Flirtation in Focus

From teasing and winking to coquettish smiles and sexy banter, flirting may seem like all fun and games. But there are reasons why we do it, how we do it, and who we do it with.

Flirt vs. Tease: What's the Difference?

Is there a morality to flirting?

The overlapping terms flirt and cock tease are sometimes used interchangeably. So clearly distinguishing between them can be confusing, or downright tricky. But psychologically—and even morally—they can be worlds apart. In this post I’ll delve into the crucial dynamics that separate these two interpersonal behaviors, which on the surface might appear similarly alluring and beguiling.

In a sense, flirting and cock teasing can be seen as kindred forms of teasing. That is, they similarly suggest at least the promise of sexual intimacy. And there are no obvious lines of demarcation between the verbal and non-verbal behaviors that characterize them. Yet in their underlying attitude, motive and intent they differ enormously.

Most people would agree that the connotations of flirting are considerably less negative than those associated with cock teasing. So let’s first look at some basic descriptions of flirting to see why such behavior is typically regarded as much more “innocent” than cock teasing.

Whereas both seductive interpersonal behaviors might be characterized as sexually tantalizing, the underlying motive(s) behind flirting seems mostly related to having fun. It’s sort of impromptu play: a “sport” indulged in not just for the amusement of the flirt—typically a young, coquettish woman, but at times a libidinous male, or “player”—but also for the person being flirted with. And the provocative behavior itself may vary from subtle to blatant, depending largely on the perspective of the recipient (and any witnesses, and their own possible interest in the alleged “temptress”—which might include a competitor or, indeed, a spouse!).

As a “tease,” ultimate sexual consummation is unlikely, and may be frankly impossible—although occasionally flirtations that start out innocent enough end up in the bedroom. But the game, or objective, is mostly titillation. It’s amorousness for its own sake—without, that is, serious intent. However superficial, playful, or uncommitted, it’s an expression of sexual interest in, and possible affection for, the other party. Which is why the person on the receiving end is likely to feel flattered—especially if the flirt herself is particularly attractive. After all, virtually all (straight) men wish to see themselves as interesting and appealing to the opposite sex. So any evidence that an attractive woman is attracted to them can be as reassuring as it is gratifying. And while the flirt may have little to no intention (at least consciously) of satisfying the desire she’s impishly evoking, yet her enticing, come-hither behavior may carry its own rewards for the pleased (and grateful!) male recipient.

Light-hearted and mischievous, flirting is one way that adults have fun. There’s more or less an implicit understanding between the two parties that what might happen—what could happen—in all probability isn’t going to happen. But, nonetheless, isn’t it erotic fun to at least imagine its happening? In fact, one or both parties might be constrained by another romantic relationship, or (just as likely) a conjugal one. Still, both parties are interested, so that even if they can’t fool around for real, they can at least “play” at fooling around. And this, of course, allows for a certain level of physical arousal and ego gratification that can be mutually entertaining and enjoyable—while involving minimal risk to another relationship, which may finally be more important or meaningful.

One example of what I’m characterizing comes from a former client who, a young bachelor at the time, shared with me his immense attraction for his best friend’s wife. Stopping off at their house to return a book he’d borrowed, he noticed that the top button to his jeans was coming off. Which made him all the more embarrassed when he rang the doorbell to find the wife home alone. She cordially invited him in to chat, and he reluctantly accepted—but with considerable ambivalence for fear he’d accidentally betray the powerful magnetic pull he experienced toward her (any expression of which felt tantamount to betraying his closest friend). When he offhandedly mentioned the errant button (unconscious flirtatiousness on his part?!), which he had no idea how to knit back into place, she suggested he bring the jeans with him the next time he came over, and she’d be happy to fix it for him.

Then she added, with a coy, semi-joking twinkle in her eyes, “ . . . Or you could take them off right now, and we could have an affair.” In the moment he was much too taken aback to respond, and she immediately hastened to change the subject. But delightedly, he recognized that she was attracted to him, too, and must have felt compelled to take advantage of this unprecedented circumstance to somehow let him know. Nothing came of this all-too-brief, innocent “tease,” but he was amazed at the electric sparks he felt literally flying all around them.

Frustrating?—and maybe for both of them? Probably, yes. But still quite gratifying, and even exciting. And this example reveals something of the peculiarly human and strangely mixed, or ironic, nature of flirting generally. Note how this scenario amusingly exemplifies Wikipedia’s description of flirting as ordinarily entailing “speaking and behaving in a way that suggests . . . greater intimacy than the actual relationship between the parties would justify, though within the rules of social etiquette. . . .”

 

Okay, enough about flirting. What about cock teasing? As already suggested, on the surface the two can look pretty much the same. For they both can involve (as, again, Wikipedia notes of flirting) body language, gestures, postures, physiologic signs, and actual verbalizations that suggest a familiarity—or intimacy—beyond anything actually warranted. This might include banter; flattery about the other’s physical or sexual attractiveness; imitating the other’s behaviors (changing postures as they change theirs); eye contact more prolonged than would appear to fit the situation; batting eyelashes; blowing kisses; playing with one’s hair; winking; suggestive smiling; giggling or appreciative laughter; conspicuous physical closeness; casual touching (especially the other person’s arm); some form of foot play (or “footsie”); online chats, texting, and other personally direct messaging that clearly expresses affectional interest; and so on. In general, humans are adept (at times, ingenious!) in letting another know of their affectionate/erotic interest.

But where cock teasing contrasts sharply with flirtatiousness is in its intent. Here the teasing isn’t innocent at all. For the motive is to toy with, taunt, “bait,” or exploit the person teased, so it deserves to be seen as an act veering on hostility. Covertly, the message (calculatingly disguised from the recipient) is something like: “You’re not going to get what I could give you—but won’t. I’ll make you think I’m available for sex [or intercourse], but in the end you’ll get nothing of what I’ll leave you craving for.”

The cock teaser (usually female, but occasionally a straight male teasing a gay admirer) really has no intention or desire to have sex with the other person, but yet enjoys evoking or stoking their desire. So it’s all, as the name so clearly indicates, a “tease”—and in the most negative sense of that term. It’s as though, for various self- and ego-centered reasons, the cock teaser simply can’t resist the temptation to entice the other person, so as to experience the satisfaction of their drooling over her—and with no real intention of satisfying the desire so skillfully kindled.

If this seems perverse, manipulative, or mean-spirited, well, it is. A flirt may also lead a man on, but here the “come hither” is meant either as a fun “proposition” for both of them to indulge in, or a suggestion of strong romantic interest that might, mutually, be pursued. But with the cock teaser, their interest isn’t in the other person at all but in arousing his libido—with the ultimate intention of thwarting (or possibly scorning) that arousal. Regardless of how conscious the cock teaser may be of it, the behavior is still best understood as a power play, unfairly taking advantage of the typical male's susceptibility to even the mildest of sexual advances. And it might even be seen as cruel in its deceptiveness and insensitivity toward their feelings.

Yet the flirt and cock tease share at least one thing in common. Which French-writing Swiss author Madame de Staël wittily hinted at two centuries ago in opining: “The desire of the man is for the woman, but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man.” And it may be that with cock teasers a key motive is to feel desired, but not at the expense of rendering themselves vulnerable to the man whose desire they’ve so successfully—and seductively—incited.

Note 1: Given my trying to work within the parameters of the flirt-or-cock-tease dichotomy, I really couldn't emphasize that males can be just as flirtatious as women. So I apologize if my writing might seem in any way sexist. I actually don't have a bias against flirting in either sex—that is, as long as no one gets hurt by it.

Note 2: If you can think of anyone who might have an interest in this topic, please do pass this post on. Additionally, if you'd like to check out some of my other writings for Psychology Today (sexual and otherwise), click here.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Flirtation in Focus