The irksome ritual that is Valentine's Day had barely faded from memory when writer Christine Schoefer filled up a couple of pages at to complain about how Americans seem to have lost the knack, if not necessarily the urge, for flirtation. She suggests a number of factors that may be in play: the curious American notion that any show of interest whatsoever is somehow a threat to All Things Sacred, drilled into high-school students way before PDA stood for Personal Digital Assistant; the insistence by feminists that flirtation is somehow a tool of the patriarchy; and, maybe, our overwrought work ethic — we're just too damned busy for such things, and if we do participate, it's purely as a means to an end.

I read this over, and I tried to relate it somehow to my own existence (I have almost enough box tops for my Junior Narcissists Club mirror, so obviously this was a must), but there was insufficient evidence to reach any kind of conclusion. Seldom if ever am I the flirtee, let alone the flirter — either that, or I'm too stupid to know when someone is coming on to me. (Given my penchant for romantic delusions, this is entirely possible.)

So I made no response to Ms Schoefer's premise, and I figured that would be the end of it — until a couple of days later, when one Rob Anderson wrote in with the following:

"Christine Schoefer's article was quite interesting and informative, but missed one salient facet of flirting: It's cruelty. For any man or woman who is unattractive to the opposite sex -- and especially those for whom this has always been the case -- 'flirting' might better be described as 'taunting.'
"It is one thing for a person to flirt or be flirted with when they are confident in the knowledge of their own attractiveness. They can enjoy flirting in its more innocuous social context. But for people who are the opposite, whose self-knowledge is of a sadder sort, flirting becomes inherently degrading.
"This is best summed up in a short passage I read in a book many years ago: 'She stroked his hand in the friendly and familiar but uninviting way women had with unattractive men.' It is cruel to 'flirt' with people who are obviously outside of the society of courtship, and unnecessary."

It is now two months since Mr Anderson weighed in with this observation, and still it sears. Curious, I poked through the archives, and found quite a few instances where he'd taken one of their authors to task — and, in so doing, revealed more of himself than he'd perhaps intended. For instance:

"We are social animals; it takes dire interventions -- like, oh, spending 20 years locked inside a bottle -- to condition us to feel otherwise."

I suspect that one does not reach this conclusion merely by reading books. Or Web 'zines.

For myself, I haven't spent twenty years in a bottle, though I think I've achieved comparable levels of isolation. And I'm not entirely sure I find female attention "degrading" — if anything, I find it implausible. "The level of desperation...among contemporary women," I observed elsewhere, "is highly exaggerated"; there's probably not much reason to turn one's attentions to me so long as anyone else is still breathing. Which leaves me with a quandary of sorts: If someone appears to be somewhat taken with me, for whatever inexplicable reason, should I assume that it's just a fluke of nature and dismiss it out of hand, or should I turn bitter and accusative?

Yeah, I know. The two aren't mutually exclusive at all. That's the problem.

The Vent

15 May 2000

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