One of the weirdest, most enchanting, and most delicate gifts God has given us is the gift of flirtation.
Flirting gets expressed in a million different customizable ways as a key part of romantic bonding. Its potency is found in how subtly we communicate availability and interest. This force has been in play at least since Isaac and Rebekah were caught “laughing” together (Genesis 26:8), a type of “laughing” that was of course far beyond simple spicy talk (ahem). But flirting was apparently part of it.
If we rewind all the way back to the beginning of time, perhaps the first human interaction began with an awkward silence, a head-to-toe curiosity of the other, and then a flirtatious moment between Adam and Eve?
I’m guessing here, but whenever it first started, flirting seems to be a primal phenomenon in human relationships and sexuality. But with the rise of digital technology, flirting also becomes more blunt, more convenient, and often more misleading and confusing.
“The fun of flirting is that you are never sure what it means,” writes one modern author. Except we do. Flirting is fun and playful, but it’s anything but meaningless. Flirtation is a gesture of sexual availability. It is a way to say that I am not sexually available to another. Learning when and where to appropriately signal sexual availability is at the heart of ancient concerns faced by the earliest church leaders (see the head-covering controversy in Corinth, according to Winter).
Flirting is not to be confused with sexual consent or sexual immediacy; it’s merely a sign of sexual availability (as in: single and looking). And the act of flirting can be as simple as a comment or facial expression to signal your attraction to a member of the opposite sex. It could be the batting of eyelashes, the passing of a folded note, or the use of a pickup line.
Except in the cases of serial “players” who make a quick mockery of true romance, flirting signals exclusivity. It would be disingenuous to flirt with two people at the same time. And because of its power to lock on to one other person, it naturally finds a home in the magic of early attraction between singles, leading to a dating relationship, which carries at least some potential for a marriage covenant.
To flirt is to tantalize another with your attention and tease with future possibility. Ideally, this play continues over time. Long after the wedding day, flirting maintains a healthy sense of play between a couple. The giggling of Isaac and Rebekah is a flirting most beautiful within the frolicking of marriage — a special blessing of a covenant bond, generating a unique laughter that signals to each other, and to the world, an exclusive love.
While couples are apart, they find remote ways to flirt, such as sending texts and hiding notes. I was reminded of this recently when a colleague of mine opened his lunch bag and accidentally dropped a note from his wife on the break room floor. It was a rare opportunity to make the colleague blush with embarrassment. But it was also a beautiful moment, because the spicy note was made incredibly discrete through an encrypted code — specially coined terms and metaphors and nicknames of affection with meanings only fully known to him and his wife.
Over time couples create their own complex lexicon of terms and phrases and nicknames, subtle metaphors with not-so-subtle meanings, that can only be decoded by one another. It’s a beautiful example of flirtatious play within marriage.
Flirting with Disaster
Sadly, the beauty of flirtatious play in marriage contrasts the ugliness of selfish flirting among those who are not sexually available. The flirtations of a married man with a woman not his wife is contrary to his covenant promise, and his flirtation is destructive. It makes signals where intentions do not (or should not) follow. It can also become manipulative, a vain giving of temporary attention in order to lead another along a forbidden path into sexual sin.
The playfulness of flirting goes wrong in serial flirting, when these types of advances are the only way an immature man knows how to interact with women, or vice versa.
Just as beautiful flirting has been around for millennia, so too has been the twisted form of flirting, long before Pepys recorded his ongoing philandering with his wife’s chambermaid. But for some reason, the digital age tempts us to say things we would never have the opportunity to say otherwise, like in this recent Facebook comment and discussion.
On the contrary, a single woman has a better “read” on what type of digital comments on Twitter are appropriate from a man. More on that in a moment.
But back to the digital dalliances of this married man. Any married man who thinks his online flirtation with other women will not be found out is a fool. Hopefully the man in this case is confronted soon, because adulterous flirtation, even if it’s a fantasy in his own twisted brain, needs to be killed for the sake of his own soul and marriage and family. His flirtations are robbery; stolen attention from the woman God has given him. He is flirting with disaster.
Mentioned above was a flirtatious pastor, and although I wish the theme of flirting pastors was one we didn’t have to address, we do. And in the unfortunate subject, there’s a lesson for us all.
When one notable pastor was caught in adultery (allegedly with two different women), one of the women spoke out about the role of social media.
This pastor targeted certain women on Twitter. “He had a ‘type,’” she writes, looking back. “Usually athletic, often long blonde hair, spiritually inclined, fans of ‘grace,’ and emotionally vulnerable enough to share their worst secrets with him.” He would respond to women in public. To some it looked harmless. To her, “it was obvious, simply from looking at his Twitter feed, that he was flirting with another woman. He would often tweet song lyrics for me and other women.” From messages in public, the pastor would eventually move his flirtations over to private texts and then personal meetings.
Social media normalizes voyeurism and makes it possible to stare at pictures of attractive people. On social media, perhaps flirtations begin with studying a woman’s picture. She follows you on Twitter or Facebook, or she makes a kind comment. Her interest in you sparks in you a kind of curiosity in her images. You open her profile picture and study it. Your eyes linger on her profile longer than they should. You go to her Facebook or Instagram feed and you scroll for more images. Maybe she has a boyfriend or a husband, but it doesn’t matter. You respond. Maybe it begins with a follow back. And then maybe a direct message, or a text, or an otherwise obscure comment in public, or even something more private.
It’s not hard to imagine how it begins. Soon enough, digital flirting leads to private conversations where you share your dreams and disappointments, your hopes and longings. Soon enough two smartphones have carved out a private space — now you’re on a digital date — and nobody else knows.
Earlier we met a single woman who was disturbed by a pastor’s activity online. She has a good vantage point because living the single life in the digital age quickly makes one an expert in picking up on e-flirting.
Single women, if you are part of a church and you think your pastor is acting in a way inappropriate with other women in the church, do not shrug this off, but ask questions privately.
I say this because single women are more expert in the methods of flirting than probably anyone, and by necessity. Apps like Tinder render a first move toward flirting as simple as touching an image and swiping right or left, to show interest or to ignore.
On one hand, flirting in the digital age is unspeakably bold and disturbing. As journalist Nancy Jo Sales has documented in her book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, it has become commonplace for teen girls to be texted or snapped an unsolicited nude image of a teen boy as an act to initiate romantic interest, as if to say, “I like you, and to prove it, here’s a picture of my boyhood.” And the activity is not isolated to youth.
On the other hand, flirting in the digital age has become incredibly subtle, now an extension of what can be read into what someone else clicks or likes or retweets. Does a “heart” on my Instagram image signal romantic attraction?
Singles face more subtle forms of flirting that we didn’t have to deal with a decade ago.