The Dating Game: Sex, Commerce And The Fraught Question Of Who Pays For A Date

Megan Carpentier
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I always felt weird about the dynamic of men paying for dates by rote: even when I didn't have much money, my preference was to go somewhere I could afford to split or find something to do that we could both afford. One boyfriend, Tom, found an inventive way to balance my desire to pay: he'd buy the first round of drinks, I'd buy the second, he'd buy the third and, by the fourth, I'd forget whose turn it was. Ah, college.

But it took a guy's behavior to really enable me to explain in graphic detail why I was always so bothered by it, other than my personal need for financial independence. At his going-away party, my ex, Richard (not his real name), had bought me a drink on his tab, given me a hug and quietly lamented that things had never worked out between us. It was, I thought, a nice postscript to the end of our relationship... right up until I overheard him discussing with one of his dude friends the true story of a series of incidents in our relationship that indicated he'd lied to me from the start of our friendship, throughout our relationship and beyond. I turned around after the friend left and gave Richard the eyebrow of judgment; he pulled a Shaggy. I couldn't believe he'd just lie to my face, again, even when the stakes were so low, and I was even more pissed.

So, I walked up the bar and demanded to pay for both our drinks, and he caught me and asked what I was doing. I said that I didn't want to owe him a thing if our entire relationship was just a lie from start to finish. He hissed at me, "Well, I fucked you, I owe you a drink." For him, it was a one-to-one ratio: if he got laid, or was going to, then he was obligated financially.

That, of course, made me even angrier: I'd slept with him not because he paid (in fact, for our first date, following months of friendship, I actually cooked dinner for him), but because I liked him and was attracted to him. It hadn't ever been about commerce, for me, and the fact that access to my vagina was either paid for by dinner or compensated for, after the fact, by a rum and Coke was more than I was going to take.

So -- just as the music and conversation in the bar quieted down in the kind of lull that only comes just as you're about to say something, loudly, that isn't for public consumption--I said, "Well, I had more orgasms, if that's the fucking standard." The entire party turned to stare; the bartender said, "Well, you can't argue with that," and took my card; Richard said, "Fair enough, that's true," and walked away. I paid and we never spoke again.

The fact that plenty of people (and, especially, plenty of men) view paying for a drink or dinner as a toll on the the road to Pussytown is part of why a lot of women feel uncomfortable about men paying for dates by convention. Unlike Sarah Stefanson's insistence that "feminists" (though I'm not sure she knows any) insist on paying to prove that we can take care of ourselves, many of us do it because we think it's more fair--and many of us also do it because we've had far too many dates on which the other person insisted he was entitled to something based on that drink or that dinner. Paying heads that conversation off at the pass, at a minimum. But an equitable investment in a date is also a clear signal that you're trying to put the relationship--whatever it is or may be--on equal footing. It says, "I am equally interested in enjoying your company over this food and/or alcohol as you are in enjoying mine."

Which is not to say I have (or anyone should have) a hard or fast rule: When it's early on in a relationship (i.e., first date territory), I think she who asks for the date should pay, and she or he who accepts should meaningfully offer--but, then, when single, I'm as likely to ask someone out as to be asked out. In a relationship, when we're in an equal financial situation (as is my personal preference), I prefer to either split or trade off on who pays; when there's a financial inequity in the relationship, I tend to stick to she-who-asks-pays, and make a point of suggesting dates that the lesser-positioned among us can equally afford. A date is supposed to be about enjoying one another's company and figuring out how much more of it you'd like to enjoy; if and when it's just about the sex at the end of the night, the only thing I plan on going home to is my pricey vibrator--which, yes, I bought for myself. A good vibrator is, in my mind, always a good sexual investment.

[Image via dandelionfourteen on Flickr, Creative Commons licensed]

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17 Comments Have Been Posted

For Fun and For Free

I think it's entirely possible that he said, "Well, I fucked you, I owe you a drink," more to be shitty than because of a personal ethos. Perhaps it was both--because that personal ethos is shitty. My quess is he said it more to get a rise out of you in the moment than to spark a debate about gender, sex and money. I will say that I think there are plenty of men who pay for things to be sweet, generous and nice. It's a gift. Gifts are thoughtful gestures with no expectation of reciprocation, a way of saying, "I appreciate you." My boyfriend and I split most everything. Occasionally I will offer to pay for dinner with no expectation of reciprocation on any level--I don't expect him to pay next time, I don't expect my payment to be knocked off my portion of the next household bill--because I like to spend money on people I care about. I view it as a gift. And I appreciate it when occasionally he throws down $10 for a movie as a gift to me. I don't see it as his payment for entrance into Pussytown, even though he gets to go there quite frequently because I like him. I have also never, ever felt any necessity to have sex with a man because he bought me something. People shouldn't attach strings to gifts--sexual strings, emotional strings (are you gonna tell me that there aren't plenty of women out there who do nice things for men expecting emotional intimacy or favors in return?), favor strings. Someone once told me that if I couldn't give something to someone for fun and for free, I shouldn't be giving it. And whether anyone else knows about that saying or lives by it, I don't feel bad for allowing them to give me things for which I refuse to feel indebted. Gifts are gifts, and a man paying for a drink or dinner is exactly that--a thoughtful gift. Whether he knows it or not. If he doesn't know it, it's not my problem.

linked to other gender inequality

This issue is very affected by the inequality of pay amongst sexes. Females make approximately 80-85 cents to the $1 a male makes. This literally makes it harder for females to afford as much as males, thus strongly affecting why females sometimes may not be able to pay for themselves.

I personally find splitting the bill every time my boyfriend and I eat out too much trouble and unromantic. It's like the inconvenience of a ruins the moment (however, if the case of the condom, please do use!). My boyfriend and I take turns paying...that way it roughly evens out in the end. One thing that occasionally bothers me about this, is that I notice a lot of females attach romanticism to their boyfriends or dates paying, saying things like "He would never let me pay" with a big goofy smile on their face. Sometimes, for financial sake, I wish I could give in and let my boyfriend pay every time. And sometimes I catch myself falling into my friends' romantic (yet distorted) mindsets and wanting this to feel taken care of but I snap out of that quickly. For me, not only is it not fair, but it would really bother me. I think my boyfriend expected to primarily pay in the beginning of our relationship because that's what he was used to and I'm sure he would with me but I'd feel slanted to him and reliant, in a way. I'm sure I'd get used to it and expect it and not appreciate it as much. But I don't want to. I'm happy to switch off. We've both had months where we were broke and in those cases, I paid more times when he was broke and vice versa. I think what helps too is that mostly we both argue to pay, as opposed to one of us always wanting to not pay. This helps us be appreciative and keep it equal.

But going Dutch is plenty romantic!

Unless one of us is in an incredibly tight financial situation (which does occasionally happen, especially since last semester he had a job and I didn't because I needed to focus on medical issues), my boyfriend and I almost always go Dutch...and I see nothing unromantic at all about that, in fact I find it <i>more</i> romantic since it shows that most of the time we don't have to worry about paying for things and can spend more time just enjoying each other. Then again, this also means we often take advantage of doing things for free such as just going for a long walk together.

If we want to act Victorian, we talk pretentiously in silly accents or, once we're a bit more well-off, dress up in flamboyant clothing. We don't put people on pedestals and treat them like they can't function for themselves.

I hardly think that a dude

I hardly think that a dude paying every once in awhile is Victorian. Since, you know, Victorian women couldn't work and they didn't date. But seriously, I think having a full understanding of one another's financial situation is in order and, you're right, it doesn't kill the romance. When my partner and I were dating, he paid for quite a bit. Why? Because he had a full time job and I was a full time graduate student. It was never a issue of "I can't function for myself!" It was an issue of "damn, I'm poor!" And yeah, we did a lot of free stuff, like play with my kitties.

The situation Megan points out--the I-owe-you-because-we-had-sex-is far more problematic. That's when a gendered-power dynamic enters into the relationship. Which, if that's the case, no thanks! Sex shouldn't be bought and sold between those in an equal relationship. But equality in a relationship is more than just who pays. I think it involves a fully understanding of *why* she/he wants to pay (or go Dutch) and respecting that point of view.


I'd hate to think that in the 21st century, most men think that paying for dinner is a ticket into a woman's bed. Maybe during the brief decade of teenagerism through college. But I'ld like to believe that men paying for dinner is an act of chivalry. My boyfriend (in a way) are kind of traditional and I manage to keep independent. My boyfriend does pay for dinner, but I pay pre-dinner coffee. I find ways to make it up to him by getting him occasional presents, cooking him dinner, and sometimes doing his dishes (because we normally eat at his place and I don't like to dumb all the dishes on him when I leave). I don't recompense for dinner in bed. He sees it as doing something nice for his girlfriend. And I see it as the same. No more. No less.

This issue is very affected

<blockquote>This issue is very affected by the inequality of pay amongst sexes. Females make approximately 80-85 cents to the $1 a male makes. This literally makes it harder for females to afford as much as males, thus strongly affecting why females sometimes may not be able to pay for themselves.</blockquote>

That kind of logic works the other direction, too, in that men could justify the pay gap by saying they're expected to pay for dinner and treat women out when dating so they should be making more money.

Ultimately, though, I just don't buy it. Even in a non-dating context, friends or couples are often in the situation in which people they dine with make considerably more money than they do but somehow end up treating each other and being treated alternately. And even though women on the whole make less than men on the whole make, by your logic, would it make sense then to say that if a woman who is a CEO is dating a man who is a teacher that she should always pay for dinner, since she clearly makes more money than he does?

It definitely hurts to pay all the time if you don't make a lot of money, but it's not true that every man on the planet makes more than every woman on the planet, yet there is a strong social pressure for men to always pay and for women to always allow the man to pay, at least on the first date.

don't be offended but...

I notice a lot of female responses to this are he pays but I do favors like do dishes and cook dinner. And that rings a lot like the "private domain" theory where females are in charge of cooking, cleaning and anything to do with the upkeep of a house. I know some women are domestic by choice but what about those of us who aren't? If it's not sex, are we excepted to cook or clean because a man pays for our dinner? If the roles were reverse, would men do the same? Often times, I would think no.

You bring up a really

You bring up a really excellent point--that dudes get to work once, while women, twice. Meet up with a guy after work, and he gets to throw some money at a server and sit back to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Girlfrined, on the other hand, not only works once (for less pay, natch), but works AGAIN to recompense for...the fruits of *his* labor. Sure, the money she didn't spend on the dinner ostensibly could go toward something else, but if she's making 85 cents to the dollar, what is there to throw the money at?

It altogether feels so second shift-y to me.

you just said a mouthful sister!

And imagine if you throw kids into the mix! I am OK with the division of labor and division of roles but I have a problem when worth is attached to each of those roles. For example, many male-typical jobs, such as a doctor, a lawyer or even a carpenter have different levels of respect and wage not only within themselves but also opposed to female-typical jobs, such as a nurse, a teacher or a hairdresser. And male-typical jobs usually have more respect and a higher salary. Not always but typically. People not only differentiate these groups but they tend to make assumptions and stereotypes regarding the groups. This is where it gets really sticky. This where people start assuming all sorts of things about people based on sex.

You're so right. This

You're so right. This rationale only furthers the idea that what men should contribute is money, while women (obviously incapable of any other kind of contribution) "earn their keep" by working in the household. That doesn't sound forward-thinking or progressive to me at all!

I felt like I could tell...

I dated some guys a few years ago, one in particular, who really gave the "I'm paying so we'll eventually sleep together" vibe so strongly that I ended it before it went anywhere. I could have easily been paranoid, but it was very much couched as some sort of exchange and it freaked me the fuck out. Finding out something like that after the fact would make me puke on myself, then enter into some sort of desperate vengeful state I'd rather not actually consider... :-o

Good grief, this article

Good grief, this article makes me not miss dating in the least! It sounds too hard.

I've been with my partner for about 8 years now, and we've always been at opposite ends of the earning spectrum. In college, I had nothing, while he had a decent income. If we went out for dinner, he paid. Pretty much every time. I didn't feel the need to compensate with sex or cooking or cleaning or whatever. It was just the way it was - if we wanted to go out, he was paying, because I just flat out did not have the resources. And we were both ok with that.

Now that we live together, we have a joint account that both of our incomes go into. Only now, I make a lot more than he does. We more or less split the housework. I don't think it would be fair to demand that he do more than me just because he makes less money than I do. We work the same amount of hours, it's not like he has more free time than I do.

I guess the first couple of dates are one thing, but once you are in a relationship, it seems a bit silly to be nickel and diming each other. My partner and I are building a life together - we worry about what we each bring to the table emotionally not financially. If you are in a relationship and still worrying about whether letting your partner pay means that you are obligated to put out/clean/cook, then you are probably dating an asshole, and should think about moving on.

A Drink is Not a Contract

A very similar thing happened to me with an ex - we were at a bar with mutual friends, although we hadn't seen each other in probably a year, and hadn't dated in 4. He bought me a drink, since he was buying drinks for a few of our friends, a drink which he had to talk me into having, and happened to be expensive (his choice of drink). Late in the evening he tried to forcibly pull me onto the dance floor, despite my polite, firm rejections. He was getting waaay up in my personal space, and I was literally pushing him away, but he wouldn't take no for an answer, saying, "I bought you a drink, and it was expensive, you owe me a dance - that's how it works!" I was so repulsed that I immediately left the bar, as soon as I could get away from him (with a little help from his friend). The whole situation made me feel dirty - in what world does buying a girl a drink entitle you to something? I approach paying for anything as a gesture of friendship and goodwill, and it's about expecting something in return, then I don't want it - whether it's food, drinks, whatever. Otherwise, every small gift from every friend (whether potential sexual partner or not) becomes a hollow attempt to buy me.

In what world does buying a

In what world does buying a girl a drink entitle you to something? Sadly, many people believe that to be true in this very world we're living in. I think that was the point of this post. Many of the responses to this post read like, "Well, I think that's crap so I don't live that way." Which is nice, and I don't personally live that way either, but just saying, "My relationship isn't like that and that's so wrong" doesn't deny the fact that for a lot of people this is exactly how the world works. Isn't that kind of the meaning of institutionalized sexism?

I agree with the author that often, in the first-dates stages of a relationship, paying equally is a good way to head off these kinds of assumptions from the start, or at least to figure out if the person you're dating (and women do it too) think in this quid pro quo way. The later stages of a relationship, and the financial arrangements that are part of it, are a different issue.

I'm sounding kind of defensive (and rambling), but I guess my point is there are still people/places/situations in which the modern enlightened woman will find herself with people who do think of relationships within a system of exchange economics. It might be more interesting to talk about why this still exists, and what might be done to begin to change it (i.e. insisting on going dutch in the beginning) than to say, "Not in my relationship, it's not!"

I don't know if I'm a

I don't know if I'm a caveman, but I always offer to pay on dates because I think it's just good hospitable gesture. when I've been in a relationship we always naturally got into a system of alternating paying, which i think is a really good sign for the state of this generation.

but i always felt a little weird, in my position as a dude, celebrating it as a great progress. you know, no progress in the important stuff, just occasionally making women buy things for me..

Know your worth.

I totally agree with the comment - "Saying 'my relationship isn't like that and that's so wrong' doesn't deny the fact that for a lot of people this is exactly how the world works."

This is how many people think, men and women. Men believe they are owed and women believe they are obligated, both are dead wrong. My reply when I feel a man is coming at me with this energy 'I eat everyday.' What in the hell are you doing for me that isn't done every damn day. I do not need you to feed me, buying me dinner isn't a ticket to the bedroom. A drink is even worse, you spent $14 (I live in expensive ass SOFL) so now you think I owe you some pussy, WOW! Street walkers get better rates.

I also agree with the comment - 'you ask for the date, you pay for the date.' But, I don't ask men on dates, it's just not how I operate, tried it, didn't like it, would be impressed to run into someone who made me adjust my attitude and pursue their time.

So yes, when I start dating someone, he pays. But a date, or three, or two hundred does not obligate me to be physical with you. That is an entirely different issue in my mind.

I get physical with a man when I'm ready to and there is no set formula. I let my instinct and my comfort lead when it comes to that decision. This mindset comes from hard learned lessons and from paying the consequences of years of foolishness.

I happen to believe that if a man is truly interested in spending time with you he will have not problem treating you when you go out and it will not be a tit for tat circumstance. I also believe we have to be creative about spending time together that does not require anyone spending money.

I will close by saying, things do become very different when you get into a relationship. And living with a man creates another set of issues. With the domestic issue, I believe cooking, cleaning and maintaining your household are survival skills that are not gender specific. Everyone washes dishes in my house and everybody takes out garbage. My environment will be clean and you will clean up after YOURSELF. If you do not know how to cook enough to satisfy your own appetite, you might just starve. Take nothing for granted.

Not "Dutch"

I'm enjoying this discussion but am kind of uncomfortable at how many appearances the expression "go Dutch" is making. Since that's a derogatory racial expression (similar in implication to "jew them down") could we stick to saying that we pay for ourselves?

Wish I could find a link to a feminist discussion of the saying, but while I'm sure there are some, they're eluding me right now. I initially learned about the origins from a rockin' professor from the Netherlands.

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