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
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?