My 15-year old son, Nathaniel, went to sleep-away camp this summer and came home with more than just his trunk—while there, he “got a girlfriend.”
Along the way, he learned that having a girlfriend is “expensive.” When they visited Miller’s Landing, the beloved local burger and milkshake joint that older teens are allowed to frequent, he often picked up the tab.
When his 21-year-old sister heard this, she was delighted. “We raised you right!” she exclaimed. When I sent his grandma an email to tell her the story, she promptly replied, but with a decidedly different take: “Ask him if his girlfriend is a feminist and goes Dutch treat or not.”
In fact, I already had. Nathaniel replied that she often paid her own way. But from time to time, he enjoyed buying her a treat. It felt nice.
As we were chatting, it suddenly occurred to me that even though my husband and I have talked to Nathaniel about sex, drugs, and a host of other sensitive topics, we’d somehow managed to miss a common cultural conundrum: Who should pick up the tab? The man or the woman? The boy or the girl?
A recent study presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting suggests the answer is far from clear in our collective mind. Modern ideals suggest that gender shouldn’t play a role in who pays for dates. But traditional notions of chivalry die hard.
David Frederick, a psychology professor at Chapman University and one of the study’s co-authors, said the motivation for the research was to understand why some gender-based practices (like the acceptance of women in the workplace) have changed, while others (such as certain courtship rituals) have not.
The study, which surveyed more than 17,000 unmarried heterosexual men and women, found that 84 percent of men and 58 percent of women said men pay for most dating expenses, even after the relationship has been cooking for a while. And, evidently, a lot of women like it this way; 44 percent said they were bothered when men expected them to kick in some cash.
Many women do wind up offering to help—some 57 percent in all—but they’re not exactly sincere about it: 39 percent confessed to hoping that men would reject the overture.
Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of men believe women should contribute, and 44 percent went so far as to say that they would stop seeing a woman who never reached for the bill. Yet they’re also deeply conflicted, with 76 percent reporting that they feel guilty accepting women’s money.
Before women entered the workforce in large numbers, it made practical sense for men to pay for dates. It was a way for them to prove that they could be good providers, and women simply didn’t have their own money. But today, the number of men and women in the workforce is roughly equal, and in most marriages, both husbands and wives are providers.
Yet this courtship ritual persists. Just ask my boy, who seems to have absorbed these gender roles through cultural osmosis.
Still, there is a glimmer of hope. Even though the study found that the same basic patterns held true no matter the participants income or education, younger people in their 20s were the most likely to embrace a more egalitarian approach to dating. That’s good for both our sons and our daughters.
Don’t get me wrong: I was charmed that my son’s instinct was to do something nice for his new girlfriend. But as he moves through high school, college, and life, I want him to know that relationships are best when all of their components—emotional, physical, and financial—are shared.
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