Welcome to Ms. Opinionated, our weekly advice column dealing with questions of life, love, feminism, and pop culture. Submit your anonymous questions here. This week, Andi Zeisler takes on a question about flirting.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I need some help on how to talk to a friend about her flirting technique. We're not particularly close, but we do go out to bars and clubs together sometimes as part of a group, and we've known each other since high school (almost a decade now). Her way of flirting generally consists of pretending guys are annoying her, being sarcastic and dismissive, and playing hard to get. Essentially she says "no" when she means "yes" a lot. Sometimes a guy takes her at her word and backs off, and then she gets upset and confused about why he's no longer paying attention to her! More often, though, she ends up going home with them. Watching her do this (over and over) bothers me because it seems like she's perpetuating some dangerous ideas about consent. How do I explain to her that this very successful technique of hers makes me uncomfortable and why? Or is it none of my business? Actually harmless? Should I just stop going out with her? Thanks!
Erstwhile Worrying Wingwoman
Yet another thing that pick-up artist culture must answer for, along with "peacocking" and the popularity of Neil Strauss, is the concept of the "neg" as an equal-opportunity tool of pre-sexytime banter. Pick-up artists didn't invent the idea of the "neg," of course—watch any classic romance starring Hepburn and Tracy and you'll see its much classier precedents—but that realm's naming of it and its characterization as the key to successful flirtation has given it way too much primacy.
That's not really the point, though, I know. You've got a very tricky situation here. I sympathize. I once had a friend who was literally the worst at flirting. Beyond Joey Tribbiani levels of obviousness, she didn't even try to add entendres to her entendres: She would simply plant herself in front of her target and, having said almost nothing else, announce that he should come home with her. Those of us watching would peek through our fingers like we were awaiting an onscreen axe murder, but no one could ever say anything.
And neither can you. Here's one reason: Because they are results-oriented flirters, and their techniques work for them. "More often," you say, than your friend gets rebuffed, she gets what she wants. Same with my friend. And because both of them are rewarded for what you and I might see as clumsy or problematic tactics, they are unlikely to see the situation the way we do. They couldn't give a tiny rat's ass what you or I think of how they're setting love traps. And, honestly, when you think about it, that's kind of great.
The second reason you can't say anything is that this person and you are, you admit, not very close. If she were a bestie, a soulmate friend, someone with whom you regularly share confidences, I would absolutely encourage you to tell her that you worry that her flirting style participates in a culture of non-consent, and normalizes the mixed messages often used to discredit women's desires and agency. (If you were keeping it light and non-academic, you could just say, "Shit's kinda rapey.") But yeah, that your relationship is more of a group-activities friendship than a more intimate one, this falls pretty squarely on the side of "none of your beeswax." Groups are generally at their strongest when each member tacitly agrees to support as much as possible the harmless delusions of the others. If you do say something to her, how likely is she to share it with the rest of the group and paint you as a fussbudget or nosy or slut-shaming? (I'm going to go with "pretty likely.") Are you willing to sacrifice a larger set of perhaps closer friendships for a bit of truth-telling that isn't likely to have much of an effect anyway?
If you really want to do something proactive about this, and don't want to risk being alienated from your pals, directly addressing this friend is almost definitely not the way to go. What you want is some group redirection. Remember the scene in Old School where Frank's ex-wife hosts a class on how to give blow jobs? You could, if you wanted, try something similar with your friends: Find a Flirting 101 class, or hire a "flirt coach" to join you at your local spot for an evening. (That said, you'll want to find out as much as possible about the people teaching these things, to make sure they aren't simply going to duplicate whatever "Say no when you mean yes" hooey your friend already practices.)
Or track down a double feature or festival of those classic movies I mentioned earlier, get your friend there, and make an as-subtle-as-possible teachable moment of it, enthusing about how folks back in the day really knew how to pitch some woo. The worst thing that can happen is that your friend will take absolutely no hints from either of these things, and carry on as she's doing. The best thing that can happen is that she finds some moves, all on her own, that work even better than her consent-confused mixed messages. (Or, perhaps, that she meets someone she wants to shack up with forever and ever and you don't have to witness her depressing flirting technique anymore.)
The last thing I want to say, and hopefully you already know this, is that people's relating styles don't come out of nowhere. They're rooted deeply in dynamics that have influenced each one of us, from how we witnessed our parents/guardians interact to our religious upbringings to the presence in our lives of siblings and friends. In considering this, cut your friend some slack—for all you know, in her heart she's well aware that her actions perpetuate an uncomfortable dynamic, but simply doesn't feel authentic flirting in any other voice. Even if you don't disclose your point-blank honesty, you can, at least, offer her your understanding. Good luck!