Sexual teasing involves the possibility of sex, then withdrawal of the perceived invitation. Teasing violates a standard piece of relationship advice, i.e., communicate clearly. But people often don’t, especially when dating and during the interpersonal dance that precedes sex. In those situations communication is often indirect and ambiguous, what we call it flirting or teasing.
But in flirting, implied interest in the other person is sincere and involves the real possibility of a sexual relationship. In teasing, the intent is insincere. The teaser uses personal charm (words, jokes, gestures, touch) to excite the other, exerting power over that person, but all the recipient gets is confusion, frustration, and possibly embarrassment.
Teasing can involve people of any age, but the easiest group to survey is college students—and their experiences shed light on sexual teasing in general. Researchers at the University of Texas, in Austin, and the University of New Brunswick, Canada, surveyed 742 heterosexual undergraduates (143 men, 599 women) about their teasing experiences.
Sixty percent of both the men and women recalled being teased at least once. More women (64%) than men (43%) said they’d been conscious teasers. Men recognize that women tease more than they do, in fact, many men call it “cock teasing.”
Very few respondents said they’d teased a stranger. Usually the target was a friend or acquaintance. In fact, in 25 percent of reported teasing incidents, the teaser had previously had intercourse with the target, and half the teasers had previously been sexual with the target in some other way.
Men and women generally had similar motives for teasing, namely: I wanted to make the person want me sexually. I wanted to see how much the person wanted me.
But women were considerably more likely than men to say: I wanted to feel attractive and/or desirable. I wanted to feel in control, powerful. I didn’t want to seem too “easy” by having sex right away. I was scared of being pressured into sex, so I did it to buy some time, to look for an out.
Men were considerably more likely to say: I wanted to turn myself on. I wanted to see how far I could get. I did it as a joke or on a dare or bet. I wanted to have something to tell my friends later.
Teasers ascribed generally benign motives to their teasing. They called it harmless fun, flirting with an edge. But they recognized that it was more fun for them than for the target. Recipients had less predictable reactions. In one-third of recalled incidents, the target reacted positively, joking and laughing about being teased. About one-third expressed indifference (“whatever”). About 15 percent of targets ignored the teaser. And approximately 15 percent said that being teased upset them.
The researchers also conducted quick personality inventories on study participants. Personality type had very little to do with teasing. Anyone and everyone is a potential teaser.
This study makes teasing look like a step on the continuum of getting to know others, part of the process of sizing people up as potential romantic/sexual partners. Very few people tease strangers. Teasers generally focus on friends or acquaintances. In many cases, the teaser and the target have already been sexual together. So it looks like teasing represents a way to affirm (or reaffirm) interest in another while at the same time drawing a boundary, saying no trespassing.
The same dynamics are at work in the ways many spouses test the other’s interest in sex. Teasing may feel playful to the person doing it. But targets often feel differently. Think about that the next time you’re tempted to tease. And the next time you’re on the receiving end of teasing, recognize it for what it is, part of the game of courtship, and a game you might lose.