You're a man on a date, the meal is wrapping up and a waiter drops a black, leather time bomb in the centre of the table. Do you dive for it? Will she think you're a chauvinist if you do? A cheapskate if you don't? In this post-lib, post-Hillary Clinton, post-Lean In era of alleged gender enlightenment, is going Dutch the default understanding or does doling out for dinner fall on the dude?
It's a complicated and oft-debated conundrum, but according to a new study out of Chapman University in California, the answer is simple: Regardless of democratic ideals and strides towards female parity, men are still expected to ka-ching for their supper during the early stages of courtship. Of 17,000 respondents between the ages of 18 and 65, 84 per cent of men said they pick up the tab early on in the dating process (even though 64 per cent of them feel they shouldn't have to), and 39 per cent of women admitted that even if they do offer to pitch in on the bill, they are secretly irked if their date accepts. Dr. David Frederick, one of the lead researchers, says the goal of the study was "to understand why some gendered practices are more resistant to change than others." Few would argue, for example, that men and women don't deserve equal pay for equal work, but on the dating scene, gender disparity appears to be not just a reality, but a romantic ideal, with the majority of women seeking Prince Charming over Larry Egalitary.
Elise Chenier is a gender studies prof at Simon Fraser University, who gives a lecture entitled "Who pays for dinner?" as part of her Introduction to the History of Sexuality class. The seemingly slight subject, she says, illuminates important issues pertaining to the modern male/female dynamic: "I tell my students that dating practices are a reflection of the world around us – if you want chivalry, it's important to understand what you're buying into." In her lecture, Chenier chronicles the practical history of a patriarchal practice. Around the turn of the century when North American teens first started convening outside of their parents' homes, the boys were the only ones allowed to hold onto pocket money (girls were expected to hand over any earnings to their parents). This led to "treating" where women would hang out outside a movie theatre or a roller rink hoping to get picked up for a date. "It was a new culture and everything was being worked out for the first time which resulted in pretty open negotiations in terms of expectations," says Chenier. Sometimes that meant sex, sometimes it meant a guaranteed dance partner, but the point is, it was an explicit arrangement. Treating had died out by the early 1930s, but its impact on early romantic relations remains. Today, says Chenier, when a man pays he is establishing his status as a competent caregiver. "Women do other kinds of caregiving later on – they do the laundry."
It's a glib commentary, but according to the Chapman University study, relationships that begin with the man paying the bill will generally go on to become partnerships with a well-defined alpha/beta dynamic, where the man is viewed as the provider. (That's a lot to contemplate during the post-pinot-and-pig-cheek haze of a promising date.) "When my male students ask what to do when the bill comes," says Chenier, "I tell them they should just look at their date, smile and say, 'I'm sorry, that's not how I define my masculinity.'"
Sheree Morgan, a professional matchmaker in Vancouver offers contrary advice: "I tell all of my male clients that paying on the first and second date is an absolute must." Morgan reports that when she interviews clients before setting them up, a huge majority of men talk about wanting someone who is "soft," "feminine." In the date post-mortems which are part of the matchmaking service, how the bill was (or wasn't) dealt with often comes up as a plus or a minus, and for the most part, Dutch doesn't cut it. "The majority of women I work with appreciate a man who can take charge, plan a date and then pay for it. Women want to see chivalry," says Morgan, who doesn't see anything wrong with the knight in shining armour construct, though her female clients would be wise to consider the implications of their Mr. Right.
"The problem with embracing chivalry is that it gives men an excuse to also embrace hostile sexism," says Frederick, explaining that individuals who espouse seemingly benevolent female stereotypes (women are more moral, empathetic, nurturing, etc.) also tend to exhibit high levels of hostile sexism – anything from cat calling to job discrimination to date rape.
Anne Kingston, author of The Meaning of Wife: A Provocative Look at Women and Marriage in the Twenty-First Century, offers a somewhat less bleak analysis of seemingly outdated relationship etiquette, one that has less to do with dominance and more to do with confusing modern relationship mores: "A lot of the rules of dating have become pretty loose and fuzzy, so this retrograde practice of the guy paying is a way of explicitly defining the event as a romantic outing. It's a way of saying I am interested in you sexually." This may be so, but it still speaks to a troubling subtext, which is that if paying is a man's subliminal way of expressing sexual interest, what is a woman wordlessly agreeing to when she accepts?