Flirting has become obsolete, a dying art.

Sadly, we are producing a nation of men intimidated by women and afraid of being labeled sexist if they don’t treat them as equals. Under those circumstances, it’s difficult to flirt when your intentions could be misconstrued. It’s no longer fun to wink at a girl who might take umbrage, or retaliate by getting on her high horse and asking, “Did you just wink at me, mister? Because if you did, you’ve got another thought coming.” That was what I once overheard. The man cowered right before her eyes. My guess is he’s going to think twice, and put his winks on hold, because a woman failed to appreciate his gesture.

Frankly, I miss the spontaneity of it all when there used to be a distinct dividing line between the genders. A time when women were secure enough to appreciate being the object of a man’s desire.

So, where did it all go wrong? When did feminism replace the femme fatale? When was flirting a welcome acknowledgment that she was hot? Today, these same men, who used to be proficient in “coming on,” have now been reduced to careful, well-behaved and boring examples of propriety. They proceed with caution lest they be charged with a misdemeanor so heinous as the innocent act of gaining attention with a wink.

When my memories are ignited, what I recall most fondly are the great flirts of my life, who knew how to make a girl feel important. These same boys grew up to become men who perfected the art of innuendo — the subtle, slightly provocative ogle implying the possibility of what lay on the opposite end of that playful glance.

And here’s the best memory of all. I once fell in lust in the space of 20 minutes when a stranger on a 5th Avenue bus locked eyes with me at 87th Street and 5th. By the time we had reached 34th Street, I was hooked. Not a word was exchanged, but I was on fire. I sat on that bus for two more stops even after I had passed my destination. That man still occupies space in my head all because of a few shared private moments that allowed me to feel like a “babe.” The truly great men of the world are expert flirts. They know it, and because of them, we, the targets of these titillations, reap the greatest rewards

There is a fine line between the flirt and the letch, and any savvy woman knows the difference. Flirting is impromptu and good-spirited. “Letchiness” is off-putting and demeaning. Flirting is of the moment, and is of itself a fleeting diversion, signifying everything, but harming no one. Women who know how to play the game, and don’t resist, are in for a treat. And there is no expiration date. A man of eighty can be as flirtatious as one of thirty. Older men, who have gained experience, are among the most proficient

So why do we shy away from the random nod, the look, the gaze, pretending not to notice? The answer lies in the fact that the world has become a dangerous place, and we need to be careful; that women are so intent on preserving their autonomy that we have become leery of men, and even worse, are chasing them away.

My grandson flirts. At 19, he has perfected this skill to his advantage. One smile, and I am hooked. He knows how to play me in all the right ways. Similarly, my 17-year-old granddaughter has been cultivating her coquettish charms for years. She wins us over with a mere turn of her head, the widening of her saucer-sized eyes, a glance, both innocent and furtive, that silently speaks volumes.

“Flirting is the art of keeping intimacy at a safe distance,” someone said, but flirting is, in itself, a flattering, intimate act. Be it on a bus, as memory recalls, or in any other setting, flirting sets the stage for delightful encounters that allow us to step out of ourselves for a moment, and enjoy a “coup de foudre” (a lightning bolt moment).

I relish a delicious spontaneous flirtation imbued with just enough innuendo to keep it sensuously alive.

While flirting can be acquired, the real good flirts have an innate knack. My dad took it to an art form and became my earliest role model. My late husband, Mort, was a flirt extraordinaire. My friend, Fred, is the consummate, irresistible flirt. I embrace his enthusiasm, and appreciate his dedication to this marvelously frivolous distraction.

The new year is upon us, and a bit of frivolity is in the air. For some, flirting can be interpreted as intrusively sexist. At best, it’s a grand and glorious indulgence to be savored and appreciated. Long live the flirts!

Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer. She can be reached at joodth@snet.net or at www.judithmarks-white.com.