While the sexual weathermen have predicted an exceptionally steamy post-covid summer, those hoping to mark the end of their long confinement with an old-school office romance may want to keep their masks (and pants) on: According to a recent headline from HR News, workplace canoodling is not back on the list of approved activities. A new survey of 1,000 American workers by a telecommunications firm found that 93 percent of women consider workplace flirting inappropriate, compared to 27 percent of men who consider it at least sometimes acceptable.
The more interesting story is not told by mere statistics (though one hopes that 27 percent of male flirters will be smart enough to limit their winking and nudging to the 7 percent of women who apparently don't mind it). It's what the survey reflects about the changing landscape of interpersonal relationships, and the rapid evolution of sexual mores, which have culminated in a new set of norms that redefines entire categories of human interaction as hopelessly outré.
It's all a bit whiplash-inducing. After all, it was not very long ago that people not only flirted in the workplace but often dated and married partners with whom they first connected there. The number of folks who met their spouses through work hovered around 20 percent from the 1990s through the early aughts. Back then, online dating was a blip on the radar. It carried the same shameful stigma associated with the newspaper personal ads of old, a last resort for desperate weirdos who couldn't meet partners the normal way—you know, like at work.
Of course, as more people started living more of their lives online, that stigma faded—but it didn't disappear. Instead, it took root in a morass of shifting cultural norms. These included the rise of dating apps, the MeToo movement, the campus sexual assault panic, a growing fixation on privilege and power dynamics in interpersonal relationships, and a belief in "consent" as a safeguard against any and all negative sexual experiences. Add to that the spiking rates of anxiety and depression among young millennials and Zoomers, who are also dating less and having less sex than the generations before them.
All of these factors combined into a strange new consensus: it's not dating online that's creepy. What's creepy is everything else.
It's not hard to see how a generation that had grown accustomed to social interaction through an intermediary—play dates scheduled by parents that gave way to date-dates scheduled through apps—might develop some anxiety around interactions that occur outside those safe confines, in which both parties haven't explicitly ticked a box consenting to the possibility of romance.
There's also tension here: The yearning for love and sex isn't gone, but it exists in competition with a growing sense that the mere expression of interest is an embarrassing violation of boundaries.
Kate Julian captured this dynamic in a 2018 Atlantic article about millennial sexlessness, when her story of meeting her husband in an elevator was met with deeply ambivalent reactions from the article's subjects. Even as the young women she spoke to swooned over the idea of such a meet-cute, "quite a few of them suggested that if a random guy started talking to them in an elevator, they would be weirded out. "Creeper! Get away from me," one woman imagined thinking.
That gut-level revulsion in response to a friendly overture—"Creeper! Ew!"—is partly traceable to the idea that male desire is in and of itself fundamentally predatory, which is in turn traceable to the trend of viewing sex and love through a power-and-privilege lens. The way the thinking goes, if every interaction between men and women must be contextualized against men's abuse of women historically, as a group, then any man approaching a woman should be rightfully viewed with suspicion; even the most anodyne coffee date comes with an unwanted, non-optional side order of three thousand years of patriarchal oppression. Drink up, ladies!
But today's horror at last generation's idea of a meet cute also reflects a bone-deep discomfort among young people with the sort of spontaneous, unscripted interaction that can spark an unexpected connection, like chatting up an attractive stranger in an elevator.
For a generation that prides itself on openness to experience, millennials have remarkably little confidence in their ability to navigate the complicated, confusing, or otherwise ambiguous territory of adult intimate relationships.
The far-reaching impact of the #MeToo movement may be visible here. What started as a well-intentioned attempt to protect women from pervasive harassment and abuse evolved into something more nefarious; young people have been taught to equate emotional discomfort with trauma and violation, and have thus come to believe that the only "good" relationship offers complete safety from ever feeling bad.
This notion of intimacy without the risk of heartbreak goes hand in hand with our present obsession with "consent," which used to focus on sexual encounters but has since bled over into any and all activities—including flirting or dating—that might eventually lead to sex. If it's not consensual, the argument goes, it's abuse.
But it's also not unusual to see abuse and harassment broadly defined as any behavior that makes the (usually female) subject uncomfortable, even as the list of things that make us uncomfortable keeps expanding to include more and different types of social interaction.
Flirting? Uncomfortable. Jokes? Uncomfortable. Ordering a pizza by phone? No thanks, we'd rather starve.
This is beyond the original notion of harassment as pervasive unwanted attention, the violation of clearly established boundaries; in this new framework, merely inquiring as to the location of the boundaries may render one already out-of-bounds. If saying "no" makes a woman feel awkward, then asking her out, even once, is a violation (and lord help the man who approaches under the mistaken assumption that she's interested!).
The notion of the "unwanted overture" used to be a question-begger, a running joke at corporate sexual harassment trainings: Until you make the overture, how do you know whether or not it's "unwanted"? Some might argue that the social web has since solved this problem for us, that a person should simply always assume that the overture is unwanted, unless it's taking place on a dating app where the subject's presence implies consent to being approached with romantic intent. The imagined result is a sort of neutered utopia, one where nobody is ever advanced-upon at all, thanks to the assumption that every human in sight is pre-enrolled on the sexual equivalent of the do-not-call list.
To some, it might be a nice idea. But it's pure fantasy, and not just because the pre-smartphone generations are unlikely to agree that those of us who met our spouses in meatspace (or, the horror, the workplace) should be ashamed of ourselves.
For one thing, there's an almost comical hubris to the notion that Tinder is the best—nay, only way—to meet someone, an idea contradicted not only by several thousand years of human history but by many of the people currently using the app. But there's also the reality of what Tinder really represents, not so much a paradigm shift as the newest chapter in a very old story: one about a species that keeps trying, and failing, to fall in love without fear.
Matchmakers, personal ads, The Rules, and now, the apps; Tinder is just the latest way that we've tried to game the system to avoid heartbreak. And eventually, it'll be replaced by something else.
But while some of our sexual mores are changing as fast as the technology that fuels them, it's a good bet that the rumors of the death of flirting have been greatly exaggerated, as evinced by the millennial women who swoon at the idea of meeting someone in an elevator—even though, according to the standards of their own generation, this is simply not done. They're tapped into something deeper than the trendy, fleeting culture that says it's traumatic to be desired: the human yearning to connect, to bond, to love and be loved.
My prediction: in the culture wars, love wins.
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.
The views in this article are the writer's own.