Column: Should men pay on dates as reparations for the gender wage gap?
For years, I split the bill on dates. As a Latina from a lineage of women whose lives had been micro-managed by family patriarchs, I thought I was breaking bad generational patterns by interacting with men as equals rather than as providers.
But recently, I started getting pushback from some of my friends. They argued that because of the persisting gender pay gap, it’s actually now properly feminist to expect men to pay on first dates and contribute more financially in relationships.
Jean Guerrero is the author, most recently, of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.”
One friend instructed me: “Don’t even think about reaching for your purse.” The thought of possibly coercing a man into paying for my dinner, however, just seemed wrong.
Still, this discussion did make me wonder: Should I expect men to pay on dates as a form of reparations for generational harm?
“The problem with framing being taken out to dinner by a man as a form of reparations is that it’s privately consumed,” Juliet Williams, a UCLA gender studies professor, told me. “It’s not an accounting for injustice in any way that’s visible or acknowledged. We have to be careful not to just label anything that’s personally advantageous as somehow politically justified.”
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But many women believe that in our unequal times, it’s only fair for men to pay, and not just because men still out-earn women. Women also tend to spend more on date prep, such as makeup and manicures to meet female beauty standards. Some women believe men should cover the costs of not only dates, but transportation to and from. In a viral TikTok video, L.A. resident Gabby Fe, 27, says: “I expect a man to pay for the date. Yes, the whole entire date. That includes my Uber to the date and my Uber back to my house.”
She told me she sees this as compensation for women’s sacrifices in relationships. It’s also proof of serious interest. “I want to feel wanted,” she said.
But many straight men perceive such expectations as evidence of women’s low empathy for their struggles. In the U.S., men are now behind women in educational attainment and workforce participation. Amid these problems, women’s expectations of free dates can seem entitled or vindictive.
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More choices for women — like bearing and raising children without men, using sperm donors and IVF or platonic co-parenting — also mean that straight men with fewer financial resources can face an uphill battle. It’s hard for them to compete with younger men who may be more willing to pay for their dates.
Zach Gottlieb, 17, an L.A. high school student who advocates for better mental health among Gen Z’ers with a focus on boys, told me he pays “on every single first date.” For him and many other straight young men, paying on first dates is less about valuing traditional gender roles than about delighting in the ritual.
“It’s masculine affirming for me, but that’s not really why I do it,” he told me. “I really do it because it’s romantic for both of us.”
Interestingly, Gen Z women are more likely to believe in a 50-50 approach to dating expenses than Gen Z men. One study found that men ages 18 to 25 are more likely than older generations to feel guilty if they don’t pay the bill, even though their female peers are less likely to mind contributing than older women.
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This embrace of retro early courting among straight young men doesn’t appear to be rooted in ideology but rather in style and etiquette. Gen Z’ers are more likely than older daters to reject traditional gender roles and identify as LGBTQ+.
Among young people, the question of who pays often depends on who proposed the date. C.C., a 21-year-old trans man in L.A., told me that he and his girlfriend take turns paying. “There is a part of me that wants to treat her like a princess, but it’s also nice to be a guy and be treated like a princess,” he told me.
But for many cis-gender heterosexual men, masculinity is still tied up with providing for women — even if it’s not romantic. I learned this while dining with my sister and her close friend J.G., 39, who insisted on paying for us and often buys meals for his female friends. “I feel like less of a man if I go 50-50,” he says.
In many cases, what appears as a gift comes with expectations of romantic interest, which isn’t verifiable in the world of dating apps until after the first date. For that reason, many women refuse to let men pay.
In her book “For the Love of Men,” the feminist writer Liz Plank, 36, describes going on a “chivalry cleanse,” freeing herself of a power imbalance that can arise from accepting men’s money. But since then, she’s reconsidered. Now, she says, “My rule of thumb is that the way that money is spent in the relationship should reflect the financial reality of each person in the relationship.”
Should socioeconomic status instead of gender determine who pays? Many young people told me that taking personal financial situations into account in dating is just common sense.
“Overall men are paid more than women, but that is not a universal, and that’s not a reason the journeyman carpenter has to pay for lunch with the corporate lawyer,” the feminist writer Rebecca Solnit told me. In other words, there is no right answer that applies to everybody. Personal financial situations and preferences matter.
Of course, a good way to reduce the stress of all of this is by making dates less expensive. Sometimes a sunset stroll can be just as romantic as five-star dining — and there’s no question about who should pick up the tab.
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