The Sexist First Date Ritual We ALL Participate In

Photographed by Eva K. Salvi.
It's a moment so many women who date men have experienced: I'm at the end of a first date, the bill comes, and I'm sitting there, eyeing the guy for signs of his next move. Will he pull the chivalry card, covering the numbers with one hand while deftly putting down his credit card with the other? Will he act as if nothing happened and let the bill sit between us until the very last moment, waiting to see what I might do? Will he look at me point-blank and say, “Wanna split it?”

I used to be the woman who judged men for each of these actions. The first guy was "the keeper" — he wanted to take care of me and he valued my time. He was classy and sophisticated, and he had some money in the bank, a good sign that he had his life in order. The second guy was the coward. He definitely wasn’t going to offer to pay — because he wasn’t that into me? Because he was broke? But he also wasn’t going to admit it unless he had to. He wanted me to suggest splitting the bill. And the third guy was the jerk, the one who obviously didn’t respect me, or care what I thought of him. He clearly wasn’t trying to impress me. Fuck that guy!

But this set of rules, pounded into my head by well-meaning female friends and family members, didn’t hold up against my experiences in the dating world. After years of serious relationships, casual relationships, and dozens of first dates with men and women, I came to the conclusion that there is no reason whatsoever to judge a man based on whether or not he pays for dates. The very idea is dated and smacks of benevolent sexism. It’s not a cultural trope I want to support.

We are all aware of the traditional expectations of different-sex dating: Men do the asking, men pay the bills, men follow up for the next date. Men pursue; women are the prize. Men who don’t adhere to these gender roles are unchivalrous cads, and women who pursue men are desperate.

But why? Why, exactly, are men expected to pick up the check on dates? And why do so many women judge them if they don’t? It harks back to an era before feminism and gender equality became part of the conversation, when men were usually the sole providers for their families, while most women stayed home to care for the kids. A man who paid for dates showed that he could fill the role of provider, and this supported the model of romantic relationship as transactional — an exchange of money and stability for sex and offspring.

A man who paid for dates showed that he could fill the role of provider, and this supported the model of romantic relationship as transactional

Is this really the mindset we want to reflect in the way we date today? Women are no longer shunned from the workplace, and we are closing the gender pay gap a little more each year. With powerful female voices thriving in every area of industry, with a strong woman poised to become our next president, isn’t it about time we abolished these antiquated dating rules that say men should be the pursuers and the providers, while women coquettishly accept or decline their advances — and their money — as if we are property to be bought? Are we prizes perched on pedestals, or are we people?

And yet, if you ask women what they expect from men on first dates (and, in many cases, all dates), the old stereotypes persist. A survey of 17,000 unmarried, heterosexual adults, conducted by Janet Lever of California State University-Los Angeles in 2015, found that while 57% of women said they always offer to help pay the bill on dates, 39% were bothered if a partner actually accepted the offer. And a whopping 82% of men said that they pay the majority of dating expenses even after they’ve been dating a woman for an extended period of time. When you switch the focus to younger women, these numbers still hold pretty steady. A survey conducted by Refinery29 of millennial women who identify as straight or bisexual found that even though 46% of women felt guilty when they let a male date pay for them, 59% felt a man should always offer to pay for a woman on the first date — and 48% said they would let a man pay if he offered.

Are we prizes perched on pedestals, or are we people?

Even self-proclaimed feminists feel this way. One woman I know — a ballsy, badass single mom and high-powered career woman who still manages to look hot at all times — once recommended I read The Rules, or what I like to call Ye Olde Book Of Anti-Feminist Dating Tips. She felt that its advice, which basically pushes gender stereotypes around dating to extremes, would help me find guys who would treat me better. One of “The Rules” is that a woman must never, ever initiate contact with a man, for any reason, ever ever ever, because, you know, THE CHASE! If you do take the lead and ask a guy out, or offer to pick up the tab, it means you’re desperate. Best to keep them guessing about whether or not you’re even interested — by remaining shrouded in mystery. This way of operating is totally not for me.

I’ve never felt comfortable with traditional gender roles, even when it seemed like I was benefitting from them. For example, those guys who smugly pay every bill? I dated one for a year and a half — we’ll call him Billy. Billy wined and dined me from the very first date with expensive meals and thoughtfully planned romantic outings. I had only dated broke artists in the past, so this kind of treatment was new for me. I assumed him shelling out all this dough was a sign that he really loved me, but in the end, it was just an over-compensation for a basic insecurity he had about not being “manly” enough. Billy was scared to seem weak, so he paid every bill in order to seem strong. He also used it as leverage when he started neglecting our relationship. He was covering the majority of the expenses, so I had no right to complain when our romantic relationship started to wane. I felt like a piece of property he was paying to maintain, as long as I kept quiet about my pesky feelings.

As for my other judgement calls: The “cowards” — who would wait to see what moves I would make when the bill came — were often just well-intentioned dudes who had been chastised by feminists for holding doors open and didn’t want to insult me by assuming I even wanted them to pay the bill. And, hilariously, this behavior of waiting to see what the other person would do when the bill came...was exactly what I had been doing! Oh, the irony.

And the third guy? The so-called jerk? He was the only one who was being honest and fair about things, who saw no reason why he should have to pay for everything just because he had a penis and I had a vagina — because, hello, equality! Turns out, I was the one who was being a jerk.

Turns out, I was the one who was being a jerk.

It’s time women who date men put an end to this nonsense. For the first time in history, we have something close to equality, and clinging to customs that reinforce the stereotype of man-as-provider and woman-as-prize is not helping us move forward. And for those who claim that splitting the bill kills the romance? I say, only if you let it.

That cagey moment of wondering if a guy will “do the right thing” and slap down his card is a thing of the past for me. Nowadays, when the bill comes, no matter whom I'm dating, I pull out my wallet and put my money down with a flirty smile. If a guy insists on paying, I make sure I get him next time. Because I am not a prize to be purchased. I’m there because I choose to be, I can pay for my damn self, and I don't equate a free meal with being respected as a human being. I would rather start my romantic relationships the same way I would friendships: with both people standing on equal ground, no pedestals or power plays involved.


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