Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Flirting in the Factory

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Flirting in the Factory

Article excerpt

Introduction

One day, at afternoon break time, the factory workers filed out of the factory and made their way across the street to the 'snackette', a small shop that sells fast food and cold drinks. In this factory in Trinidad, nearly all of the line workers are women and every line worker is either of African or of East Indian descent. On their way out, the workers passed the supervisors who were leaning up against the front wall of the building, chatting to each other while watching the women. All of the supervisors are men, and nearly all of them are White. Lloyd, a 41-year-old White supervisor who was known to have sources of income in addition to his factory position, and Patricia, a nineteen-year-old East Indian worker, had been 'flirting' for the previous three months, since Patricia started working at the factory. When Patricia walked past the men, Lloyd smiled and said to her 'Come here you hot bucket of food, you'. Patricia smiled back and kept on walking. 'She love every bone in he body', said Winston, a thirty-year-old East Indian supervisor, loud enough for Patricia to hear. Lloyd, grabbing his crotch, said equally loud, 'There's one bone I know she'd love'. The men chuckled. Patricia made no indication that she heard Winston's comment or Lloyd's second comment. When break time was over, Patricia walked past the men, smiled at them, and went towards the factory entrance. After commenting to one of the men on her propensity to wear tight jeans, Lloyd said, ostensibly to the other men but in a voice loud enough for Patricia to hear as she was about to round a comer of the building, 'Ooh, I would love to fuck she'. With various sounds and gestures, the other men indicated that it would indeed be a good thing to do. After this incident, the flirting between Lloyd and Patricia became even more intense and obvious. Together they attended a worker's wedding some weeks later. However, at the reception Lloyd got drunk and became angry with Patricia for dancing with one of the bride's cousins. Lloyd's and Patricia's relationship subsequently cooled.(2)

This incident shows that what I will call flirting is more than simple coercion. Lloyd was not Patricia's direct supervisor, although he did enjoy a position of general authority over her and, of course, enjoyed the status that 'whiteness' and 'maleness' bring in Trinidad in general. But the incident also shows that flirting is more than some sort of sociologically empty 'game'. Flirting is not only an idiom for expressing one's sexuality and sexual desire, but is also an instrument for exercising (and resisting) power along various axes and, in the process, for constituting and constructing gendered, ethnic and 'classed' identities.

By flirting I mean indirect behaviour designed to indicate a possible sexual interest in another individual as well as to inquire, through this indirection, as to the other's possible interest. It is also a way of attracting interest in oneself. We may know when we are being flirted with, but what we do not know is what is meant by the flirting or what the flirt's exact intentions are. When we flirt we may not know what our own exact intentions are, for that matter. Flirting not only entails the creation of an aura of uncertainty on the part of the flirt - as observers from Simmel (1984) to Phillips (1994) have noted - but it is also risk-taking behaviour.

Though indirect, flirting is 'directed' behaviour, that is, it does not always have to be reciprocal or reciprocated. In addition, it may or may not reveal a 'serious' interest in forming a sexual relation. At times it can indicate a more abstract interest in forming a liaison while simultaneously acknowledging the existence of social obstacles that make such a liaison impossible or undesirable. The Trinidadian term that comes closest to describing this kind of behaviour is 'tracking', also sometimes referred to as 'making track' (Mendes 1986: 149). This refers to actions associated with sustained pursuit of a serious sexual or romantic interest of which flirting could be part. …

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