The ethics of flirting

July 27, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 15
Melissa Miller |

The guy on the bus was flirting boldly. First he locked a laser stare on the young woman in front of him. Then he shot her a wide smile. When she smiled back, he upped the ante by reaching both hands up to his ears and giving them a comical pull. At that point, as onlookers chuckled, his father, standing behind his stroller, said, “He’s a big flirt. He’ll put the moves on anyone.”

Context is everything when it comes to flirting. The who and the where and the circumstances determine if the flirting is amusing or aggravating. By flirting, I mean a playful expression of interest, a signal of a desire to get closer—something that can be expressed through words or non-verbally. In its benign form, flirting is a delightful form of human interaction whereby both participants enjoy a tingle of attraction and the sparkle of appreciation. I hasten to add that I am not advocating behaviors that compromise marital fidelity or cross over healthy boundaries. (I once had a co-worker who pestered me with comments like, “I’ve always wanted to have an affair with a married woman. How about it?” This continued in spite of my clear messages of discomfort and requests that he stop.)

Nuance is essential in flirting. I imagine the youngster on the bus will learn about such nuance over time. He’ll learn by the messages he receives from his father, and he’ll learn from other people around him. He’ll pick up messages in the culture that surrounds him—in the school yard, at hockey games, observing the mores in the entertainment he watches, movies and computer games.

What might the Christian church have to offer by way of teaching? The Ethics of Flirting is not a regular sermon title or Sunday School lesson in my experience. (There is a sly reference in Proverbs 30:19—the Hebrew sage’s list of things too wonderful to understand—that includes “the way of a man with a maid,” deftly hinting at the mysteries of sexual attraction without putting too blunt a point on it.)

Christian ethics are shaped by our understanding of Jesus. We look to him to guide us in our human relationships. Our scriptures emphasize Jesus’ divine nature that propelled him to love sacrificially and to death on a cross. Our scriptures also depict a Jesus who was fully human and engaged the people he met with respect and compassion and on many occasions, with spirited humor and provocative playfulness. In his humanity, we can imagine that Jesus was attractive to the people around him, and also that he was attracted to them.

I wonder if honour could be the frame for our flirting. Do our signals of attraction and pleasure honour each other? Are they in keeping with the relationships and circumstances, and respectful of the other commitments we have made? Do they honour the God who created us, the beauty and sacredness of others, and the life we are blessed to enjoy?

In conclusion, I’ll offer another incident that happened at a bowling alley recently. As a 91-year-old family friend exited, he leaned down close to my sister, resting his arm on the back of her chair. Lowering his head close to her ear, he asked, “Will you let an old man brag a little? I just bowled a game with a score of 221.” (Note: a perfect game is 300.) Our small group cheered and applauded, and then he slowly walked away, with a farewell wave. Underneath his bragging was a set of questions: “Will you notice me? With you celebrate with me? Do you find me to be worthy and attractive?” We could honour him and he honoured us.

Melissa Miller ( lives in Winnipeg, Man., where she ponders family relationships as a pastor, counsellor and author.

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