The Soho Sex Column: Are we in danger of making everything a red flag?

red flags in distance

Should we be focusing on green flags instead? Our resident sexpert Olivia Petter has the answer

Friday 22 July 2022   By Olivia Petter   Illustration by Derek Abella

Like you, I have wanted to believe in a world where people are good. A world where people call when they say they will. One where they bring you coffee the morning after giving you multiple orgasms. Maybe they even make your bed. That world of sunshine and rainbows would be one where we could focus on green flags. But I’m afraid, dear reader, that is not our world.

Don’t get me wrong, I see where you’re coming from. In today’s dating scene, we talk a lot about red flags. Some of them – no friends, rude to waiters, puts you down – are valid and should be acknowledged as early as possible. But others – odd socks, puts ketchup on pasta, owns a bucket hat – are not. The trouble is that when everything is a red flag, is anything actually a no-go zone? 

Obviously, we don’t want to start diluting the meaning of red flags to the point of parody. But we also need to be careful. It’s a valid question. But one that, I think, is having the opposite desired effect. Because when we start questioning whether or not someone’s bad behaviour qualifies as a red flag, we start to give them the benefit of the doubt. And not everyone deserves it. 

Let me give you an example. I once knew a man; let’s call him Fred. Now, without wanting to sound like a Taylor Swift song, I knew Fred was trouble. We formed a friendship shortly before he became embroiled in a soap opera-worthy scandal. He’d been sleeping with one woman for six months while flirting with another behind her back. Eventually, he also slept with the second woman. This would normally have been a somewhat mild offense. Except these two women were friends. And Fred had told both of them that he would never sleep with the other.

After he’d been caught out, Fred started sending me screengrabs of angry texts from one of the women, who he said had gone ‘completely mental’. Yes, but you were lying to her? I would reply. ‘I know but she’s seriously overreacting,’ he would counter. ‘I’m not that bad.’ And for a while, I managed to convince myself he wasn’t.

This was despite the fact that I’ve essentially made a career out of analysing men like Fred. Narcissists who treat women like toys and can’t see themselves as capable of causing harm. Nonetheless, I continued to ignore the red flags. In fact, I entertained them.

When Fred sent more screengrabs of ‘great’ messages from other women he’d hurt, I laughed. When he forwarded a photo of another woman’s cleavage to ask if I thought her breasts were real, I tried to figure out if they were. And when he showered me with compliments, I allowed myself to feel superior. Irrational, hysterical and dramatic, those women were not like me, I thought.

Of course, in the least surprising twist of all time, I later discovered first-hand that Fred was not a very good person. Without offering too many details – and giving him the satisfaction of being written about – let’s just say that we are no longer friends, and it’s much better that way. 
My point in sharing this story is to say that while I would love to say we should spend more time acknowledging green flags, it’s far more important we focus on the red ones so we can identify them. Misogyny, it transpires, is a good one to spot quickly. Trust your instincts; I wish I had.

Quick-fire questions

Is having sex with someone you wouldn't have a relationship with healthy? 
Ostensibly, I think it’s absolutely fine. But there are some caveats: namely that this scenario requires exquisite communication skills if either of you are to avoid being hurt. You both need to be on exactly the same page about what’s happening between you. If that’s possible, go forth. If not, I’d reconsider this dynamic.

A new partner has said he doesn't believe in supporting one another financially – is that a red flag?
Forget red flags, this is just plain bizarre. When you’re in a relationship with someone, supporting one another financially is part of the package. That’s not to say you need to start funding each other’s lifestyles – and there should be a degree of balance when it comes to who’s spending what. But taking each other out for dinner? Buying birthday presents? Generosity is an important quality in any partner – if this belief of his comes from a lack of that, then yes: big red flag. 

Got a question for Olivia? Please email All submissions will remain anonymous. 
Olivia Petter is the relationships writer at The Independent and author of Millennial Love, which is out now in paperback with 4th Estate


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