“Everyone who thinks that men should pay on the first date, stand on the left side of the classroom. Everyone who thinks women should pay, the right. Everyone who thinks men and women should split the bill, gather in the center,” our professor called out.
Twenty-eight students, men and women at my Christian liberal arts university, gathered on the left side of the classroom. Looking around, I noted that only one other student had joined me in the center of the room. For the remaining hour of class, we debated our positions vigorously.
When I say I prefer to split the bill on a date, I get a lot of reactions. Most people respond negatively. They often wonder if I’m one of those women who (gasp) hates all tradition or who rejects all attempts by men to be “gentlemen.” I’ve also found that many people like the idea of egalitarian living in theory, but when push comes to shove, they like tradition—guy asks girl, guy pays on dates, guy proposes to girl, etc.
I actually like tradition, believe it or not. I’ve asked men out before and I’ve also been asked out. I’ve paid for my own meal on a date and I’ve also let a guy pick up the tab. I never imaged myself proposing to a man, but that doesn’t mean I’d never do it. I don’t mind having the door held for me—I think it’s nice and polite. And “oddly” enough, I actually do the same for men. I guess I’m just a gentleman that way.
I want to model mutual pursuit, initiation, and leadership in my dating habits. So on the first few dates, I do prefer to pay for myself, simply because it’s a tangible representation of shared leadership and responsibility between two independent people.
My desire to both pursue and be pursued, to initiate and sometimes respond, to ask and sometimes be asked might seem inconsistent to some. But egalitarians currently wading through the stormy waters of singleness and dating who have encountered the question of who-pays-for-what may feel validated by my explanation.
“Can I pay for your drink?” “Don’t worry about it.” “Got you covered.” These seem like innocent enough statements—and most of the time they are. They’re based in that traditional guy-pays-for-gal formula that much of society ascribes to. On a date, the expectation is generally there—that when the bill comes, he’ll pull out his wallet and shell out for your shrimp pasta, chocolate chip cookie, or triple berry tea. And it’s a nice thing to do, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not a tradition that all women feel comfortable with.
In preparation for a recent date, I faced this issue. Will he offer to pay? Will he give me the chance to pay for my own purchase?? Will he be offended if I pay for my own meal? Spoiler alert: He offered, but I paid for my own coffee.
And some of you might be wondering—why does it even matter to her? What a stupid thing to care about! But there’s a lot of reasons behind why I feel better when we split the bill.
1. There’s A Questionable History of Expectation That Comes with “Treating” Women
The practice of a man picking up the check has some interesting origins in the practice of “treating.” This was a social custom birthed in the late nineteenth century with the introduction of leisure time into working girls’ (women in the workforce) lives. Essentially, gender discrimination in the workplace meant that working girls did not have the financial resources for entertainment. So, young women grew increasingly dependent on the wealth and mobility of men. Out of this culture came the “charity girls,” women who “traded” sexual acts for entertainment. Essentially, men would take working women out and pay for their meals, purchases, and entertainment in (implied) exchange for sexual services (Charity Girls and City Pleasures).
Treating a woman to a meal or night out was one way of ensuring a cycle of owed sexual favors from women and entitlement in men. So, the practice has not always been the work of the gentleman. It has also been a tool of cheap exploitation in the dating world. This practice remains an unspoken expectation in the secular world today. There is still a sense of entitlement in some men when women accept “favors.
Now, I know most Christian men do not feel that because they are offering to pay for a meal, they are entitled to “reimbursement.” The fact remains, however, that women do still sometimes feel the pressure to “say yes” if they accept a gift.
In my first “grade school relationship” (in a Christian school), I was told by my friends that if I accepted my “boyfriend’s” gifts of jewelry and chocolates that I had to let him kiss me whenever he wanted to. Simply because he had spent money on me, I owed him physical favors. I let it drag on for six months out of guilt and my perceived debt.
I never want to put myself in a position, especially on the first few dates, where a man may have different expectations than I do. For my safety and in light of the questionable history of expectation associated with male “treating,” I prefer to pick up my own tab on a first date.
2. It’s An Extension of (Exclusive) Male Pursuit
I don’t believe in exclusive male pursuit. And at the risk of really shocking traditionalists, I’ll amend that statement. I don’t believe in exclusive male pursuit, but I don’t always have to do the pursuing either. I’ve been in that boat and it’s no fun to do all the work. I believe that male-female relationships thrive when partners both initiate and respond depending on the situation. I feel both empowered and wanted when I am free to ask and receive, pursue and be pursued, and this extends to the economic sphere of relationship.
In my mind, the expectation that a man will always pay for me lacks balance, and it doesn’t reflect my authority and autonomy in a relationship. It’s about his ability to provide for me—not literally, but still, theoretically. Don’t get me wrong, I love a kind gesture. But, I want to model mutual pursuit, initiation, and leadership in my dating habits. So on the first few dates, I do prefer to pay for myself, simply because it’s a tangible representation of shared leadership and responsibility between two independent people.
3. It Reflects What I Expect In Relationship with Others
I expect to share responsibility for expenses in a relationship, either short term or long term. That doesn’t mean that I’ll always have the same means as the person that I am spending time with or in the future, am married to. But it does mean that as long as I am able, I want to pay for my own meals and purchases. I want to share financial, emotional, spiritual, and social responsibility for an intimate relationship. Give and take. Initiate and respond. I expect my relationship to model in practice the theory of mutuality and gender equality.
I appreciate men’s generous offers to pick up the tab and the guts it takes to make the offer. But, I also know that there are legitimate reasons behind kindly refusing that offer. So, my advice? Just have the conversation, find out what your date is comfortable with, and then respect their desire. That way, when the check lands on the table, you’ll both know who is shelling out.
Clarification: This is not a criticism of couples who prefer traditional social rules for dating.
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