Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Christian Flirt

I am and have always been almost totally incapable of flirting.

That's not to say I don't get along with women. I have always been both attracted to women and completely at ease talking to them. The bonds of common humanity, of shared joy and struggle, those things make it easy for me to connect with women as very real friends. I'm also strongly drawn to da ladies in other, utterly non-Platonic ways.

But since I was an adolescent, I've found that where conversation and friendship has always come easily, the sly-eyed teasing articulation of physical interest has been something about which I'm completely witless. Flirting is one of the primary ways men and women interact, a coy dance of veils and indirection that establishes that oh-so-live tension between the sexes. And I just can't do it. Never could.

Through high school and a portion of undergrad, this was a considerable liability. Though I was attracted to many, many women as both people and as sexual beings, my ability to express interest was either painfully emo earnest or so poorly developed as to leave me in brain-locked paralysis. Just ask the first girlfriend, who was prone to wondering if I was in some way asexual. Or ask my wife. Hoo boy. She's got some stories.

Having done some research into the matter, I've discovered that this is a common syndrome: I am what the kids these days call "flirtarded." I'd say "differently flirtatious," but while that might be less offensive, it really doesn't touch on the depth of my inability in that area.

Here's the thing, though. What was once a significant weakness is now actually rather convenient. Because while flirting can be both fun and really, really helpful when you're trying to interest a mate, once you move out of that state of being, it becomes much less useful. Counterproductive, even.

As a husband, flirting with anyone other than your spouse is...well...not a good thing. It may be "fun," in that it establishes interest and tension. But the signals it sends are dangerous, because the purpose of those signals is primarily about establishing sexual connection. And what begins as teasing play can easily follow its natural course, evolving into something that can rip the heart out of a marriage.

As a manager or a boss, flirting can be oppressive. The boundary between showing interest and using power imbalances to coerce a response is too narrow. The workplace...if you're in a position of not a place to flirt. Back in my days of secular employ, there was a period of time when I managed several folks, and had other assistants as part of my work team. Though a random sequence of events, for a while every one of them was female, single, and attractive. They were my colleagues and my friends. I heard from them about higher-ups who'd hover outside of cubicles showing interest. "Flirting." "Showing interest." There was sexual tension, sure. But it wasn't fun sexual tension. For those on the receiving end, it was skeevy and more than a little unpleasant.

As a pastor, flirting is completely off limits. Well...that's not entirely true. It's not that pastors can't flirt. Married pastors should flirt with their wives. I've been taking some remedial classes in this area, and it's a good thing. Single pastors should be able to show interest in potential mates outside of the bounds of their role as pastors. But if you are someone's spiritual guide and teacher, you cannot simultaneously flirt with them. It just can't be so.

Introducing sexual tension into that relationship does two things. First, it invites the same sort of misuse of social power that comes when your boss drops a leering comment about how fiiiine you look today. Second, and much more significant, it fundamentally betrays the integrity of the pastoral relationship. When your interest in someone becomes colored by intentionally created sexual tension, your ability to teach or develop them spiritually is compromised.

Yeah, maybe Tantric priests are an exception. But even there, no, particularly there, sexuality is approached with a mystic intensity that is alien to the compulsive flirt. Parvati did not win Shiva by asking if That Was His Unbounded Infinite Lingum or Was He Just Happy To See Her.

Flirting, of itself, is not a bad skillset to have. I do sometimes wish I'd been better at it as a young 'un. But it's something that Christians who are called into positions of either covenant commitment or leadership in the church need to studiously avoid.