To prepare for a date, I make sure my hair is clean and (at least roughly) blow-dried; wax, shave or pluck pretty much everything from the eyebrows down; apply foundation and lashings of eyeliner; squeeze myself into a casually sexy outfit; and go to the ATM.
Because the bottom line is, a girl’s gotta have cash on a date. Cash means, when the bill lands on the table, in those two to three awkward seconds when both you and your date’s eyes land on that contentious slip of paper, you can confidently whip out your wallet and easily pay your half. “Can”, I said. Not “will” or “particularly want to”. Because I can’t deny when I sit down opposite some lovely boy to share a meal, I’m assuming he’ll be the one taking care of the bill. I am not proud of this. That instinct, that hope, that he will pay confounds me. Because when it comes to feminism, I’ve read the books, bought the T-shirt and written the university thesis. I can quote Gloria Steinem and I have a Hillary Clinton poster over my desk. In every aspect of my life, I expect to not only wear, but pay for, the pants. (And, let the record show, once in a relationship, I’m wholly committed to being financially 50/50.)
But first (and maybe second) dates are like some sort of Bermuda Triangle when it comes to my feminist principles. Trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out why, at that very first intersection between romance and cold, hard cash, my staunch values disappear. I can’t deny part of the reason is that, on some level, I equate whether he is happy to solely foot the bill with how much he likes me. The bill is more than a simple account of how much pinot gris he and I have sunk. It becomes a litmus test of how funny he found my Donald Trump jokes and how much he liked my work anecdotes.
On a coolly analytical level, I know this is a ridiculous train of thought. But in that moment when he nods and says, “Your half is $70,” I feel a trickle of disappointment. My brain translates his simple statement as rejection. Sadly, this notion has led me tragically astray.
A couple of years ago I was at my first ex-boyfriend, Max’s, wedding – 15 years after our break-up. As I happily toasted Max and his new wife and wandered to the bar for a refill, I spied a handsome man in an impeccably cut suit who looked very familiar. He was James, Max’s best friend, a boy I had known well during the years Max and I dated. A decade and a half since I had last seen him, the awkward poloshirt- wearing business student had developed into a well-dressed, funny guy. It was pretty instantaneous. Glasses of bubbles were followed by rearranging of place cards so we could sit next to each other at the reception, which was followed by us absconding in a cab hours later to curl up on a couch in a dark bar. He was witty and smart and there was that lovely fact we had known each other since we were teenagers. Damn, I thought, the guy I was meant to end up with all along was the same guy I had once seen dance to Christina Aguilera while drinking a cocktail out of a teacup at university.
Two days later we went on our first proper date. There was wine and pasta and cheese. The eye contact was there, the gentle glancing touches as we both reached for the salad. And then, you guessed it, the bill came.
“Let’s go halves,” I said, slightly buzzed by champagne and wine, quite sure he would insist on paying. “Sure,” he said. And my heart fell. That spring wedding I had been mentally planning for the past 48 hours crumbled. I was so confused – I thought he liked me. My stupid brain, addled by years of Jane Austen, interpreted his simple agreement as cold, hard rejection. And at that point, the date went precipitously of course; there was something awkward between us and a clunky second date a week later was our final try at romance. Perhaps on some unconscious level I equated his willingness to pay with his willingness to care for me.
And yes, I am perfectly aware of the vast, gaping holes in this argument. In the cold light of day, I know I behaved irrationally.
But it underlined how deeply ingrained, on an unconscious level, the notion is for me that if men like you, they will pony up the cold hard cash.
There is a lot about modern dating that, despite centuries of feminism, is still patently unfair. While I’m plucking and powdering and pulling myself into a dress pre-date, there is a good chance my potential paramour doesn’t feel it necessary to do more than add a quick slap of aftershave. Women are still expected to go to considerably more effort and expense in getting frocked up to hook a love interest than any bloke would ever consider.
Though it breaks my feminist heart, it’s the game we still play. And this, my friends, is the territory we find ourselves in. The dating environ isn’t equal. It is flawed –just like the humans who created it. All is not fair in the pursuit of love. So, men, I propose a simple bargain– I will happily not only pay for half, but the whole evening if the next time I go on a date I can do so dressed like the last wannabe Romeo I met on Tinder – bed hair, a rumpled denim shirt and a wicked grin.
To read a man's perspective on this age-old question, pick up the January issue of marie claire, on sale now!