During 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 a debate: Who should pay for dates?
My date, a 27-year-old woman I matched with on Hinge, said gender equality didn’t mean men and women should pay the same when they went out. Women, she said, earn less than men in the workplace, spend more time getting ready 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 equity and equality. When it comes to romance and courtship, young people — specifically women and men in heterosexual relationships — seem to be following the same dating rules their parents and older generations grew up learning.
Contemporary research, popular culture and conversations I had with more than a dozen young Americans suggest that a longstanding norm still holds true: Men tend to foot the bill more than women do on dates. And there seems to be an expectation that they should.
The ‘Paying for the First Date’ Dance
Some progressive defenders of the norm cite the persistent gender wage gap, and the fact that women pay more for reproductive products and apparel than men and that they spend more time preparing for dates to comport with societal norms.
Kala Lundahl lives in New York City and works at a recruiting firm. She typically matches with people for dates through apps like Hinge, with the total cost of the date, usually over drinks, coming to around $80. On the first date, Ms. Lundahl, 24, always offers to split the check but expects the man to pay — and has encountered resistance when she offers to pay.
Ms. Lundahl said that if the date was going well, they might continue 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. Ms. Lundahl’s reasoning comes from her belief that the person who did the asking out — usually the man — should pay for the date, and that the person who made more money — also usually the man — should cough up.
“A couple of guys get a little stiff when I offer to pay,” Ms. Lundahl said. “You can tell they’re not comfortable with that idea.”
Scott Bowen, a 24-year-old accountant in Charlotte, N.C., said he always paid for drinks, meals and coffees on dates. Usually, that winds up being $70 to $100 per outing. The conversation over who pays usually lasts a split second — from the time the waiter sets down the check to when 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 should pay for dates when taking a woman out. He acknowledged that he wanted to see the status quo changed to be more of an even split, yet he said he was uncomfortable bringing up the subject at all during dates: Our conversation was one of the rare times he had spoken about the issue with another person.
In L.G.B.T.Q. relationships, who pays for dates has less to do with gender norms and more with specific relationship dynamics.
Brendan Foley, a government worker in Washington, D.C., said that in his experience dating men, the check was usually split. When one person paid, it was often the older man, or the person who was understood to make more money. But the discussion of money during dates doesn’t bother him.
“I think there are more honest and straightforward conversations than the dance in straight relationships,” Mr. Foley, 24, said.
The Persistent Tradition of Men Paying
Shanhong Luo, a professor at Fayetteville State University, studies the factors behind attraction between romantic partners, including the norms that govern relationships. In a paper published in 2023 in Psychological Reports, a peer-reviewed journal, Dr. Luo and a team of researchers surveyed 552 heterosexual college students in Wilmington, N.C., and asked them whether they expected men or women to pay for dates — and whether they, as a man or a woman, typically paid more.
The researchers found that young men paid for all or most of the dates around 90 percent of the time, while women paid only about 2 percent (they split around 8 percent of the time). On subsequent dates, splitting the check was more common, though men still paid a majority of the time while women rarely did. Nearly 80 percent of men expected that they would 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 of gender roles or more progressive ones.
“The findings strongly showed that the traditional pattern is still there,” Dr. Luo said.
The persistent tradition of men paying for women might seem like a harmless artifact. But in a relationship, such acts don’t exist in a vacuum.
Psychologists differentiate between two forms of sexism: “hostile sexism,” defined by beliefs like women are inferior to men, and “benevolent sexism,” defined by beliefs like it is men’s duty to protect women. But the latter can give way to the former.
“The notion of chivalry is couched in very positive terms,” said Campbell Leaper, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “But over time, if people are stuck in these roles, that comes at a cost.”
In a 2016 study, Dr. Leaper and his co-author, Alexa Paynter, surveyed undergraduate students in California, asking 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 association between that view and more hostile views toward women was particularly strong.
Dr. Leaper, who has been teaching a class on gender development for more than 30 years, said his students today were more liberal on a range of issues pertaining 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 thought how it was connected to sexism.
“That’s kind of surprising to them, and something they haven’t really thought about before,” Dr. Leaper said.
Part of the reason the norm may persist in young people is that dates are inherently awkward, Dr. Luo said. Even for young people who may hold a steadfast commitment to financial independence — whether a man or a woman — the pressure of an age-old norm may kick in.
“Regardless of what you believe in, you’ll do what the norm says you do,” Dr. Luo said.
Easier as Relationships Deepen
Kent Barnhill said he paid for around 80 percent of the dates he went on, usually with people he had met on dating apps. Mr. Barnhill, 27, identifies as a feminist and is politically progressive, but he said his upbringing in a wealthy, conservative household in South Florida had shaped his practice of insisting on paying for dates, particularly early on in relationships.
“On the first date, I always establish beforehand that I want to pay,” said Mr. Barnhill, a data analyst in the Washington, D.C., public school system. “The fact I’m paying more does not bother me.”
Zoe Miller, 23, on the other hand, grew up in a liberal household in Chapel Hill, N.C. One experience on 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 Ms. Miller’s date came back, 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 dining Italian restaurant in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Washington, and Mr. Barnhill had paid.
Ms. Miller initially found it hard to swallow when Mr. Barnhill would pay the entire check. But a combination of a difference in incomes — she has had fewer shifts at her job at a smoothie shop — and viewing the gesture as genuine, rather than an expression of power, warmed her to the idea. Since that outing, they’ve tried to split their dates, using the app Splitwise.
Once two people make it past the initial, awkward courtship, navigating the trickiness of date financing tends to be easier. When one person pays, man or woman, they find joy, likening the act of paying to gift-giving.
Andrew Tuchler and Miranda Zhang are a married couple in Los Angeles who met in college. Going out for expensive dates was not financially feasible for them, so they opted for what college couples often do: spending time over cafeteria meals and during club events.
Mr. Tuchler and Ms. Zhang, both 26, said the early experience of a relationship not defined by money had helped steel them for the challenges of talking about and spending money. The couple split their finances, but when it comes to dates, they alternate who pays.
Mr. Tuchler said he enjoyed it as an act of service — even taking the extra step to tell the waiter what she’ll be having. Ms. Zhang said she appreciated the gesture, and enjoyed returning the favor.