As someone who’s a fairly vocal feminist, and who is surrounded by men and women who are self-proclaimed feminists and feminist allies, the topic of whether it’s acceptable to expect cis straight men to pay for cis straight women on a date, or to engage in other acts of “chivalry” like opening doors, pulling out chairs, etc., comes up quite often.
My answer? Either way is fine. It is not offensive when men pay. It is also OK when men don’t. It’s a matter of personal choice, and it’s the personal business of the man and the woman who are on the date.
There’s a distinction between general philosophy and individual choices. It’s totally possible for someone to be a feminist but to be traditional about gender roles in his/her own dating life if that works both for that person and his/her significant other. There are certain behaviors that a person cannot engage in in his/her personal life while claiming to be feminist – like domestic violence, for instance (as distinguished from safe, respectful BDSM). But in many ways people’s personal relationship needs may differ from their needs in other facets of life like work, platonic socialization and political view. There are plenty of stay-at-home moms in heteronormative relationships, for instance, who would consider themselves staunch feminists. They stayed at home because that’s what made sense for them personally, but they would still advocate that other women have the choice of whether to stay home or work, and would probably also say that they have no issue with relationships in which the dad stays at home and the mom works.
Likewise, a man and a woman in a heteronormative relationship can engage in “chivalry” – the man pays and open doors, etc. – as long as it is a matter of choice and it works equally for both parties. A woman can say that she personally likes a man to pay but doesn’t believe, objectively, that men are obligated to do so. A man can say that he personally likes to pay but doesn’t believe, objectively, that men are obligated to do so – or, for that matter, that women are incapable of paying for themselves. Just as a man can personally prefer a woman who wears dresses and makeup but doesn’t think objectively that all women ought to do so, or need to do so in order for to be desirable to other men. Plenty of men prefer a woman who doesn’t wear makeup or dress traditionally. Neither of these is more or less feminist as long as they both recognize that it’s up to the woman, and that no woman is obligated to dress a certain way to please them.
Personally, I like to pay for myself on a date, not out of some grand feminist symbolism but simply because of my sense of fairness. I don’t think it’s fair or nice to expect someone else to pay for me. I know other women who disagree. They spend a lot of time, effort and money on beautifying themselves to go on a date – makeup, grooming, jewelry, clothes, perfume, generally much more so than the man does – and they feel that he makes an equal contribution by paying for the date. I see the merit in their argument. Nonetheless, letting the guy pay makes me personally feel uncomfortable even though I usually also get very dressed up on dates.
There are still situations in which I let the guy pay. If I’m afraid he’ll take it as a sign of disinterest, and I actually AM interested, I’ll let him pay but try to even it up by offering to pay next time or asking if he will then let me treat him to a drink somewhere else. This is a twofer because it lets me pay him back but also gives me an opportunity to see him some more. I’ll also let a guy pay if the bill is miniscule – just a coffee or a beer – and it would feel like squabbling or splitting hairs. I wouldn’t expect to split something that small with a platonic friend of either gender, so it doesn’t offend my sense of fairness to have one of us pay for the whole thing. That said, I was once on a date with a guy where I had ordered one $5 beer the whole time, and before I could even offer to pay he told me outright that he expected me to pay for my own beer. That caused me to lose interest because it showed me that he’s cheap, selfish and willing to begrudge someone a $5 beer. If part of being in a relationship is doing nice things for each other and making kind gestures, what kind of boyfriend would this person be?
I have also let the guy pay in situations where he was a complete jerk throughout the date, though this is rare. In that case I see it as compensation for the two hours of misery he has put me through. Also, I think that if there is a really clear, really large financial disparity and it isn’t offensive to the person with less money, it’s fine for the person with more money to pay. I have let men who were obviously way better off than me pay and I have also paid for men who have significantly less than I do (but only where I knew this wouldn’t offend).
I will also open doors for men if I am confident it won’t offend them by making them feel emasculated (Research shows that it sometimes does). I particularly do this in professional settings where it’s important to me to make it clear that I want to be seen simply as a colleague rather than as a woman (whereas on a date, being viewed as a desirable woman is part of the goal).
All that said, there are some reasons for which a “feminist” man who doesn’t “believe” in chivalry may want to reconsider his position.
Not all women are like me. A lot of women do want a man to pay for them, at least on the first date. And even I expect a man to offer, even though I generally won’t accept. A lot of the men I know who are self-proclaimed feminists balk at this. They think it’s totally unfair, and also argue that it’s degrading to women because it is rooted in the underlying assumption that women need men to provide for them. They feel that the societal expectation that men pay on the first date puts them in the untenable position of having to be hypocritical about their beliefs or risk losing the woman’s interest. A lot of them will insist on splitting, figuring that if the woman is offended by this they have dodged a bullet.
This attitude is both myopic and self-defeating and here’s why:
For any relationship to be successful, both parties must demonstrate to each other that they value one another, that the other person is special. This is equally true for both sexes/genders in a heteronormative relationship. It is likewise true for all parties in relationships that are not heteronormative. It’s universal. This is not an arcane concept from the days of chivalrous knights and tower-bound maidens. Making your significant other feel special is as relevant and necessary today as it has been throughout time.
Now, as a result, societies have developed over time codes by which people in relationships or wooing periods communicated this underlying concept of specialness to one another. Because gender roles were pretty set in stone until recently, it made sense that this code be gendered. In ideal, romanticized chivalric culture the code is pretty gag-worthy, and it’s questionable how much this stuff actually happened outside of literature. Males showed they valued their female-of-interest by fighting for the woman’s honor, giving gifts, writing poetry, and providing protection. Women beautified themselves, waited dutifully, gave locks of hair and obeyed.
Modern equivalents exist, however, that really do happen in real life. On more traditional campuses, for instance, Jocks and frat guys give their letter jackets to their girlfriends to wear and the girlfriend is then expected to wear it, and to cheer her boyfriend on at sporting events or support his fraternity activities.
And in modern post-college dating life men are generally expected to at least offer to pay, to pull out the lady’s chair for her, to take her coat for her, and to open doors for her. Men don’t seem to show up with flowers to first dates anymore, but I think that this is mainly a consequence of the fact that women today are not comfortable letting a guy she has just started dating know where she lives. This is especially true with online dating. It isn’t practical to bring flowers to a bar or restaurant. This has also made obsolete the statement, “pick me up at 7.” Today people meet at a public location, and for good reason. But many “chivalrous” gestures continue.
Women, in turn, dress up for dates. They laugh at the guy’s jokes. They let him open the door, even though they are completely capable of opening the door themselves. In fact, to my knowledge, at no time in human history, even a thousand years ago when chivalry was invented, was it ever posited that women lacked the physical strength to open doors.
It is a dance. This is a code that our society has developed by which one party in a relationship communicates to the other party in the relationship that s/he values that person, that that person is special in comparison to others. The code itself is arcane, gendered and stereotypical, but it exists to convey an underlying message that is both important and gender neutral.
This means that when a man doesn’t at least offer to pay, doesn’t open the door, doesn’t engage in certain silly, arcane little acts of chivalry, he’s indicating to the woman that he doesn’t think she’s anything special, because those acts are universal symbols our society has devised for communicating that she is.
And I will admit it. I am a product of my society. I’m perfectly capable of paying for my own dinner and opening my own doors, but when a guy does it for me it makes me feel warm and fuzzy. It makes me feel attractive and feminine and desirable. When a guy doesn’t do it it makes me wonder whether he’s actually interested in me, and it makes me think that even if he is interested in a relationship he must not value me that highly and won’t treat me well in that relationship. And even if this stuff isn’t running through my head on a conscious level, there’s a notable lack of warm fuzziness that could, if it were there, enhance our interpersonal chemistry. If your date feels special, desirable and content, s/he is going to associate that feeling with you. It’s how brains work. So by not doing the dance, a man is missing an important opportunity to develop chemistry, attraction and emotional attachment.
But what about the hypocrisy? What if you don’t believe in this, and you simply cannot bring yourself to do the dance because you believe the dance is wrong? You have a third option. You replace the code with a code of your own. Do other things to show her she’s special. Maybe you don’t pay or open the door for her. Maybe instead you cook, which is in defiance of traditional gender roles. Maybe if you’re an artist you make her a piece of art. Maybe you share something really personal and vulnerable with her. And hey, maybe she’s a master carpenter and she comes over and builds you some awesome custom shelves for your record collection, or she teaches you to rock climb. In fact, this third option is the best option because it is personal. In this way you treat each other as desirable individuals, not just desirable examples of your consecutive genders.
The problem is that developing really good, individualized methods for demonstrating that you find your romantic interest special takes time. You have to know each other. And, frankly, on a first date there are reasons you might not want to give all of yourself right away. Maybe you aren’t ready to show her your poetry yet because it’s really personal. Maybe it’s important that you meet in public for both of you to feel safe on the first date, so you can’t bring her over and cook for her.
The cliche first date – dinner, coffee, drinks, art gallery maybe – exists precisely because people don’t always know each other that well at this point and aren’t ready to show certain vulnerabilities. And the cliche, gender-stereotyped methods of demonstrating your interest are there as a stand-in, to get the ball rolling until you reach a point where you can let that all drop and know each other as individuals. Obviously, if you decide to start dating someone you’ve been close friends with for years, you’re probably not going to start opening doors for her all of a sudden. That would be weird. But for a woman you’re just getting to know, it’s a safe, comfortable method of showing her that you like her without revealing too much of yourself or creating too much expectation. People argue that these chivalrous tropes are superficial. Yes, they are. By design.
If you are chivalrous during the first few dates, you can demonstrate to her that you think she’s special, and that makes it more likely that you will eventually develop the kind of meaningful relationship in which you can let all that superficial, gendered stuff go and start finding your own, individualized, gender-equal methods of showing you care about one another.