I always felt weird about the dynamic of men paying for dates by rote: even when I didn't have much money, my preference was to go somewhere I could afford to split or find something to do that we could both afford. One boyfriend, Tom, found an inventive way to balance my desire to pay: he'd buy the first round of drinks, I'd buy the second, he'd buy the third and, by the fourth, I'd forget whose turn it was. Ah, college.
But it took a guy's behavior to really enable me to explain in graphic detail why I was always so bothered by it, other than my personal need for financial independence. At his going-away party, my ex, Richard (not his real name), had bought me a drink on his tab, given me a hug and quietly lamented that things had never worked out between us. It was, I thought, a nice postscript to the end of our relationship... right up until I overheard him discussing with one of his dude friends the true story of a series of incidents in our relationship that indicated he'd lied to me from the start of our friendship, throughout our relationship and beyond. I turned around after the friend left and gave Richard the eyebrow of judgment; he pulled a Shaggy. I couldn't believe he'd just lie to my face, again, even when the stakes were so low, and I was even more pissed.
So, I walked up the bar and demanded to pay for both our drinks, and he caught me and asked what I was doing. I said that I didn't want to owe him a thing if our entire relationship was just a lie from start to finish. He hissed at me, "Well, I fucked you, I owe you a drink." For him, it was a one-to-one ratio: if he got laid, or was going to, then he was obligated financially.
That, of course, made me even angrier: I'd slept with him not because he paid (in fact, for our first date, following months of friendship, I actually cooked dinner for him), but because I liked him and was attracted to him. It hadn't ever been about commerce, for me, and the fact that access to my vagina was either paid for by dinner or compensated for, after the fact, by a rum and Coke was more than I was going to take.
So -- just as the music and conversation in the bar quieted down in the kind of lull that only comes just as you're about to say something, loudly, that isn't for public consumption--I said, "Well, I had more orgasms, if that's the fucking standard." The entire party turned to stare; the bartender said, "Well, you can't argue with that," and took my card; Richard said, "Fair enough, that's true," and walked away. I paid and we never spoke again.
The fact that plenty of people (and, especially, plenty of men) view paying for a drink or dinner as a toll on the the road to Pussytown is part of why a lot of women feel uncomfortable about men paying for dates by convention. Unlike Sarah Stefanson's insistence that "feminists" (though I'm not sure she knows any) insist on paying to prove that we can take care of ourselves, many of us do it because we think it's more fair--and many of us also do it because we've had far too many dates on which the other person insisted he was entitled to something based on that drink or that dinner. Paying heads that conversation off at the pass, at a minimum. But an equitable investment in a date is also a clear signal that you're trying to put the relationship--whatever it is or may be--on equal footing. It says, "I am equally interested in enjoying your company over this food and/or alcohol as you are in enjoying mine."
Which is not to say I have (or anyone should have) a hard or fast rule: When it's early on in a relationship (i.e., first date territory), I think she who asks for the date should pay, and she or he who accepts should meaningfully offer--but, then, when single, I'm as likely to ask someone out as to be asked out. In a relationship, when we're in an equal financial situation (as is my personal preference), I prefer to either split or trade off on who pays; when there's a financial inequity in the relationship, I tend to stick to she-who-asks-pays, and make a point of suggesting dates that the lesser-positioned among us can equally afford. A date is supposed to be about enjoying one another's company and figuring out how much more of it you'd like to enjoy; if and when it's just about the sex at the end of the night, the only thing I plan on going home to is my pricey vibrator--which, yes, I bought for myself. A good vibrator is, in my mind, always a good sexual investment.
[Image via dandelionfourteen on Flickr, Creative Commons licensed]