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In the Age of Dating Equality, the Bill Isn't Always Split Equally


Used to be that etiquette governing the early stages of heterosexual courtship and romance were as undisputed as the laws of nature: A man always initiates a date; a woman never calls a man; and a man always picks up the tab. But when it comes to who pays for dinner (a recent spate of retro-dating guides notwithstanding), the 20-something set seems to be redefining the rules.

"In the initial stages of seeing someone, I like to pay for myself, or at least try to," said Alexis Steinman, 24, a West Los Angeles casting assistant. "If a man I am seeing offers to pay and he insists, I let him rather than make a scene. I have found you have to be tricky about it. If he pays for dinner, then I pay for drinks later or a movie."

Once she is in a relationship, she said, she takes turns paying for expenses related to going out even though she said her boyfriends usually make more money than she does.

There are few sociological studies examining who pays for dating expenses, but one 1993 University of Maryland study found that only 12% of men and 8% of women surveyed had never shared dating expenses, according to "Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution," (New York University Press, 2000), by journalist Paula Kamen.

The world of dating economics seems to be experiencing a shift, yet certain courtship conventions hold like a nostalgic hangover. It is still mostly men who initiate dates. Young women may pay for their share of the tab but are less likely to pay for the whole tab. And young men still feel obliged (even if they resist mightily) to pay the tab.

"It is by no means completely egalitarian," explained Joe Austin, an assistant professor in the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Young women, he said, have ended the presumption that a man always must pay the tab. "Young women have figured out that if they forgo it, they have a lot more control over where they go, and there is no longer this exchange of 'you have to give me something in return,' even if it is a peck on the cheek."

Austin and Beth Bailey, a professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, who has written several books on the history of courtship, attribute the change directly to the feminist movement, out of which grew a culture of independence for women.

A majority of women work (57%), have their own money and have increasingly better career and educational opportunities.

"The reason men used to pay before the feminist movement was partly because women didn't have money," Bailey said. "Men and women are meeting each other on much more equal terms now. I think the motivation for young women wanting to pay is probably less out of a fear of sexual favors for dinner and more of wanting to be in a partnership and more of 'I am my own person.' "

How young people court each other has also changed, said Austin. Young men and women tend to go out in groups or "hook up" while at a party, which has changed the nature of how money is handled, or whether it is needed at all.

"Going out in a group has become almost the norm," said Austin. "In my youth-culture class, students tell me that generally the person who pays turns out to be the one who has more money. That is situational. In some cases, young women have more money."

This change, said Austin, has radically altered "what we used to call romance," but it has done so "in girls' favor because it has given them that much more power and control over the situation." And, it relieves some of the pressure on young men.

Standing in sharp contrast to young women shouldering their share of the tab and sometimes more are conventions of courtship that cling to young men's psyches.

"I like to pay, mainly because I like to provide for her," said Mike Durkin, 24, who works in a coffeehouse and lives in Pasadena. "It seems more appropriate for me to pay or at least pay my half. What it comes down to is whoever has the money pays for it. It is not a big deal."

Young men may still feel inclined to pay the bill, and young women like that, even if it means their boyfriends don't actually cough up the money.

"I like the guy to assume the responsibility to pay and make the gesture, but I don't think it is his responsibility to pay for me just because I am a girl," said college student Vanessa Montoya, 19, who is employed as a nanny. "I make money just as he does. I think if he pays, the equality shifts."

Used to be that when a woman insisted on paying her share, said Bailey, she had just committed a most unfeminine act, one that was presumed to emasculate her suitor. Bailey cites a 1955 advertisement in a college newspaper excerpted in one of her books in which a man was described as a social failure because he wanted to find a woman who would pay her share. "He finally found a girl who was willing to do it, and she was described as a lovely, three-legged girl with sideburns," Bailey recounted. The third leg, Bailey said, is clearly a metaphor for male genitalia.

My, how things have changed.


Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached via e-mail at

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