In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

The Risks of Online Flirting

How likely is it that a cyber-flirtaton will lead to an affair?

"Angels fly because they take themselves lightly." — G. K. Chesterton

Flirting adds spice to life and supports positive attitudes toward other people. It may involve flattery, but it is a subtle and enjoyable flattery that is closer to praise than to a lie. Flirting creates a relaxing, calm, and enjoyable atmosphere. It involves curiosity, humor, imagination, and empathy. Flirting is subtle: it is typically not an explicit sexual activity, but rather an enjoyable, gentle prelude or substitute for it. Flirting has elements of intellectual teasing flavored by emotional play.

During flirting, each partner's soul is stirred, thereby enabling the two souls to respond to each other. Miss Etiquette indicates that the meaning of flirting is to be playfully romantic; to speak or act in a playful or flirting way; or to toy with. Her colleague Miss Manners considers flirtation "a gentle amusement," an activity that should be harmless and not lead to anything.

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In the online chat room "Married and Flirting," people are advised to treat flirting as pure fun, as a good way to practice social skills and to make yourself and your targets feel good. This site, whose motto is "Married Not Dead," offers the following guide to flirting: F is for Flattery; L is for Listen; I is for Interest; R is for Being Responsible; T is for Trusting Yourself; and S is for Winning a Smile. (See Love Online for more.)

Flirting encompasses seemingly contradictory notions: Honesty, with an element of innocence, as well as a mild level of deception (expressed through flattery); caring for others—by listening to and showing interest in them—while not taking them too seriously; being confident and feeling good about yourself, while not attaching too much importance to yourself; and intelligence, flavored by an emotional tone.

All these characteristics are evident in online affairs.

Flirting is conducted within a tacit borderline; it is a kind of game in which participants move closer to that line—and sometimes even step across—and then retreat to a comfortable distance from it. Cyberflirting is a type of verbal dance in which the boundaries of sexuality are not clearly drawn. Flirting is like an inactive volcano that can become active any moment. In online affairs, crossing the line between innocent flirting and overt sexual interaction, and hence activating the sexual volcano, is greatly facilitated. The stimulation is high and, online, the typical warning signals that alert people of infidelity—such as nonverbal signs of discomfort or shame—are not readily apparent.

In the following description, a married woman having an affair with a married man illustrates the shift from the playful nature of flirting to the more profound nature of a committed romantic relationship: "We flirted with and [sought] each other constantly, until one day we realized we were not just playing anymore. The flirting had transformed into very deep feelings for both of us. He had reached deep inside my heart and touched it where no other man has ever before."

The gradual manner in which people online become involved in overt sexual interaction is described by another woman as follows: "I am a single woman who has formed a relationship with a much younger married man. In real life, there is no way I would have formed this relationship. I do not go out with married men. I met him in a chat room and at first it was just a nice friendly chat. This of course progressed until we eventually went into a private room. I was intrigued by what would happen but could not believe the feelings this man evoked in me." (Cited in Love Online.)

Flirting enables you to be yourself and express all types of personal characteristics. Typical flirting offers you an enjoyable, frivolous form of sexual communication with no serious intent. And it is usually harmless. However, sometimes flirting is not restricted to such harmless communication and leads to a sexual relationship.

Flirting may involve gentle physical contact, but often does not involve sexual intercourse. Flirting may develop into a sexual relationship, but then it stops being flirting in the sense discussed here. And sometimes explicit sexual talk is considered more offensive than are certain activities involving physical contact, such as kissing and hugging. In flirting, people do not force themselves on others; it is a kind of enjoyable play having the pleasant atmosphere typical of the promise of sexual activity.

Flirting also involves the mystery and uncertainty associated with sex. Consider the following description: "Flirting is more than ‘Hi, ya wanna?' It's teasing, playing, innuendos—it's about making someone feel special, it's about being attentive, it's about walking on the edge of danger & getting caught. Flirting is nibbling on the forbidden fruit. It's not blunt straight-to-the point comments. It's playing cat & mouse with each other, and enjoying it." (Cited in Levine, The Joy of Cybersex.)

When people enjoy flirting for its own sake, it can be commendable. Flirting has its own intrinsic value, but it also has certain personal and social benefits (as well as disadvantages). Flirting may help to reduce loneliness and boost one's ego and self-confidence. One survey found that most working women believe that flirting is good for their health and confidence. Indeed, three out of four say they have flirted with a colleague, while 28 percent have had a sexual relationship with a fellow worker. Some findings indicate that flirting at the workplace makes people more comfortable around each other.

Flirting does not have to be a preparatory activity aimed at an external goal, namely, sexual intercourse. Quite often, it is the best available alternative to—rather than means of reaching—intercourse.

Explicit sexual activities and orgasms are secondary in flirting, but they are always possible. Sexual arousal is often part and parcel of flirting. Since online sex is essentially a type of conversation, which is also an essential part of flirting, the distinction between online sex and flirting is not clear-cut, and the two activities often overlap. Cyberspace is associated with flirting not only in the sense that many online affairs are similar to flirting, but also in the sense that the internet considerably facilitates the process of flirting, particularly in chat rooms.

People are attractive when they are relaxed, feeling good, and enjoying themselves. And those who are attractive are more likely to be relaxed, feel good, and enjoy themselves. Since cyberspace offers new dimensions of attractiveness aside from external appearance, it may break the vicious cycle for those who, because they are considered externally unattractive, are not relaxed and hence struggle to attract others.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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