Some things never change, including the urge to flirt

October 07, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

Woman spots man. Man eyes woman. Woman smiles. Man looks away. Woman looks away. Man looks back.

It's 1992. We've been through liberation, sensitivity training, communication seminars, psychotherapy. But some things haven't changed.

We still flirt. In fact, for some of us it's a primal urge.

Professionals say there are many reasons why we do it: to be friendly, make connections, get attention, find a date, find a mate.

"Some people flirt who are gregarious, who enjoy a lot of small connections with people," says John Fergus, who holds workshops on how to meet "relationship-minded people."

"They like flirting, smiling and enjoy the feeling of having someone admire and look at them,"

Mr. Fergus insists that knowing how to flirt is important in attracting a potential mate but adds that some flirts can get carried away.

"Some crave a lot of attention," says Mr. Fergus. "They need to be affirmed to be OK, and it goes beyond the enjoyment of being noticed."

An official definition of a flirt? Websters' New Collegiate Dictionary defines a flirt as one who "behaves amorously without serious intent or shows superficial or casual interest or liking."

Synonyms for flirt include vamp, gold digger, hussy, lady killer, wolf and philanderer. Although the very mention of the word conjures up images of manipulative women and womanizing men, flirting remains a staple of sexual communication in our culture.

"Flirting is . . . a sexual ritual and a kind of sport," says Barrie Thorne, a professor of sociology and director of women's studies at the University of Southern California.

"Women, men and same-gender attractions tap into that," says Ms. Thorne. "There is a consent and refusal, a playing with an interest but not quite giving it. The momentary focusing of attention on the other person is what's titillating.

"People also flirt because they can back away from the consequences," Ms. Thorne adds. "Being direct means putting yourself on the line for rejection."

Ideally, an up-front "hey, I think you're really attractive" might be preferable to open-for-interpretation "come hither" looks and glances. But many find flirtation is a habit.

"When I meet a guy, my first inclination is to relate to him on a flirtatious level," says Kathy Griffin, a 31-year-old actress. "If I see a guy, chances are I'll try to win him over.

"Flirting is where I'm best," she adds. "Once it comes to the relationship, I'm an emotional fetus. The secret of flirting is presenting an image of having no needs."

The question arises: Can a lounge lizard-tart-masher-hussy be trusted?

"You should be wary of the constant flirt," advises Elaine Rosenson, a Los Angeles therapist who works with singles and holds classes on "Meeting Mr. Right." "That type of person is probably not wanting an intimate relationship but instead gets his or her identity from flirting."

And although flirting might be fun in some instances, it is often not the best form of interaction, says Ann Hickey, a health educator at the University of Southern California.

"The problem with flirting is that the intent and the receiver don't usually match up," Ms. Hickey says.

"The message isn't clear often, and it can be misconstrued. Anita Hill said, 'You call it flirting; I call it sexual harassment.' "

Instead of flirting, Ms. Hickey advises straight communication. The best way to avoid uncomfortable situations, she says, is to be honest and direct.

"Flirting is a socially acceptable way of not being direct and of objectifying people," Ms. Hickey says. "Flirting is also a verbal power struggle between men and women."

Many experts agree that male flirting has sexual undertones, whereas women may flirt just to be friendly or to make a connection.

"Flirting is often a form of foreplay for men," Ms. Hickey says. "For women it can be a way of making a connection, while men are trying to get action."

Says Mr. Fergus: "Men don't think so much along the lines of flirting; they think, 'There's an opportunity, what am I going to do about it?' For women, they might think, 'There is someone I'd like to meet. How do I show him I'm attracted?' "

A 40-year-old composer from Malibu admits that he usually has a sexual agenda when he flirts with a woman.

"I usually won't flirt with a woman unless I'm attracted to her and hoping it will lead to something," he says.

Len, 61, who asked that his last name not be used, says he has always been a flirt: He has flattered, charmed, smiled and kidded with women. He says that he is shocked at how flirting has changed.

"Women are flirting now," says the Los Angeles teacher, who was married three times and has been living with a woman for eight years. "And flirting when I was young wasn't as obvious. Now it's overt, and everything is a sexual innuendo."

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