At a recent dinner at a cozy bar in Upper Manhattan, I was confronted with an age-old question about gender norms. Over bowls of ramen and sips of gin cocktails, my date and I got into an argument: who should pay for the dates?
My date, a 27-year-old woman I matched with on Hinge, said gender equality didn’t mean men and women had to pay the same when they went out. Women, she said, earn less than men in the workplace, spend more time preparing for outings and pay more for reproductive care.
When the date ended, we split the bill. But our discussion was emblematic of a tension in modern dating. At work and on social media, where young people spend much of their personal time, they like to emphasize equality and equity. When it comes to romance and courtship, young people—particularly women and men in heterosexual relationships—seem to follow the same dating rules that their parents and older generations learned.
Contemporary research, popular culture, and conversations I had with more than a dozen young Americans suggest that a long-standing norm still holds true: Men tend to foot the bill more often than women on dates. And there seems to be an expectation that they would.
The dance ‘Pay for the first date’
Some progressive defenders of the standard cite the persistent gender pay gap, and the fact that women pay more for reproductive products and clothing than men and spend more time preparing for dates to conform to societal norms.
Kala Lundahl lives in New York City and works at a recruitment agency. She usually matches people for dates through apps like Hinge, with the total cost of the date, usually with drinks, coming out to around $80. On the first date, Ms. Lundahl, 24, always offers to split the check, but expects the man to pay — and is met with resistance when she offers to pay.
Ms. Lundahl said if the date went well, they might move on to a second location, usually a cheaper place where she was more likely to pay. On a second date, she said, she would be more insistent on paying the entire check, or splitting it up. Ms. Lundahl’s reasoning stems from her belief that the person who asked out — usually the man — should pay for the date, and the person who made more money — usually also the man — should foot the bill.
“Some of the guys get a little stiff when I offer to pay,” Mrs. Lundahl said. “You can tell they’re not comfortable with that idea.”
Scott Bowen, a 24-year-old accountant in Charlotte, NC, said he always paid for drinks, meals and coffee on dates. Typically that works out to $70 to $100 per outing. The conversation about who pays usually lasts only a split second — from the moment the waiter puts down the check to the moment Mr. Bowen reaches over and says, “I’ll grab that,” he said.
When Mr. Bowen was growing up, his parents made it clear to him that he had to pay for dates if he took a woman out. He acknowledged that he wanted to see the status quo change to become more evenly distributed, but he said he didn’t feel comfortable bringing up the subject at all on dates: Our conversation was one of the rare times when he had spoken to someone else about the matter. person.
In LGBTQ relationships, who pays for dates has less to do with gender norms and more to do with specific relationship dynamics.
Brendan Foley, a government official in Washington, D.C., said that in his experience dating men, the check was usually split. If one person paid, it was often the older man, or the person who was considered to make more money. But the discussion about money during dates doesn’t bother him.
“I think there are more honest and straightforward conversations than the dance in straight relationships,” said the 24-year-old Mr. Foley.
The persistent tradition of men who pay
Shanhong Luo, a professor at Fayetteville State University, studies the factors behind attraction between romantic partners, including the norms that define relationships. In an article published in 2023 in Psychological Reports, a peer-reviewed journal, Dr. Luo and a team of researchers surveyed 552 heterosexual college students in Wilmington, NC, and asked them whether they expected men or women to pay for dates—and whether, as men or women, they typically paid more.
The researchers found that young men paid for all or most dates about 90 percent of the time, while women paid only about 2 percent (they split about 8 percent of the time). At later dates, splitting the check was more common, although men still paid most of the time, while women rarely did so. Nearly 80 percent of men expected to pay on the first date, while just over half of women (55 percent) expected men to pay.
Surprisingly, views on gender norms didn’t make much of a difference: on average, both men and women in the sample expected the man to pay, whether they had more traditional views on gender roles or more progressive views.
“The findings strongly showed that the traditional pattern is still there,” said Dr. Luo.
The persistent tradition of men paying for women may seem like an innocent artifact. But in a relationship, such actions don’t exist in a vacuum.
Psychologists distinguish between two forms of sexism: “hostile sexism,” defined by beliefs that women are inferior to men, and “benevolent sexism,” defined by beliefs as if it is men’s duty to protect women. But the latter can give way to the former.
“The concept of chivalry is couched in very positive terms,” says Campbell Leaper, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “But if people remain in these roles over time, it comes at a cost.”
In a 2016 study, Dr. Leaper and his co-author, Alexa Paynter, studied college students in California and asked them how they rated a number of traditional courtship gestures, including men paying for dates. A majority of both young men and women said men should pay for dates, but for men the link between that view and more hostile views of women was particularly strong.
Dr. Leaper, who has taught gender development for more than 30 years, said his students today were more liberal on a range of issues related to gender identity, sexuality and norms governing relationships. But his students often defend the principle behind men paying for dates, or say they hadn’t even considered how it related to sexism.
“That’s quite surprising to them, and something they haven’t thought about before,” said Dr. Leaper.
Part of the reason the norm may persist among young people is that dates are inherently awkward, said Dr. Luo. Even for young people who are firmly committed to financial independence – whether male or female – the pressure of an age-old norm can kick in.
“Regardless of what you believe in, you will do what the standard dictates,” said Dr. Luo.
Easier as relationships deepen
Kent Barnhill said he paid for about 80 percent of the dates he went on, usually with people he met on dating apps. Mr. Barnhill, 27, identifies as a feminist and is politically progressive, but he said his upbringing in an affluent, conservative household in South Florida shaped his habit of insisting on paying for dates, especially in the beginning of relationships.
“On the first date, I always establish upfront that I want to pay,” says Mr. Barnhill, a data analyst in the Washington, D.C., public school system. “It doesn’t bother me that I pay more.”
Zoe Miller, 23, grew up in a liberal household in Chapel Hill, NC. An experience during a date in college shaped her insistence on splitting the bill. While her date was in the restroom, a waiter came by and asked Ms. Miller how the two wanted to pay. She said she wanted to split the bill, so the waiter came back with two checks. When Mrs. Miller’s date returned, he was furious. He wanted to pay for the date.
Now she said, “I absolutely refuse not to split the check.”
Ms Miller and Mr Barnhill started dating after meeting through a mutual friend. The couple recently enjoyed a meal at a fine Italian restaurant in Washington’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, and Mr. Barnhill paid.
Ms. Miller initially found it hard to swallow when Mr. Barnhill wanted to pay the entire check. But a combination of a difference in income — she’s had fewer shifts working at a smoothie shop — and seeing the gesture as sincere, rather than an expression of power, made her enthusiastic about the idea. Since that outing, they have tried to split their dates using the app Splitwise.
Once two people get past the initial, awkward courtship, it becomes easier to navigate the tricky issues of date financing. When one person pays, man or woman, he experiences joy, comparing paying to giving gifts.
Andrew Tuchler and Miranda Zhang are a married couple in Los Angeles who met in college. Going out for expensive dates wasn’t financially feasible for them, so they opted for what college couples often do: spending time over cafeteria meals and at club events.
Mr Tuchler and Ms Zhang, both 26, said the early experience of a relationship not defined by money had helped them cope with the challenges of talking about and spending money. The couple share their finances, but when it comes to dates, they alternate who pays.
Mr. Tuchler said he enjoyed it as a form of service, even going the extra step of telling the waiter what she was going to eat. Ms. Zhang said she appreciated the gesture and enjoyed giving back.