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Flirting: Whats Okay? Whats Not Okay?

For the last six months, Agents of Ishq has been holding a monthly event at Kala Studio in Bandra. It’s a cosy, not-snobby, space in Khar, Mumbai with a little trellis of bougainvillea and a beautiful yellow door. In the past, we’ve had conversations with Rosalyn D’Mello about her erotic memoir A Handbook For My Lover; with Amruta Patil about how queerness and relationships appear in her graphic novels; with the founders of the queer writing blog The Glass Closet; we’ve held a workshop for parents and teachers on how to talk to your children about sex by Srinidhi Raghavan, and we’ve hosted a Hindi open mic session on love poetry. In March, when we announced we'd have a discussion on flirting what’s ok and what’s not, people giggled. Some in astonishment, some with interest. “You going to teach us to be flirts,” said someone. Well, flirting has a bad name but that is unwarranted. Being flirty often comes with connotations of flitting from person to person, or being unreliable, while it’s meaning as playful interaction is overlooked. So we decided to unpack the myths and meanings surrounding flirting in a way that was humorous and interactive. Even as we all embark on the grand adventure of dating, we often don’t have the equipment or resources to do so. We are all taught good manners, or how to draft a job application, but no one really teaches us the rules of romance that is respectful and still fun. What is flirting? Does flirting serve a purpose? What does it require? How does it help us be better lovers? These were some of the questions we raised last Sunday with Dr Kersi Chavda, a psychiatrist, and Arushi Singh, a sexual rights advocate. The discussion began with the panelists taking note of the interesting fact that the audience comprised mostly of women who responded by saying, well, if the boys don’t want to learn, we’ve got to take matters into our own hands! We talked about barriers to flirting (including our gendered upbringing and our notions around sex as being shameful), how flirting works subjectively (flirting with a complete stranger can be very different from flirting with someone you already know) and how even though flirting involves pursuit, one has to learn how to navigate through that without being insistent.  And was there such a thing as a complete no-no while flirting? Chavda believed there was you cannot scare the person, he said. Singh believed that while flirting, it was important to be clear, and to be direct. Chavda saw flirting more as a kind of slow dance, with hints and subtle messages as the steps that made up this dance. And of course, we spoke about facing rejection. One audience member asked, what if you keep getting rejected for reasons such as your body type or your lifestyle? One response was that being rejected based on prejudices that exist in our culture are based on shortcomings in our social norms and surroundings, and does not reflect on you. But we also spoke about another instance in which flirting doesn’t work out. To the important question of how to handle a situation in which you’ve made someone uncomfortable with your flirting, Chavda had this to say: “Communicate, communicate, communicate. Email, WhatsApp, phone, talk [in person], whatever you want to do, express your regret at what has happened, say you really had no intention of the situation reaching the level that it has, you really find that person extremely attractive, you’re sorry you’ve been misunderstood, and if there the possibility of another chance you would love to take it up again. And say that if there is no such possibility, you would accept, and again, apologise.” He also said it was important to make oneself the subject of the communication, to say “I am sorry”, “I had no intention…”, and not ‘I want you to know”, or “You have misunderstood…” Matlab, don’t make it the other person’s fault. Once you do this, you will also feel less weighed down. As the evening warmed up the audience jumped in with questions and insights of their own. Before the event began, we had asked people to write down their questions anonymously and place them in a bowl we passed round, so that we could read them out to Chavda and Singh and ask their advice. There were several good questions: one girl asked what to do when a guy who liked you praised other girls for being hot, but told you that you weren’t quite the best-looking girl in the world. (Dump him! was the general consensus.) To a question from the audience about how to respond when someone flirts with your partner, Singh said it was all about the boundaries you had discussed with your partner, and that if you hadn’t already, it was worth having a conversation about what it is you are both okay with. Chavda thought it was about trusting your partner, and felt that if it was flirting that was within sensible boundaries and didn’t make your partner uncomfortable, it was fine. One of the loveliest moments was when an audience member told us about how she flirted on the very first date she went on years ago with her now-husband, when she pointed out an attractive woman so he could check her out: While Singh and Chavda touched on a range of topics related to flirting, there were some great tips to take home:

  • Read more literature, and read more poetry art gives you a vocabulary, understanding, and charm
  • You need to really like people (as humans) in order to flirt well  
  • Learn to listen
  • Humour is always nice
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously, and use resources to learn
  • When there is a clear no, walk away
  • Communicate! Be clear in your intent, and check in with the other person about theirs
  • Consent is a process: a yes is not a yes forever, and a no may not be a no forever

What emerged in the discussion is that we all want to enjoy romance more, but are full of anxiety and doubt about it. In part it is because we are never able to talk freely about these things for fear of being judged, laughed at or thought sleazy. As people ate their samosas before heading out, they stopped to write a few interesting things on our flirt boards. After the talk was done, one of the participants came over to us to let us know that he felt we had created a safe space where one could discuss things like flirting without judgement. We’re so glad he felt that way, because that’s precisely what we work towards! And we hope to do so at more such live events, where we hope we’ll see you too!   Want to read more about why flirting is healthy and even necessary? Want to hear what other people said about making the first move? Or maybe just a little poetry?

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