One recent evening, on a group ride back from the Bronx to Manhattan, a male friend voiced a controversial opinion: if we are really living in an age of aspirational gender equality, he said, why do women still expect men to open the doors for them, and why do we still have to pick up the bill on dates?
The entire car immediately erupted in cries of heated support and opposition. “Yes, quite right, why the hell are we expected to pay for dates? It’s not fair!” said one. “No, how could you even frame the question in such a way?” said another.
But across much of the US, my male car companion has a point. Facilitated by a boom in dating apps, young men searching for intimacy go on dates by the bucket load. And despite the disruptive technologies, some old-fashioned rules have either persisted, or re-emerged. Among them: men pick up the bill – on the first date at the very minimum.
But what gets bought when a man picks up the bill? And is it fair? If women are still only making 77 cents for every dollar a man is making, is it a savvy way of compensating for that inequality?
I asked four young straight men their thoughts.
Obinna, 29, tech entrepreneur: ‘They will do what I will call the fake reach …’
“When I am going on a date, I just assume I am going to pay. As a rule of thumb I offer, well, I insist on paying the bill. I just feel like men pay the bill on the first date. Well, on most dates. I do think that is the norm.”
He feels it is only right, because mostly, as the man, he is the one who does the asking. “If I ask a woman out on a date, well, she could have stayed at home and made her own meal and do whatever she does normally. If I ask her out, then I should also offer to pay.”
Still, his eagerness to fulfill social expectations does not mean he does not pay attention to the way women react when the bill comes at the end of the date. This pivotal moment, Emenike says, divides women up into four separate categories.
The first, and largest, group is made up of “women that will not give any indication whatsoever that they want to or are willing to split the bill”. Around 40% of women, he estimates, will have this kind reaction.
The second category, Emenike’s favorite, were the “the fake reachers”. “They will do what I will call the fake reach towards their purse. I actually really appreciate the fake reach. Even if it’s not to be serious, it makes me feel better.”
Emenike has witnessed this kind of reaction so often (in around 25% of cases), he is able to effortlessly imitate the kind of interaction that will then ensue.
“They will indicate that they are reaching for their purse and I will say something like ‘oh no, I got it’ or ‘I’ll pay, don’t worry about it’,” Emenike says waving his hand down masterfully, warmly, indulgently even – with just the hint of a mocking smile.
In this scenario, this is all it will take for women to graciously oblige. If they don’t and actually voice a willingness to split the bill out loud, then they are part of the third category – women who actually express a willingness to participate financially in the cost of the outing. Emenike puts the genuine reach, his third category, at 30%. Still then, he will insist on paying.
The last category, where women will be insistent on splitting it, even after the man counter-offers, he says happens around 5% of the time.
Emenike says this can be worrying though, as it may be an indication that the date has not gone well. “I am worried. If I think the date is going well, and you over-insist on splitting it then it will make me question myself. I might come to the conclusion that she doesn’t want to feel like she owes me anything.”
When pushed, Emenike acknowledged this was by default referring to sex, even if he was paying attention to the “owing” aspect only in terms of what it meant he might not get, versus whether it means he might be entitled to something.
Eventually though, he loved the idea of women covering occasional outings – if not every other time, then at least once in a while.
“I do appreciate it when women pay for me, especially if we have been dating for a while. It’s this situation where suddenly it’s not that ‘I am dating you’, it’s that ‘we are dating each other’.”
Erik, 29, energy analyst: ‘The Swedish woman doesn’t want you to think like she owes you anything’
Erik Landstrom, a Swedish 29-year-old energy analyst based in Washington DC, says he also expects to pick up the bill when dating.
“To be considered a suitable mate, you need to pick up the bill,” he says. “If you don’t then you are put in a disadvantaged position.”
But Landstrom finds what he calls the “obligation” in this kind of pay-to-play system “crazy”.
He speculates this might be the symptom of what he calls “unequal gender stereotypes in this country”. In Sweden “actual pushy push back” when the bill comes is much more the norm. “Because she [the Swedish woman] doesn’t want you to think like she owes you anything.”
In the US, 10% to 20% of the time, women will not even acknowledge having their cost covered on dates, he estimates. Forget the lack of offering, or what he calls “the cosmetic pushback” (similar to Emenike’s “fake reacher” category) – sometimes women will not even utter a word of thanks.
“Women are very suspicious of men in general. Maybe it’s fair enough. There is an expectation in the US that if you go out a certain amount of times, you can expect sex,” Landstrom says. “It sounds really crass.”
Men doing the paying and women being paid for might then create a format where sex is seen as something for a man to get and a woman to give, rather than a mutually beneficial exchange.
“I think it’s better if both people go in it with an open mind. You meet, you have drinks, you see what happens.”
Splitting the bill – something he says seems to him “reasonable and fair” – even if it is a scenario often difficult to conceive in the US, means sex might then happen more organically and won’t be based on expectations.
Ravi, 33, architect: ‘You will always offer to pay’
Ravi Raj, a 33-year-old architect who describes himself somewhat accurately (if ironically) as a “devastatingly handsome Indian man from Colorado” says buying the first round, or getting the first bill, is just what he does.
“You will always offer to pay. It’s not a gender role thing, it’s what I will offer to do,” Raj says, refusing to acknowledge any male-female binary.
Women seem on board too, he says, but not because they are taking him for granted. “Usually I get no pushback. It’s more you get this one, I will get the next one,” he explains about the first date, which is mostly just drinks, he says.
If the first date goes well then he will proceed to think up something more elaborate, he says. Maybe a bike ride followed by dinner. “If I like the person I will really try and plan. That’s what usually happens.”
Raj says he has no problem with physical intimacy, but that ultimately, what he is looking for is emotional intimacy – something more than just sex.
Has Raj ever had a woman plan date two? Holding a can of San Pellegrino lemonade, and sitting elegantly on a New York bench during his lunch break, trousers rolled up and Ray Ban sunglasses on, Raj looks baffled.
“I haven’t had anyone ever ask me out on a second date and suggest ‘let’s go do this’,” he stops. “Ever.”
Ian, 25, information designer: ‘The whole thing is so backwards’
Ian Ardouin-Fumat, a 25-year-old information designer from France, says that the expectation that men should pay for dates in America makes little sense. Rather, it is part of an overall, unequal structure that systematically puts the expectation on men at all moments of the dating process to call the shots and be in the driver’s seat.
“At least half of the dates I went on, I am looking at the girls and I am thinking so ‘where’s your wallet?’ You are actually expected to pay the bill.”
Ardouin-Fumat, who has analyzed his and his male friends’ dating experiences from a data perspective, thinks the rise of mobile dating apps and websites has exacerbated pre-existing gender dynamics, rather than shattered them to pieces.
“To be successful on these platforms, it’s all about conforming to the norms,” he says. “This often involves dumbing yourself down and unquestioningly embracing gender stereotypes.
“The market is skewed. You have a pool of people. You want to be as effective as possible. You are going to accept a few rules that are going to make you statistically more successful.”
When asked what men expected to call the shots entails, Ardouin-Fumat, who lives in New York, hardly misses a beat.
“You send the first message, you entertain the conversation, you ask her out on a date. You always pick the date and the place. You always pay for the first drink no matter what. You always make the move to hookup with that person. You are the first one to call after the hookup. Above all, don’t be too interesting, don’t be too passionate. No weird jokes.”
This feels like a pity: Ardouin-Fumat’s cutting humor is immensely entertaining.
Women offering to get a round of drinks sometimes happens, he says, and when it does, it comes as a welcome surprise. “Thanks for doing your share in gender equality,” the brooding Frenchman exclaims sarcastically.
For Ardouin-Fumat, who is thrilled to have recently met a woman who plans dates in places like board game bars and with whom he immediately felt comfortable having a debate, the New York dating landscape appears completely contradictory.
“It’s actually insane that New York City, which is such a progressive city in terms of gender equality, we have such crazy rules accepted by everyone about the way dates should happen,” he says. “It’s very backwards.”