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Caroline J. Simon, Ph.D.
Caroline J. Simon Ph.D.

Flirtation, Ambiguity and Suspense

The ambiguity inherent in flirtation is both useful and risky.

Innocent flirtation can be energizing, both for the one doing the flirting and the person on the receiving end. The sizzle comes from a mix of suspense and ambiguity.

We know how to flirt and know flirtation when we see it. I hold eye-contact in a certain way; I lean into the usual margin separating people as they converse; I touch a hand or arm; I hold my body in a way that is hard to describe but easily recognized. Flirting sends the message that I am attracted.

Flirting also telegraphs an RSVP. I invite the other person to "flirt back." The suspense of "Will he (or she) or won't he (or she)?" raises the pulse. By launching into this behavior, I go out on a limb and the risk itself can be thrilling. If not reciprocated, and especially if explicitly rebuffed, my flirtation risks at least mild humiliation on my part.

The more ambiguous my flirtatiousness is, the less risk there is of humiliation. No response? Well, I wasn't really interested anyway; I'm just outgoing and friendly by nature. And plausible deniability is not just self-protective but can give the person who is being flirted with a graceful out as well. By refusing to interpret flirtatious behavior as flirtation, the recipient who is not interested sends that message without having to say it in so many words. Both parties run risks but often both parties can save face.


photo by Katherine Conklin

Yet ambiguity carries its own risks. If my flirtation is too subtle my message may not be received--the person I am attracted to may not perceive my attraction. More dangerously, ambiguity allows for miscommunication, self-deception and manipulation. Research shows that men and women tend to read behavior differently, with men interpreting what women intend as merely friendly as conveying sexual interest (see for example, Shotland and Craig).

The line between flirtation and treating someone as a sex object is not always obvious. Nor is the line between flirtation and sexual harassment. Subjecting someone to sexual advances knowing that such interest is unwelcome, treats them as a sex object. Even making known one's sexual thoughts can make someone else an involutary party to fantasies that they would find obscene (see Roger Scruton, Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic, 145-46). As Kathryn Abrams details in "The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus", the issues concerning what it is legitimate to risk in the quest for wanted sexual attention are socially, morally and legally complex.

These dynamics fill the "dating scene" with anxiety. Hundreds of movies, music videos, commercials, and novels provide role models for how to invite sexual interest from others. Blogs and self-help books provide further "how tos" and advice. But where are the sources of wisdom about the fine lines between flirtation and harassment, seduction and assault? Stay tune for my next post!

Meanwhile, I'd welcome reader comment. What makes for welcome flirtation and where does showing sexual interest shade off into the creepy?

About the Author
Caroline J. Simon, Ph.D.

Caroline J. Simon, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and the author of Bringing Sex Into Focus.

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