So I watch this youtube series called Sexplanations that is super interesting and has lots of good information. Dr. Doe (the writer and narrator) put out a video on flirting that I kind of want to respond to. It was really interesting and informative, but I found myself with mixed feelings.
So first of all, apparently researchers have broken down and categorized how flirting works and have it all out there explicitly. If you’re anything like me, analyzing stuff like this is great! It’s a solid, step-by-step guide to help us understand flirting. Or at least, typical flirting.
If you don’t want to watch the video for whatever reason, here is a summary of what the video went over.
Dr. Doe defines flirting thusly: “Flirting is signalling intimate interest and it’s also determining whether or not the interest is mutual.”
The stages of flirting are as follows:
1. Field of Eligibles. This is basically where you show up at a bar or party or whatever and signal
a) I am here
b) this is my gender
c) you may approach me
through various non-verbal signals.
2. Eye contact. It is supposed to be more than one second but less than three. Also acceptable is many quick glances. This indicates interest.
3. Approach. Self explanatory, I think.
4. Talk. “Observe what you have in common and focus on that.” This is meant to be personalized, but not personal (and I’m not even going to try to get into the potential mess of defining the precise difference between the two). Basically, talk about things, but don’t be invasive.
5. Swivel and Turn. This is when the people go from a more side-to-side posture to a more face-to-face posture.
6. The touch. Casual touching. The general idea is that if it’s reciprocated or met with a smile or otherwise obviously positive response, that’s good and you can continue flirting. If the person startles or flinches, you should politely end the conversation/flirtation and move on.
7. Synchronization. This is when movements, breathing, looks around the room, etc all start to synchronize between the two people. Apparently it happens unconsciously.
She also makes a point to tell us that if at any point the flirtation seems confusing or jumbled or something, it’s time to end the flirtation and move on.
There was also explicit talk of consent, making sure everyone is on the same page, and accepting any kind of “no.” In many ways I found this video most informative, and I think other people would too. While it’s unlikely that I could flirt like that, for a variety of reasons, it might help me understand other people’s behavior. It gives me a baseline for interaction.
On the other hand, bits of it made me sad. For instance, the physical contact part. I generally need to hold off physical contact a lot longer than your average neurotypical person. I mean, your average neurotypical starts touching strangers RIGHT AWAY with that handshake thing. The touching part of flirting will, for most people, happen much sooner than I would be comfortable with. If someone I was just starting to talk to reached out and touched my hand, I would almost certainly wince and jerk away. Since in an NT this would probably be a non-verbal no, it would make sense for a person to interpret it that way from me, but that would be sad and frustrating for me if I was enjoying the flirtation.
Another other one was eye contact. The most I do is really quick glances at a person’s face, and I pretty much never increase that for anyone, over any length of time. Unlike touching this one is not even a matter of mismatched timing – it’s just a drastic difference between autistics and NTs. Again, it would be normal and natural for someone to assume the fact that I’m looking away a lot is a sign of disinterest since apparently it’s that way for other people, but it would be sad-making when people interpreted it that way for me.
I also find myself wondering about the synchronization bit. There’s interesting neuroscience out there about mirror neurons that I don’t really want to get into right now, but the general idea is that autistic people might have more difficulty synchronizing than NTs. Our brains just don’t work that way. So, like touching, at best this probably means that my timescale might be very different from many other people’s timescale, and it might be easy for a person to read lack of interest in a simple difference.
Finally, there was the bit about how we should just stop if things feel jumbled or confused. And really, I mostly agree with her. It’s important for people to be on the same page, and if it’s just not working to be willing to let go. However, anything as complex as all this flirting business is going to feel jumbled and complicated to me, and I don’t want to be told that I can’t play the game at all just because I’m neurologically different.
I’m not really sure what conclusions to draw from this, though. I mean, I’m certainly not going to go saying that the neurotypical way of flirting is wrong in some broad, objective way. Apparently enough people do it this way for researchers to sketch an outline, and it seems to work for many. Maybe even most. It’s just not the right way of flirting for me. I need to do things differently. Maybe I just need to play a slightly different game.
I’ll be honest – I do online dating. I’m actually not in the least bit ashamed of it, though I’ve noticed that some people find it less-than in some way. I’ve found it to be way better than managing meeting strangers in person. When we start with writing, I can explicitly communicate my needs and my differences, and how people respond to that will tell me a lot about whether or not I want to move forward at all. Anyone who thinks that refraining from all physical contact for at least the first few hours is some kind of terrible ordeal is not the person for me. Anyone who thinks regular eye contact is a must is not the person for me. And I can get that out of the way quickly, with significantly lower risk of miscommunication due to different forms of non-verbal language. I like words. Let’s use them!
I don’t want to say that autistics should only date other autistics and NTs should only date other NTs. I mean, I get kinda twitchy at many forms of “[group] should only date other people in [group].” Let’s not go there. But getting past it is going to take explicit communication, and fair or not, it’s going to mean the smaller group (you know, us) will need to be clear about what we need and how we work. We can do that, right?