The Provo­ca­teur: Don’t let #Metoo end of­fice flirt­ing

Yes, as­sault and ha­rass­ment are hor­ren­dous, but don’t kill off the joy of of­fice ban­ter, pleads Celia Walden

Grazia (UK) - - Contents -

HAVE YOU EVER Wikipedia’d flirt­ing? It’s de­fined as ‘a so­cial and some­times sex­ual ac­tiv­ity in­volv­ing ver­bal or writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion as well as body lan­guage by one per­son to an­other, ei­ther to sug­gest in­ter­est in a deeper re­la­tion­ship with the other per­son or, if done play­fully, for amuse­ment’. It’s ba­si­cally ban­ter. Joy­ful co­ex­is­tence with an­other hu­man be­ing. Be­cause you can flirt with a mem­ber of your own sex – hell, you can flirt with a chair leg if it gives you good repar­tee.

It’s about find­ing a way to get through yet an­other slate-grey day and eight-hour stretch in an air­less of­fice with noth­ing but the hum­ming of strip lights to break the monotony. Be­cause a short burst of play­ful, in­nocu­ous, back-and-forth with a col­league can give you the same hit of mo­ti­va­tion as a dou­ble Ne­spresso or blast of fresh air.

It’s not ‘I’m an ob­ject/vic­tim and you’re a crazed sex­ual beast who be­longs in a Mal­ibu clinic chant­ing “I must not wank into plant pots” along­side Har­vey,’ but ‘I’m alive, so are you, and isn’t it funny that we’re dif­fer­ent?’ Not in­fe­rior or su­pe­rior, just dif­fer­ent.

I was 13 when I first dis­cov­ered the pe­cu­liar bio­chem­i­cal change that hap­pens when two hu­mans flirt, and ever since then I’ve scoured al­most ev­ery oc­ca­sion, so­cial and pro­fes­sional, for the green light that al­lows me to cel­e­brate life in one of the most hon­est ways I can think of. 99.9% of the time it’s not about se­duc­tion, and there does have to be that green light on both sides: that sub­tle, so­phis­ti­cated and mute un­der­stand­ing that both par­ties want to play. Are you go­ing to get peo­ple who don’t fol­low the code? ‘Clumsy’ flirters of the kind those 100 French women ref­er­enced in their provoca­tive open let­ter to Le Monde? Of course. But as they said, ‘Rape is a crime. Try­ing to pick up some­one… is not.’

Flirt­ing’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate, though, isn’t it? ( Well, only if you do it right – ba-boom.) Im­proper and not suit­able what­ever the cir­cum­stances, ac­cord­ing to the new code of con­duct we’re all be­ing forced to sign up to in these #Metoo times. A code of con­duct that, by the way, is all about women’s rights, un­less those rights in­clude ex­press­ing an opin­ion that di­verges from the ac­cepted, lib­eral fem­i­nist view, where­upon, in a re­ver­sion to me­dieval men­tal­i­ties, you’ll ef­fec­tively be stoned out of town. Just ask fem­i­nist au­thor Mar­garet At­wood, who faced a vi­cious back­lash for dar­ing to sug­gest that men ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct should be put through due process, rather than trial by so­cial me­dia.

#Metoo has done a lot of good, but much of that will be un­done if – in this fever­ish post-we­in­stein cli­mate – we con­flate flirt­ing with ha­rass­ment or as­sault. Preda­tors de­lib­er­ately con­flate things to suit their own crude agen­das too. When work­ing at a bar in my early twen­ties, my boss once put his hand be­tween my legs and ca­su­ally said, ‘I could make you come.’ Af­ter I’d flung back, in Pathé News posh tones,

‘I doubt that,’ he sighed, ‘Jeez, you can’t even flirt with a girl nowa­days.’

That wasn’t flirt­ing, that was as­sault. I knew it and he knew it. But they teach them that be­mused head shake at Preda­tor School in a class called ‘How to Make Your Prey Feel Fool­ish For Over­re­act­ing.’ And al­though I was re­pulsed by the ac­tions of this mid­dle-aged man who felt en­ti­tled to man­han­dle his em­ployee and annoyed that I’d have to find an­other job through no fault of my own, the over­rid­ing emo­tion was anger that he was try­ing to pass off an act of in­tim­i­da­tion as some­thing fun and be­nign.

Flirt­ing – real flirt­ing – is fun and be­nign. I’ve en­joyed Benny Hill-es­que be­hav­iour and Carry On in­nu­endo in the of­fice that has never come close to af­fect­ing my pro­fes­sion­al­ism or mak­ing me feel un­com­fort­able. And maybe that’s down to my sense of hu­mour. If you pre­fer to keep ban­ter to a min­i­mum in the of­fice, that’s up to you. But the idea that #Metoo means ex­pung­ing all flir­ta­tion not just from the work­place but ev­ery area of life isn’t just sad but ‘an af­front to sex­ual free­dom’ – just as those French women stated in a let­ter that con­demned ‘a fem­i­nism that, be­yond the de­nun­ci­a­tion of abuses of power, takes the face of a ha­tred of men and sex­u­al­ity’.

Do we re­ally be­lieve that ev­ery col­league who com­pli­ments us on a dress is a po­ten­tial We­in­stein? That ev­ery boss who says ‘you look nice’ should be re­ported to HR? Give these guys an inch and they’ll take a mile? No. Be­cause the vast ma­jor­ity of men are

not sleaze­balls and per­fectly able to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween ban­ter and ha­rass­ment. Not that there’s likely to be much ban­ter in 2018. Never mind that one in five of us still dates our boss, that 38% of us date co­work­ers and 31% of those ro­mances will lead us to the altar – there must be no flir­ta­tion in the build-up to those ro­mances, got it? Of­fice ro­mances must hap­pen in a vac­uum.

In the fu­ture, I sus­pect they just won’t hap­pen at all. Why would you take the risk, as a man? (Al­though, of course, women can be as preda­tory as they like, hav­ing been granted im­mu­nity in an at­tempt to make up for past vic­tim­i­sa­tions.) And, on re­flec­tion, maybe it’s no bad thing for us to draw a line not sim­ply un­der flirt­ing, but any kind of hu­man warmth or spon­ta­neous, joy­ful in­ter­ac­tion. What with so­cial me­dia hav­ing stripped away life’s fine dis­tinc­tions and ev­ery dis­cus­sion now re­duced to the black-and-white think­ing of a child, maybe we’re just no longer equipped to deal with nu­ance. And nu­ance is the only thing that makes flirt­ing worth­while.

Fancy de­brief­ing in my of­fice, miss Jones?

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