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PERSPECTIVE | GLOBE MAGAZINE

It’s 2016. Why are men still paying for women on dates?

More than two-fifths of women say they’re bothered if men expect them to help pay. One single man asks, what’s going on here?

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By Alfie Kohn

Imagine that a committed feminist woke up last week from a decades-long coma. She looks around and finds that considerable consciousness-raising has taken place while she’s been unconscious. Women are now serving on the Supreme Court and excelling in professions that had been the exclusive domain of men.

But what strikes our latter-day Rip van Winkle is how much things haven’t changed. Women still have to fight for the right to make decisions about their own bodies. Men still tell women to smile. And where informal social norms are concerned, she’s flabbergasted to discover that men still expect to pick up the tab on a date — and that women accept and actually seem to prefer this arrangement. “Seriously?” she says. “The last thing I remember is that we were starting to move beyond that.”

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A LearnVest survey in 2013 found that a majority of men, and an even larger majority of women, thought the man should pay on a first date. Last November, after surveying some 17,000 heterosexual unmarried individuals from ages 18 to 65, Janet Lever of California State University, Los Angeles, and two colleagues reported that men typically still pay for most of a couple’s expenses, even after they’ve been dating for a while. In fact, more than two-fifths of women — with no difference in response by income level — say they’re bothered if men expect them to help pay.

What’s going on here? One interpretation is that the man is basically shelling out for access to sex, a possibility so offensive that you’d think splitting the bill would have become the default just to rule out the possibility of such a quid pro quo.

The other explanation is that we’re witnessing a continued preference for unequal relationships. “Men’s paying,” Lever and her colleagues explained, “reinforces the gender stereotype of ‘male as provider.’ ” 

Men paying for meals may have made more sense when fewer women worked outside the home — and those who did faced a bigger gender wage gap — but today, unmarried women earn, on average, almost as much as single men. Yet traditional gender roles have persisted. Besides, what matters are the two specific people having dinner. If both make a good living, then the man’s paying for her makes precisely as much sense as the woman’s paying for him.

If a date consists of two adults checking each other out, then naturally they’d split the bill. But if a date is construed as part of a process in which the man is the pursuer and the woman is the pursued — such that she does him a favor by agreeing to be “caught” — then he’d be expected to pay for the privilege. And only if an entire culture still accepted that pursuit model would it be typical for men to pay for women.

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I, personally, have not been in a coma, but I was off the dating market for a couple of decades. During that time I was vaguely aware that a new generation was reproducing old patterns, which I found perplexing and sad. Now that I’m back in the fray, what I see at closer range offers even more evidence of how far we haven’t come.

First, what’s going on can’t be blamed on Trump supporters. Many highly educated, professionally successful, politically liberal men and women perpetuate these norms without apology or apparent ambivalence. “There is something viscerally unappealing about a guy who doesn’t pick up the whole check on a first date,” a female management consultant recently told me.

Second, there are nuances here that may not be evident from a distance. For example, the woman may offer to pay for her own meal, but that offer can be disingenuous: Often, she expects him to decline. If he takes her at her word, he’s failed the test.

On the other hand, if her credit card is extended in good faith, that doesn’t necessarily mean she regards the idea of his paying for her as a distasteful throwback to a less enlightened age. Rather, it may communicate her lack of interest in him. Conversely, as a woman explained to me, “If I let you pay for dinner, it means you have a chance for another date.” She’ll allow me to pursue her again, and that permission comes at a price.

Some try to rationalize this arrangement by stipulating that whoever issued the invitation should pay. The trouble is that the man is still typically expected to do the asking. Moreover, both men and women seem to believe that it’s his responsibility to reach out after a first date to indicate continued interest.

How a woman feels about this issue has become a kind of marker for me — one of those apparently minor preferences that may predict compatibility. It’s a way of peering beyond education or political affiliation to uncover the possibility of deeper values. My hunch is that an attachment to rigid gender roles will show up again later in other contexts.

Thus, I reveal my take on this issue upfront in an online dating profile. I want to be transparent about my values and about the kind of woman I’m looking for — someone who, from our first meeting, wants us to be on equal footing. If I proposed to pick up the whole check, she’d give me a funny look — a little confused, a little put off, maybe a little concerned that she had overestimated me — and say, “Why in the world would you pay for me? Is this 1955?” 

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Alfie Kohn is the author of 14 books, including “The Myth of the Spoiled Child
,” now in paperback Send comments to magazine@globe.com.