provoking, though


Al T at 14:22 on 03 October 2004  Report this post
Z, you raise some very interesting points. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to address them in detail, so apologies for a possibly overly-superficial comment.

I lived in Italy for a year, and the guys there flirt as naturally as breathing; one knows not to take it seriously, and it can be fun. However in the UK, there is no such tradition, hence all the scope of mutual incomprehension.

Flirting is a minefield, and the potential for misunderstanding is huge. I long ago lost count of the number of times that I’ve been accused of flirting when I thought I was having a perfectly normal flirt-free conversation, and this is often followed by accusations of leading people on, which can make them very angry indeed. It has made me extremely wary.

Ms Misunderstood.

Zettel at 23:33 on 03 October 2004  Report this post
El and Ad

Thanks for your prompt comments. If I may I'd like to hold fire on responding at the moment as I'd like to see whether there are any other comments. Just one for now: this started in my mind as a light piece. It is very murky, even dangerous territory to try to dig deep. Unfortunately, philosophy is more a disease than a subject and to my own frustration and others' frequent boredom, when serious lines of thought open up, I am inacapable of resisting the temptation to try to run them down.

Assuming you are not bored with the piece etc by then, I'd like to comment later.



hsl at 23:42 on 03 October 2004  Report this post
Zettel - An excellent article, both full of insight and vigour. I think that the fundamental problem, particularly in the UK, is the breakdown of the traditional family unit and all that it entails. It is a consequence of both the disparate and fluid society of today and the erosion of an appropriate moral compass.

It would be interesting,nonetheless,to reflect upon comparisons with sexual mores in other cultures.Many of your assertions have considerable resonance in the developed world but would they be so applicable,I wonder,among Bantu tribesmen or the occupants of a Colombian shanty town? I have just read about the appalling events on Pitcairn Island,a tiny Brtish colony in the South Pacific,where a group of men have routinely raped and beaten their womenfolk,including little girls,through some twisted patrilineal right.Why did this situation persist over so many decades?Basically,because the men ruled through fear and because any vestige of conventional relationships,as we might understand them,incorporated this ritual abuse as part of the framework of a deeply repressive and closed society.

By contrast,we live in a very open society that,for all its fine qualities,has encouraged exclusiveness over inclusiveness.The truth is that family life,over and among generations,should set the standard for acceptable social conduct.Whether a grandfather dandles a child on his lap or male relations engage in somewhat boisterous activity,the family construct tends to act as a kind of bellwether and point of reference.

Alas,family life in that context is often passive and rooted.An inability to appreciate the distinction between closeness and intimacy has encouraged more active and peripatetic interpretations to take hold.Man,and for that matter woman,is by nature a social animal and it is unreasonable to expect people to walk around with their arms tied behind their backs.Emotion and feeling can sometimes be expressed in uncertain and surprising ways.

A good example of this was the collective outpouring of grief upon the death of the Princess of Wales.Obviously,her sudden demise was a shock but the histrionic wailing and gnashing that ensued was indicative of a need to embrace family in a wider context.I have to say it was completely over the top but I suspect numerous couplings,perhaps very ephemeral,emerged at that time.Who took advantage of whom and on what basis? Just don't ask Germaine Greer.


me at 15:10 on 04 October 2004  Report this post

I found it abhorant when reading this article to realise that this was the first time that I have heard publicly declared what we all know to be true. It is sad to say that flirting, in this country at any rate, is in sharp decline. This can only lead to further isolation of individuals and an increase in the casm being dug by feminists, the politically correct and the like between the sexes.

I fear that a great deal of this digging has been hastened with the growth of a very litigious cancerous sub-culture within our society. Everyone is cautious that actions may be misconstrued, sometimes intentionally, for personal or financial gain.

Whilst I do not condone any of the attrocious acts aforementioned and so often seen in the news, it has always been my firm belief that innocent playful sexual flirtation or indeed behaviour of any kind between conscenting adults is the greatest form of stress relief. Having lost an element of release such as this (ie, flirting) we have and are fueling the creation of a dangerous society who do not know how to genuinely interact.

I find this loss totally unacceptable especially when there is considered no problem with individuals throwing up in the street for all to see whilst others are burgled whilst sleeping in their beds.

I share your concerns


Al T at 16:37 on 04 October 2004  Report this post
Z, a short detour back to your piece. Colin, harassment is in the eye of the beholder, and one man’s “stress relief” can be another woman’s idea of threatening and abusive behaviour. An ever present chasm in life is that between what we think we are saying or doing, and how other people perceive those words or actions. Like TS Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, sometimes we have to say, “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.” But by then, the damage may have been done.

As for increased litigation, it is unfortunate that sometimes we must reach for the law to defend ourselves against those who are unwilling and/or unable to behave in a just and civilised manner, but until abusive behaviour ends (possibly when hell freezes over) I, for one, am grateful for legal protection.

One of the major themes of my novel, City of Dreams, is sex discrimination. I have experienced it myself, and it’s no laughing matter.

Okay, back to writing my book.


SamMorris at 12:39 on 05 October 2004  Report this post

I think you have tackled a very difficult subject very well. I thought this was a well balanced and interesting read. I think you have tapped into a larger issue of trust between people that we do not know so well. The style of this reminded me a little of Julie Burchill (not sure of the spelling), especially the first paragraph. The only possible problem I could see with this was the relatively aggressive tone. It worked for me, but only because for most of it I agree with you. Just a thought. Quality stuff as usual!


Richard Brown at 22:17 on 05 October 2004  Report this post
Very well written and thought-provoking. At the risk of plunging into content rather than form, I think there are some milestones along the road to the loss of innocence, one of which is the famous Thatcher remark about there being no such thing as society. Associated with this is the belief that the market is god. Anything goes as long as it makes money. How can there be flirting when children are seduced all the time by 'for profit' screen and magazine images which bring their precious time of innocence to a very premature end? Oh dear...Anyway, form! (of the piece I mean). I think it is good journalism because it stimulates thought and debate. I could see it in a broadsheet magazine in (as Sam points out) the Julie Burchill polemical style. I think, though, that for such a slot it would have to be lightened a little. It'll be interesting to see the re-worked version which you promise us.

Zettel at 23:10 on 06 October 2004  Report this post
This is a discussion that probably needs to find its way to a forum. However, if I may, a few comments on your very thoughtful and interesting responses. It's a bit long - but it will be my only response so perhaps you will indulge me. It is really several responses strung together.

A philosophical point first: I was trained within a tradition that says beware of the assumption that just because you have one word, you have one thing. So: it is clear from your very different responses that 'flirting' is, to use a famous example, not just one activity but a range of patterns of behaviour which though they may have many overlapping things in common, can be as different as they are alike. The famous philosophical example is a 'game'. Flirting also no doubt has very different forms in the very different societies within which it occurs.

Thus, I guess I was talking about flirting from a very British, even English perspective. I therefore don't agree Ad that there is no English tradition of flirting: indeed without the relative safety it provides I doubt whether many Englishmen could even talk to a woman at all in a 'between the sexes' kind of way. As for examples El, no I didn't want to give any because definitions are for science. I believe the diversity of human experience is in part a function of the marvellous open-endedness or 'raggedness' of language. If I had given an example, all the responses would have been about what I think instead of what you all think given a certain start point. And marvellously, you all go in slightly different and intriguing directions. Another 'difference' to celebrate.

El, it is true that flirting is light, in fact as I tried to say, when it loses its lightness it loses its special quality and becomes just a form of 'chatting up' or even seduction. But the more I thought about it the more I thought its decline was a rather striking symptom of a general decline in our gender relationships.

Howard, I think family relationships can be good and bad and very complex in their own right so I wouldn’t want to try to explain one complicated thing in terms of another. And all forms of 'reductionism' ain't my thing. If, as I would suggest, there is something very wrong about the way we bring up boys in our culture, it is within the context of the family that this usually occurs. It would be so simple if all the bad men were raised in bad, or no families - but that ain't it.

As for asking Germaine. I love her feistiness and off the wall intellect. But I was disappointed in her response because, though I often don't agree with her, I thought her response lacked seriousness. If we don't accept that problems in gender relationships are an 'us' problem rather than just say a male problem, I can only see things getting worse.

Sam - do you really think my piece 'aggressive' ? That really bothers me. And I have to say Julie B, who I think is aggressive is a less than comfortable comparison for me. Colin, yes the chasm is dangerous but just as men are not solely responsible for the breakdown in trust, nor are 'feminists' (there's that philosophical danger again: one word, very different people).

To sum up: thanks all for your thoughts and comments. I think I had two key points: one Richard picked up on, which is the toxic combination of commercialisation and the sexual reductionism it exploits. If you want to see what I mean graphically illustrated, go in the afternoon to a new release of a blockbuster 'kids' film: you will see the kids present literally 'assaulted' with appalling adverts bombarding them with fiendishly clever 'pitches' at their role as a serious consumer 'market'. It really sucks.

The second point was that the decline in flirting, marked a decline in mutual trust between the genders on what is essentially a relationship problem. Ad you put your finger on it: of course you need the protection of the law, but however important as part of a protective social framework and a signal of the unacceptable, the law's record in actually preventing or solving emotional and relationship problems between people is pretty poor: just look at its generally corrosive effect on divorces.

Enough! I've already outstayed my welcome and perhaps your patience: but I hope you will accept that is was a worthwhile topic to try to air and generate some debate about. (Interesting that no one offered a thought about the 2 questions I ended the piece on).

(Richard sorry to bend the rules, but as I said, if these had been posted one at a time it wouldn't look so bad). And I don't know how to shift something from a group to a forum.

Thanks again all.



Account Closed at 16:42 on 07 October 2004  Report this post
Zettel, a very valid answer - thanks. I didn't respond to the questions at the end because I thought the idea was to work on form rather than enter into a debate about the subject. However, it is a good one and if you posted something in the forum, I'm sure a lively debate would ensue.


Zettel at 03:35 on 08 October 2004  Report this post

Very generous. How do you post something in a forum?


Account Closed at 06:49 on 08 October 2004  Report this post
Zettel, click on Writers' Forum at the top of the page then look at all the options down on the right. Click on the one you want (maybe put it in the Lounge, to get maximum exposure), then it works like for the reviews.
Looking forward to reading it

Zettel at 21:56 on 08 October 2004  Report this post
Thanks El.

I'm not sure: there seems to bne something a bit arrogant about posting this kind of thing. The forums, which I don't enter much, seem to be a bit of fun.

At least I now know how to do it!


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