What Cuba taught me about Flirting and Sensuality
“Flirting is Cuba’s national game,” our retreat organizer Christine informed us as we turned a corner in Havana Vieja (Old Havana) one hot afternoon. Something I had begun to sense, having lost and found my way on the streets of Havana several times over the last few days. Getting a hang of a city’s unwritten rules the way only perpetual walking can ensure, flirting had made itself clear as the undercurrent to most human interaction.
As the Cubans say – No puedo evitarlo (I can’t help it)
The way men and women (boys and girls even) occupy public spaces in Cuba can be quite the lesson in everyday sensuality and next-level self-confidence. Openly checking each other out and expressing attraction without any fear of rejection or judgement, for starters. Women owning their space and flaunting their femininity like they love their bodies and own the street. Men dramatically expressing their appreciation of female beauty – their words and body language exuding no desperation, aggression, entitlement or dominance. Four things that make all the difference between the guy on a Bombay street leching at me from a mile away, singing the latest brainless Bollywood item song and trying to grope me as I walk by and a Cuban who catches my eye when I walk out of a restaurant, holds my gaze and gets just close enough to whisper ‘linda’ in my ear as we cross paths on a hot day. The latter feels like a moment and a compliment I’m glad to have had, from a man with enough self-esteem not to be desperate or aggressive for female attention. The former, well, is the reason I carried pepper spray and a pen knife in my handbag through most of my teen years and twenties.
So what can Cuba teach us about flirting and sensuality?
- Sexy isn’t a shape/age/size/anything the media sells you. Sexy is a choice. To enjoy your natural sensuality without any sense of apology or dread. Regardless of age/appearance/gender, loving what you’ve got and enjoying it.
An elderly woman with a frizzy white bob and a grocery bag, strutting across the street in a t-shirt that announced “All Eyes on Me”. I love how these women never got mass media’s memo on editing themselves for society’s approval. Cuba is a country where sexuality is anything but repressed, and mass media has yet to take a swing at people’s instinctive love and acceptance of their own bodies. Being a communist country, advertising has barely a toehold here. No vacant faces and airbrushed bodies staring down at you from billboards defining what constitutes beauty and what doesn’t. No self-appointed “guardians of culture” and moral police telling people it’s unacceptable for them to express and celebrate their sensuality. Bodes well for body image and an open acceptance of sexuality as a normal, wonderful part of life.
- Old school flirting is the way forward: Cuba reminded me – with all her music, dancing, colours, people, street art, and overall intensity at all times – what old school flirting is. A game that is its own reward, open to everyone at all times. Where the fundamental idea is to make the other person like you, so you don’t go annoy the hell out of them or creep them out (Who knew!)
In the absence of constant internet, social media and dating apps, actual interpersonal skills are what you bring to the game. Skills such as self-confidence and body language – strong in a culture where sexuality and sensuality are celebrated, not curtailed. And in the absence of advertising to distort body image, it’s not conventional attractiveness but these interpersonal skills that make all the difference. Whether you’re professing undying love or appreciating a nice derriere, it takes some amount of finesse, empathy, body language, creativity and imagination to make a playful moment of it.
No men were objectified in the making of this handsome collage. All pics with consent, no creepshots
- Every single day occasions a celebration of sensuality, because why not?
Somewhere along the way, growing up in patriarchal India where sexuality (especially female) is shrouded in shame and misogyny is rampant, I’d (almost) lost touch with the part of me that loves being a woman and enjoys her sensuality and sexuality. Being female might as well be a punishable offence when your femaleness is a liability that gets you assaulted and blamed for it over and over again. And here is an entirely different culture that makes you want to revel in your femaleness, wear that ‘too-sexy-for-me’ dress and flirt your ass off. Express your natural sensuality without any sense of apology or dread of aggression. Because guess what, it’s normal around here. Being sexual, sensual and flirtatious is given its place in the human experience, for everyone under the Cuban sun. What’s abnormal and even dangerous is the repression of these very aspects of our humanness. Anything repressed is going to blow up eventually – and it’s never pretty. The way sexuality is repressed in India, it’s no wonder even a walk down the street is an obstacle course for many women in big cities. Dating is largely considered a “bad” effect of western culture, so young people interested in each other have to hide that normal, natural instinct and go under the radar – and god knows what else.
- Unchecked technology short-circuits human connections
Quite the no-brainer, but Cuba really hammers home the difference between connections formed in person and those we form online. Given the general shortage of material things and electronic gadgets, Cubans have a strong sense of human connection and the aliveness of face-to-face interactions. People are a lot more involved in each others’ lives and have a sense of interdependence and solidarity. Conversations are shouted across streets even late at night – between several people. Animatedly enough for you to pick a side within minutes and feel emotionally invested. Emoticons on screens and all our social media cannot ever match face-to-face interactions marked by a pronounced body language that doesn’t hold back. Which can seem overwhelming at first, but one gets used to it. The only places you’ll find people glued to screens are the Wifi parks or fancy hotels that double up as Wifi zones. Outside the few internet spots, people don’t need reminders to look up from screens and engage with all the life unfolding in front of them.
- Where sexuality is accepted and acknowledged as a normal part of life instead of being shrouded in shame and ignorance, sexual violence is bound to be rare
And people are far more likely to report sexual assaults when there isn’t so much shame attached to sex. Saying ‘I was raped’ is a million times tougher than saying ‘I was robbed’ – in a culture that shames sexuality and consequently the victims of sex crimes. A big reason so many sex crimes go unreported in India is the massive shame and ignorance we attach to sexuality. I know that from my own experiences with being sexually assaulted and those of so many people close to me.
Sex crimes are rare in Cuba and in my own experience, I felt safe alone even across long deserted roads between cities. Plugged into my earphones in the backseat, zoning out to the views while some young Cuban I just met drove the taxi, without even a working phone connection on me (good luck getting a local SIM card in Cuba, something I didn’t have the patience for). And on streets while it rained comments/compliments/questions now and then, it stayed playful and didn’t turn into groping or hostility. Sure there are exceptions/jerks in every part of the world so one still has to be alert about one’s safety, but in general physical harassment is not something to be expected on Cuban streets.
- Flirting can be a way of life
Not an experience you only share with a select few people in controlled environments, but something you do on the spur of the moment with someone you happen to cross paths with. Not a strategy or transaction for a specific outcome, but a spontaneous interaction that is its own reward regardless of what follows. Not just sliding into DMs, but sliding into someone’s imagination. Not a manipulation tactic to hoodwink someone, but a way of adding a little mischief, mystery and imagination to everyday life. Which happen to be some of the first casualties in our fast-paced consumerist lives. Flirting asks you to slow down and savour the moment – be a three-dimensional human again and enjoy the possibilities of the moment.
Call me crazy, but if enough of us flirt (the old school way – with finesse, empathy, body language, creativity and imagination, NOT the let-me-harass-you-coz-I-feel-entitled-to-you way) often enough and well enough to make it a natural everyday behaviour, the culture might just begin to tilt in favour of celebrating sensuality instead of shaming it. Who knows, maybe even make a national game of it some day. Count me in 😉
And you thought romance was dead? 😀
Post-salsa tradition with our Salsa teachers in Havana
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