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Feminism Politics Women's Issues

The Politics of Paying on a First Date

Are we really supporting gender equality if the man always pays?

Maheen Behrana

Naked Politics Blogger

For me, the Christmas period often means a splurge of binge-watching TV that I otherwise might have missed.  This Christmas, I found myself watching a lot of Channel 4’s First Dates series.  It is easy Christmas watching, often heartwarming.  Which is why I was somewhat surprised to find myself distinctly irked by something I saw happening time and time again on the show.  In so many of the heterosexual blind dates arranged by the show’s producers, regardless of whether the couple had any intention of seeing each other again, it seemed that the man was expected to pay for the woman.

There are several well worn arguments which cover both sides of this debate.  More old-school feminists are quite keen to pay their way on dates, often because it is a demonstration of the equal responsibility that comes along with equal rights.  However, as many people would point out, women on average earn just 80p for every pound that a man earns.  Coupled with the fact that women face, on average, the same if not higher costs of living than men (90% of single parents are women), it can seem as though men paying for dates is simply a way for the lack of true equality in women’s living standards to be addressed.

image from ABC7.com

But I think that reinforcing the societal expectation that men pay for women on dates is not a very efficient way of making reparations for the gender pay gap, and nor is it seen as such by most women.  After all, especially on a first date, where you may be unlikely to know much about the other’s financial situation, surely the discrepancy in earnings between two people is simply the difference in how much two individuals earn?  It is not really fair for one woman to make one man pay as a result of the inequality society as a whole has dealt to her gender. And surely the best way to address inequality is not by stooping to such a level that you are inflicting your own inequalities on others?

Reading a Refinery article on a large group of millennial women surveyed about paying for dates, a pattern starts to emerge.  Several women seem to think that allowing a man to pay for the entire date is a way of signalling interest in him.  Others feel that navigating the boundaries between going out for a meal with a male friend and going out on an actual date is easier if you stick to a rule where a date is distinguished by the fact of a man paying.

But if dates (usually signalling sexual and/or romantic interest) are characterised by a financial inequality, then surely the relationship they represent will also come to be characterised by inequality too?  If allowing a man to pay for you is a woman’s way of hinting that she is interested in him, then surely that interest becomes transactional in nature. The date becomes less about the mutual interest of two people in each other, and more about the fact that the financial effort of one party is seen as the emotional or relational debt of the other.

image from www.speeddating.com

Maybe this can seem a cold-hearted way of looking at the situation, but it has always been the reason I have never wanted a man to pay for me on dates.  A Guardian article asking men in New York why they pay for the whole bill on dates reveals some interesting thought processes.  One man admits to being put off when female dates insist on paying their half (he also says it happens only 5% of the time), as he feels as though ‘she doesn’t want to feel like she owes me anything’.  When pushed, this man admits that he is talking about sex, and while he tries to emphasise that he does not feel entitled to anything if he pays for the woman, it nevertheless seems clear that the logic of dates where the man pays is that the date is given to the woman in order for something in return.

And in 2019, is that what we really should be going for?  Regardless of who asks who on the date, when only one party pays, it turns the other person into a passive partner.  Surely it should be the done thing for both the man and the woman to express their mutual enjoyment, or at least, mutual respect for each other’s time, by contributing equally to the bill?  Because this very inequality, where women are the ones who are paid for, taken out, wined and dined stops a date from being a mutual experience, and instead becomes all about a man and what he does.

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