The Unsettled, Unsettling Question of First Date Finances

Who pays and what does it mean?

First Dates

Over the last few years, our dating lives have changed dramatically. While many people used to cringe at the idea of going online to find a potential mate, it’s now standard to pass the time half-heartedly swipe through a list of candidates, or to rely on algorithms to calculate romance.

True, much has changed, but many fundamental, and often awkward, aspects of modern day courtship remain. For example: the transactional element of a standard first date. Dealing with a bill is almost unavoidable, and who pays can be interpreted, along with the other person’s feelings and intentions, in myriad ways. In the straight world at least, the unsettling, and still unsettled, question that always seems to rear its ugly head remains, Should a man pay for the first date, or should he split the bill?

It’s a question I’ve taken issue with for a while, so I decided to gauge reactions from my circle. Most of the women I spoke to were happy to discuss the varying factors that would contribute to that first cheque-paying decision. Some insisted they would always front their share because it’s fair or they don’t want to feel they “owe” their date anything. Others enjoyed indulging in the “false wallet reach” before letting the guy pay. A few who identified as “old-fashioned romantics” went so far as to say that if the man didn’t offer to pay, the date was a failure.

There was no third option. Of all the friends and colleagues I spoke to none immediately offered up the preference of paying everything themselves. (To be clear, I’m talking first dates here, not that grey area you enter between an initial meet and a fledgling relationship.) When pressed, many women said they’d be happy to oblige by paying, especially if they had asked the guy out, but no one made that choice unprompted.

So does this mean we, women, are being shitty? Are the trolls right and ladies cherry picking what they want from feminist principles for financial gain? Hardly. But it is telling that everyone I spoke to happily launched into the automatic argument of “he pays or we split.”

It seems that this is the conditioned dynamic, one that’s supported through thousands of articles on dating websites and in magazines and self-help books. If you need more proof, watch a few episodes of First Dates, an addictive reality show where individuals are set up on blind dates in a London restaurant, en masse. The delicate dance of “how shall we pay?” is often a major part of the hetero couples’ screen time. Occasionally someone will go totally insane at the prospect of paying for their share for a meal with a virtual stranger.

I’ve failed to see a single incident where a woman foots the whole bill.

Some argue that the gender pay gap warrants that first free ride; that it costs a lot more for a woman to get ready in order to meet beauty standards; or that the instigator — traditionally still the men, it seems — should be willing to pay. Several of the friends I asked also suggested that splitting the bill was a nightmare as it could be considered as either a positive indication, or a slight, by their date. One colleague rationalized, “Some guys could take it as a ‘let’s be friends’ signal, though I’ve had a few who hate the idea of me paying. They see it as emasculating. Can you imagine if I tried to pay everything? They’d think it was an act of outright aggression.”

A survey published by OkCupid states that 43% of their female members prefer to split the cheque on a first date and labels them “progressive,” with 36% not giving a damn and less than 10% coughing up for everything. On the other hand a huge 62% of men said they’d pay. The article was happy to talk about going Dutch, but as usual the third option for payment was ignored in any wider analysis of the data; apparently it is so unimportant that it doesn’t even qualify for an accurate figure.

A more in-depth study prompted by diarists discussing cash flow on Refinery 29 also shows that this last category is largely erased, bar a cursory mention that “only 6% of women think it is emasculating for women to pay for men,” preferring to focus instead on the multitude of questions riffing on the standard of “split versus he pays.”

I waded through the quagmire of dating conventions, trying to make sense of the thousands of viewpoints, sub-plots, surveys and conspiracy theories related to settling the tab, startled by the overall omission of option three. That was when I asked a male friend for his perspective. He offered some insight into his experience using a website aimed at “toy boys,” where it wasn’t uncommon for female dates to foot the cost: “With regards to paying, it felt to me like more of a financial leverage, that these women, not using the date per se, but using the cheque as a marker of their own personal success and professional achievement.”

Through this site’s business model — the selling point being an opportunity to hook up with older and by proxy more dominant and financially superior women — the tables had turned. So at the end of the day, is this wrangling over cash really about conventional, gender-based power dynamics? There seems to be evidence for that, not least the fact that when the binary, male/female dynamic is removed, so is much of the hand wringing.

Statistics from match.com state that the majority of the American LBGTQ members they asked would assume the instigator would pay. Which brings two questions into play, are women predominantly still expecting men to ask them out as a general rule, resulting in anticipation for them to pay as an effect? Or is it part of a bigger societal problem where men are still expected to be assertive, dominant, and more financially forward in all aspects of the first-date traverse?

There’s no definite answer, and if this exercise has taught me anything it’s that things are never cut and dried in the dating world. But one thing is clear: it is mad that we are not challenging this convention, when so many other facets of gender inequality are put under the microscope. Why are so many of us seemingly happy to assume there are only two options when there is a total of three? Many of the people I’ve spoken to have explained away this imbalance, but it seems insane to me that we’re not at least asking this question more often, and publicly.

As I write this I’m suddenly reminded of a distant, drunken date from over a decade ago. As I fumbled for my purse — was it a false reach? I’m not sure, I’d had many wines — my date waved me away and said, “Don’t worry about it, paying makes me feel powerful.” It was weird. I let him pay; there was no second date. I wish I’d realized there were three choices on the table.

Holly Black is an arts and culture writer based in London. She is currently Assistant Editor at Art Quarterly magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @hollimond

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