By HELEN BARCHAM
A few weeks ago I went on a date with a charming man I met on Tinder. The date went splendidly—he chewed with his mouth shut, was kind enough to share his duck breast, and conversation was as organic as the quail egg we had for starters.
Then came the most-dreaded part of the night. No, I’m not referring to the goodbyes where one person awkwardly goes in for a kiss and the other a hug. Rather, a few months on the dating circuit would have me cement the arrival of the bill as perennially the most-dreaded part of dating.
The waiter, as they almost always seem to do, handed the bill directly to my date, assuming that because he was male (and, presumably, white, sitting across the table from a woman of colour) that he would pay.
The assumptions on the part of the waiter are symptomatic of a society still shackled by gender roles that assign men as active subjects and women as passive objects.
Refusing my money and offer to pay, my date took care of the bill. Three dates in and having not spent a single dollar of my own money, I came to realise that what I initially thought were acts of generosity and altruism by my date, were, in fact, displays of benevolent sexism.
This was a man who did not treat me as his equal, who sternly shut down any contribution that I tried to make, who underestimated my independence and financial capability, and who in taking up the position of lead benefactor reduced me to powerless beneficiary.
Any woman who’s ever had her meal paid for by a man would know these “gifts” are never free. Rather, they form the basis of an implied reciprocal contract which leads some men into thinking that gift-giving grants them ownership entitlements over women.
This is an idea supported by anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who famously argued that in a gift-economy such as ours, there is an obligation for the receiver to repay the debt to demonstrate social integrity. This explains then why men who pay for dinner are not shy from bemoaning women when they don’t reciprocate with sex, and why women, myself included, feel like we “owe” men something after they’ve spent money on us.
A generation ago, men paying for dinner was common and expected considering that relationships were organised into a ‘man as breadwinner/woman as homemaker’ model. Women had no choice but to depend financially on their partners.
But things have changed. And in the city of Sydney, where a single quail egg will set you back an eye-watering $24, it’s both unrealistic and stress-inducing for men to carry the sole weight of financial responsibility.
By the same token, men accepting and encouraging the financial contributions of women enables us to negotiate new terrain and opportunities to move from passive to active, helpless to helpful, and powerless to powerful.
As an independent woman on a comfortable salary, the idea of a man incessantly shutting down my efforts to pay for dinner make me uneasy. Sure, at the end of the night my bank account is unharmed, but a man who clings to the antiquated notion of provider, by default, shoehorns me into a role that is passive, powerless, dependent and inferior.
Provide me with love, support and funny jokes, please. These are the dates that linger in the memory and lead to something more meaningful. But dinner and drinks are – at least 50-50 – on me.
Helen is a sociologist whose research explores feminism and popular culture. When she’s not slaving away at her PhD, or working at UWS’s Institute for Culture and Society, she’s eating, travelling or lamenting her sleep deprivation. Follow her on Twitter here.