It took Annie, whose name has been changed for privacy, a long time to work out how to flirt with women. She was so bad at flirting, she says, that her girlfriend didn’t know she liked her until she kissed her on the second date.
Annie is not alone. Many bi and pansexual women, nonbinary and AFAB (assigned female at birth) people have no idea how to flirt with women when they first come out. Community support worker Megan te Boekhorst was "cautious and slow" and "incredibly nervous and completely gawky" when she first started flirting with women and nonbinary folk.
This was because Megan had masked her queer identity while growing in a "strong conservative town" In America's bible belt region where she wasn't safe to be out with a woman or non-binary person. At high school, she flirted with women, but it was always brushed off as "girls being girls." This diminishing of queer attraction is common in a patriarchal society that fetishes lesbian intimacy.
This idea that "women just kiss women" and "it doesn't mean anything" harms bisexual people like Megan. "I have more than a few memories of flirting with a woman, thinking it’s going well, and getting that excited, happy feeling you get when you think there’s a spark there."
"In my own university years, I internalised the stereotype that women can only be interested in women to impress men."
Unfortunately, these women were using Megan to get the attention of some guy they fancied. "I often felt like I was being used to attract the male gaze and I hated it. Which has just made it even harder for me to flirt with women in the fear of them being straight."
In my own university years, I internalised the stereotype that women can only be interested in women to impress men. So when I kept kissing the same female friend on drunken night's out, I told myself I was probably doing it to impress the men. I couldn't quite admit to myself that I couldn't give a damn about the men, that I had a huge raging crush on her and other women that followed. I was confused. I was attracted to these women, but wasn't I just another straight girl begging to be interesting? It took a few years until I had the confidence to validate what I'd always known, but buried deep.
Coming out was the first step. I had had enough of secretly admiring women, nonbinary people, and AFAB people from a distance. Now I wanted to actually act on my attraction. But how? When you've only been with cis men, like I had, dating women feels like a whole other ball game: one where you don't know the rules, let alone who's playing or whether you're allowed on the pitch.
Anxiety can bubble up when trying to understand the psychology of other queer women and adjusting to something new as you realise your queer feelings, says dating and relationship expert, Callisto Adams, PhD.
We are all used to following heterosexual dating scripts (more on that later). Meanwhile, acting on your queer desire is scary. Biphobia and bi-erasure in society sends the message that male presenting bisexual people are actually gay while female presenting bisexuals are thought to be straight and experimenting. Given the fact our sexuality is often invalidated by society and treated as "just a phase," it's no wonder that we are riddled with nerves while flirting with women. How do you flirt with a woman when you don’t know how to be anything but friendly?
Angelika Koch, who works as a "happiness and relationship expert" for queer dating app Taimi deals with nervous bisexual clients all the time who ask her, "How do you even approach a woman? I just talked myself out of it." They, like many, find themselves in bisexual purgatory: wanting to date women but not knowing how to (or being too shy to) hit on them. To break free from purgatory, it can help to reacquaint yourself with flirting 101.
If you, understandably, still get tongue-tied at the sight of a beautiful woman, treating it as a "beneficial friendship" at first can remove some of the pressure, Koch says.
Getting to know them first can create a feeling of familiarity, so you can move it forward when you're comfortable. Just have fun with it. Make her laugh. Get to know her as a person. This isn’t Love Island, you don’t need to spend eternity talking about how much you fancy each other.
"Good flirting is always respectful."
Nervous? Tell her! "That can actually be such a charming thing to say to a woman," Koch says. "Think of being on a date..and you're so nervous around her. Then she says to you, 'I have so much anxiety right now because I think you're really beautiful.'…That's so flattering."
Women are used to being objectified by strangers, so complimenting who they are as a person will go a long way. "Good flirting is always respectful," Koch says, regardless of gender.
The basics of good flirting, Adams reminds us, is confidence, eye contact, and intimacy. "Try to understand what you are feeling at the moment and what would attract you as a woman to another woman," she says.
Remember: Consent is necessary and sexy. If you want to kiss them, look at one eye, then the lips for a few seconds before moving back to the other eye. This lets them know you're interested, Koch says. "Then you can gauge the reaction and ask, 'I want to kiss you, Is that okay?' or 'I'm not going to kiss you until you give me consent.'" Taking the guesswork out of it builds trust, which is a massive turn-on.
I have friendzoned myself with women I fancied, deciding to settle for what I was used to: secret admiration. It was only when a woman I had given the "we should totally go for coffee or hang out sometime!" spiel to replied saying: "You're really hot, do you want to go on a date?" that I realised I didn't have to resign myself to friendship with people I'd quite like to date. Making this shift isn't easy. After all, how do you signal to other women that you're not complimenting them in a drunk-girl-in-the-toilet way, but in an I-fancy-you way?
"Female friendships are so deep," Annie says, "I think it's quite easy to convince yourself that maybe it's just friends, you know, maybe they're not really that interested."
As a "subtle flirt," Megan has also felt this confusion. "Unconditional support for your fellow woman is fantastic until you’re trying to figure out if a woman is flirting back or just being kind."
To make the distinction clear from your end, it's all about intention and inflection, according to the TikTok girlies. Popular advice is to lower the register of your voice when giving a compliment. Essentially, you want to do less "oh my gosh, you're really pretty" and more "wow, you look really good tonight."
If you spot someone you fancy at, say, a bar, you don't need to jump right into Miss Smooth Talker. Koch recommends that you start slow, and maybe offer them a drink. Forcing the flirt is not going to be enjoyable for anyone, but when you are feeling confident, a simple direct question will go down a treat. If you're too shy, Koch recommends trying something like "'I've really enjoyed talking to you. Can I give you my phone number?"
Texting can also help to establish a flirty vibe. "Send a short text, which is funny and light-hearted, you can understand what they think and want," Adams says.
If you can't work out whether she's being nice or flirty, try to get out of your head and focus on the classic flirting signals, which Koch says look like blushing, touches, prolonged eye contact and compliments.
"You should try to treat them differently, more special than the others," Adams adds.
Sometimes, people flirt and don't mean anything by it. The fear of flirting with a straight woman can hold baby queers back.
There's only one way of knowing for sure whether someone is queer: asking them. Yet if the thought of asking a woman if they like women feels you with fear, Koch recommends joining a dating app, where it's almost a guarantee that people you swipe past want to date women. This helped me take the first step; knowing that they had matched with me because they found me attractive and wanted to romantically date me took the pressure off. If virtual dating isn't your thing, head to a gay, lesbian or queer bar.
Opening her dating app preferences to women helped Annie realise that her profile had been “geared towards what men find attractive.” While queer profiles had more 'kind' pictures of women with plants, straight profiles looked more 'Instagrammy.'
"It did feel like ‘oh, there's, there's a whole different way to date here.’ Like, I don't have to be the hottest version of myself at every given second, I can just exist," she added. After university, she made her profile "goofier" and more authentic.
She matched with a girl and planned a date – the first time she'd ever done so. If you’ve gotten used to waiting for the guy to lead, flirting with women is an opportunity to break with convention. These conventions can be referred to as heterosexual dating scripts. You know how it goes: men chase women. You've always been pursued, never really done the pursuing. These scripts keep us all in boring, binary boxes, but it is possible to unlearn them.
Gender norms have taught us that men make the first move. They plan the dates and flirt more assertively, while women do their best to be appealing and playful.
These sweeping generalisations are outdated. Still, these gender performances (and that's all they really are — culturally determined presentations of so-called 'masculine' and 'feminine' attributes) are hard to break away from, even for those of us who don't subscribe to the biologically determinist model of gender (the idea that the difference between men and women is hardwired through our genes). In relationships with two women, Koch says this leads to a 'teeter tooter' power struggle.
In her 2009 paper entitled "Bisexuals 'Doing Gender' in Romantic Relationships" gender and sexuality researcher Suzanne Pennington, who's an academic at University at Albany, State University, concludes that even in bi relationships where there is flexibility about gender performances: “negotiations are made as to which partner will enact which of the two traditional gender scripts.” She theorised that this happened because bisexuals “must negotiate many unscripted social circumstances” given “the ambiguous social location of bisexuality” that places it as 'not gay enough', but not straight either.
Essentially, people are so used to falling into a dynamic where one person initiates, that bisexual people can find themselves expecting that from the more "masculine" person in the situation. This research was drawn from a small sample, over a decade ago. Yet gender differences still drive our behaviour, or at least our expectations of others.
"Men are easier to flirt with," Megan reflects. "After all, 'how to flirt with men' is ingrained in pop culture…It's easier to tell when a man is flirting back with you. I'm in my 30s now and still never know if my flirting is being reciprocated by women."
Annie agrees that men and women flirt differently. "Men would flirt or compliment me, or use pick up lines. And I’d go 'No, not me.' And that's all I had to do. Whereas now it's a two-way conversation which is much better," she argues. "There's a lot of depth instantly because you don't have these crutches of societal construction to fall back on."
Annie and her girlfriend threw out the stereotypical 'masc' and 'femme' expectations often placed on queer relationships, choosing instead to just…be two people in a relationship. Not having a script to follow helped Annie feel more at ease, whereas Megan felt more confused. This is reflective of Pennington's conclusion that a "lack of a predetermined script can either be seen as stressful, or freeing."
"Exploring your sexuality is as scary as it is exciting, especially if you've denied that part of yourself for a long time."
Gender can, and does, affect how we flirt and like to be flirted with, but if we take gender out of the equation, who are you?
As Koch puts it: "What if you are someone who's been taught to be passive and submissive, and just to let someone chase after you, but you've wanted to be the one to ask them on a date, even in a heterosexual relationship, but you don't because you've been told not to? Then you know that you tend to be more of a dominant person. Embrace that."
By being the one to suggest dates, you might find that the woman you're flirting with enjoys being pursued, and you being comfortable taking the lead could be an easy dynamic to fall into. Or vice versa. Or maybe you switch roles.
Exploring your sexuality is as scary as it is exciting, especially if you've denied that part of yourself for a long time. But women aren't unknowable enigmas. After all, you are a woman, you have female friends, and while everyone is different, you know what kind of flirting comes across badly. Trust yourself to be direct, playful and seductive without being disrespectful or cringey. And don't forget, she's a human before she's a woman.