Poorna Bell used to believe that a man should always pay when on a first date. Here’s why she’s since changed her views…
The group WhatsApp isn’t just for making endless social plans: it’s also the arena for divisive debates about modern life. In one of mine – made up entirely of heterosexual women – we were discussing first dates, and how to split the bill.
“The guy pays, right?” said one of my friends. Wrong, I thought to myself, because I absolutely didn’t share her view. In fact, I was surprised at her, especially given that we are all women who earn our own money and are pretty vocal about female empowerment.
As it turns out, though, she’s not alone in her opinion. A survey run by Elite Singles recently found that 46% of women expected or wanted the man to pay on the first date. Only 18% thought the bill should be split, while the rest remained indifferent.
Back in the old days, I used to be part of that 46%. I strongly believed that a man should pay because I felt it told you something about how much he liked you. While I’ve always been deeply uncomfortable about relying on a man for money, I thought that paying for the first date hinted at a generosity that would segue, one day, into grand, romantic gestures.
These days, however, I’m left wondering why it’s necessary when I make my own living. If I can pay my own mortgage, electricity bills, put food on my table, and be a modern woman in every other sense, what good reason is there for me to expect a man to pay? And I’ve dated enough stinkers to know that them paying for a first date doesn’t guarantee romance or good intentions.
For me, the discomfort of supporting such an old-school power dynamic stems from knowing there was a time when we literally couldn’t pay for ourselves even if we wanted to. It harks back to when we couldn’t inherit land, couldn’t have our own bank accounts or mortgages. Women weren’t even allowed to take out a loan or have a credit card without a man’s signature until very recently (the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 put a stop to gender-based discrimination).
I worry that by expecting a guy to pay on the first date, or judging him if he does want to split the bill, means that somewhere, I’ve given up some of my hard-won power. And I’m not the only one: Dita Moothialoo, a 25-year-old financial technology recruitment consultant, uses a lot of dating apps, and she told me that she prefers to split the bill because otherwise it implies that the person who is paying has more power within the relationship.
“I dated a guy once who was an investment banker and refused to let me pay for anything. At the time I was a student and convinced myself it was okay because I had barely any money compared to him.
“However, I found myself being less able to speak up for what I wanted at various points when we were dating because part of me felt that I owed it to him to go along with what he wanted as he would be paying. In that sense, it takes away from your autonomy.”
When I brought the debate up with a friend, she brushed it off. “If the guy wants to pay, let him pay,” she told me. But I think it’s worth considering why it’s so important to a man that he pays, and what that means in relation to how he views his own masculinity.
For instance, in 2019 Love Island’s Chris Taylor announced that he would “never let a girl pay on the first date” but that he’d still want the girl to offer. In fact, he wants all of his dates to do partake in what he calls ‘the bill dance’: he offers to get dinner, she protests, he magnanimously insists on paying the bill in full… you get the picture.
It seems like such a pointless exercise – much like when men feel the need to say they are ‘traditional gentlemen’ in their dating app profiles. Because what do traditional values actually mean? When you start to unravel it, don’t traditional values also include things such as women being in charge of the domestic chores or doing the lion’s share of parenting – things we know impact the mental health of women?
A couple of years ago, I went on a date with a guy I fancied to such mad, excited extremities that I thought I was going to throw up when I spied him through the restaurant window. We had lunch, the conversation flowed smoothly, he paid. We were going to an art gallery after that, and I said I’d pay for the tickets which were roughly around the same as lunch. An almost imperceptible expression briefly clouded his face, but we went on to have a good time.
At the end of the date, there was this incredible, Hollywood-style kiss. He said he wanted to go on a second date, but this date never transpired – he dropped all communication. And of course, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. When, a few weeks later, I asked him – while he was very drunk at a mutual friend’s birthday party – why he didn’t get in touch, he referenced the bill-splitting and said “You didn’t have to be so forthright.”
At that point, the spell wore off. Because now I knew who I was dealing with: someone who had such a fragile sense of masculinity that the idea of me paying for something threatened who he was and his self worth. I was dealing with the guy who would, at some point down the line, expect me to tuck my behaviour around his to make him feel like more of a man.
After that, I just didn’t see how my feminist ideals could be compatible with expecting the guy to pay. However Amy Sutton, 33, who works as a PR consultant, thinks that feminism can be compatible with men paying for the first date.
“I would never assume that a man will pay for me so will always have the means to split the bill, and have done,” she tells me. “The truth is if they don’t offer to pay then I would think less of them. Despite being a feminist it’s probably the one gendered tradition I agree with.”
For Amy, she sees it as a way of redressing the balance, and that there are far worse things that perpetuate inequality than a man paying the bill. “For centuries women have been expected to put their heart, soul, money, time and relinquish comfort into attracting men; paying for waxes, buying a date dress, suffering cramps for Spanx – the list goes on. Dating is an expensive endeavour and women bear the brunt of it.
“Even though there’s seemingly a shift in attitudes, with feminism and body positivity being embraced by both sexes, I still believe the financial burden of looking date-ready still rests on women. Whether that’s right or wrong, it’s the reality. When a man doesn’t offer to pay, it doesn’t take into account the effort women make to exist and survive in an increasingly cut-throat dating world.”
I can see Amy’s point. We still live in a time, for instance, where women bear the brunt of responsibility for contraception, and our menstrual products are taxed. But personally, it doesn’t feel like a comfortable way of redressing that balance. The gender gap is too big to be fixed by a meal for two at Zizzi’s.
“Would you never let a guy pay?” my friend pinged on the WhatsApp.
It was too complicated for a text so I left a voice note, which was along the lines that, while I would let a guy pay, it was all about context and how I felt. I definitely don’t expect it, and I don’t think anything less of him if he doesn’t.
But I do want to feel like an equal in the exchange – not massaging his male ego, and not feeling like I’ve scored a point. Because really, if it’s for either of those reasons, I don’t think there are any winners in this.
Image: Mattias Diesel/Unsplash