I have a complicated relationship with OkCupid. Unfortunately, I also have a complicated relationship with being able to speak to strangers that I would possibly like to sleep with. You see the tension. My general pattern with online dating, since I first started in college, is to go on 3-5 dates in a month, occasionally landing some sort of short-term boyfriend equivalent, get frustrated, and ignore it for 6 months. True to form, this is exactly what I’ve been doing, and the 6 months are up. So, I’m delving once more into the world of online dating. Everything looks its typical rosy at the moment, and I am by no means nervous about the process anymore, except for one small paralyzing question.
I know, I know, we’re not supposed to think about these things anymore. It’s the ’90s or something. But this a question that straight people ask me all. the. time. So, why don’t I know the answer?
Bear in mind that gay kids don’t grow up getting a lot of practice on the dating scene. A recently out gay guy may have the body, credit card, and access to alcohol of an adult, but the dating experience of a 7th grader. This is not helped by the fact that we grow up with the same gender expectations as the rest of you. There is no script for a date between two men or two women, or at least not one that permeates culture in the way the straight script does. And as much today’s ladies and gents may rail against these same gender-based expectations, the fact remains that they exist which, while still problematic, serves as a paradoxically reassuring parachute in the event that social anxiety gets the best of you.
Unfortunately, my personal perception is that many same-sex dates fall back on the straight script, even though it is arguably inapplicable. Lacking the gendered bodies on which to reproduce the script, we’re left with nothing but the power dynamics of gender and dating laid bare.
There is a clear dominance implied in paying for any date, especially a first date, straight or otherwise. This is perhaps even more problematic on a same-sex date, because it can feel more like a fight for dominance than a genuine gesture. This is because on a straight date, this power struggle can be masked as “chivalry,” even viewed as correct by many women who would not accept such blatant male domination in any other arena of their lives.
But the problem is also about financial dominance. The power inherent in money goes beyond who controls how many mozzarella sticks you buy (only acceptable answer, all of them.) Our notions of dating are so inherently bound up in money that no matter which financial path we take, we cannot avoid sending a message. The way I see it, there are three options.
1. I pay – If I pay, a couple of messages are sent. First, I’m in control of the date. This, as discussed above, is perhaps even weirder in the gay community where, like it or not, there is often a competition to see who can be the more “masculine” gay. Without the guise of chivalry, the power dynamic is all that remains. In the same way that a straight guy may feel “emasculated” by his female date picking up the check, the gay guy who doesn’t pay may feel similarly like he has lost the phallic sword-fight. Our notions of masculinity are, it would seem, bound up in capitalism.
The second message I send when I pay is that I’m in control of what happens after the date. It seems to me that, especially for non-straight male actors, allowing the other person to pay is a tacit acknowledgement that sex, or some form of intimacy, is on the table. This is perhaps indicative of the male privilege of assuming sex is always on the table until taken off, prevalent among both straight and non-straight men.
2. You pay– Conversely, if I let you pay, you might think the same things of me. It feels to me like if I let you pay, I’m telling you that I’m willing to go home with you. As already stated, I’m not only ceding power to you, I may be ceding my masculinity to you which, unfortunately, may have very real ramifications for how you treat me in the future. This is further complicated by the fact that I am a grad student and not above a free meal.
3. We split the check– In an ideal world, this probably the best option, right? Unfortunately, insisting on splitting the check would seem to send the message that intimacy is off the table, and there might not be a second date. This is especially unfortunate in situations in which one would both like to split the check and continue the evening. Splitting the check says, to me, this date is probably over.
As much as I hope these dynamics make us uncomfortable, I don’t think my personal perceptions of this situation are far off the mark, and we are all guilty of producing and reproducing them. What does it mean to live in a society in which monetary transactions can serve as a stand-in for sexual consent? (NOTE: This is not to imply that money IS consent. Rape culture is real, and nothing is consent but consent. I only mean to imply that, due to the existence of rape culture, financial acquiescence may be interpreted as sexual acquiescence.)
So, you ask…who pays? I don’t know. But the way I see it, we’ve got two options, and they’re not just for the gays.
1. Straights can continue to allow money to communicate their sexual desires for them, and the rest of us can emulate them as best we can. We can continue to increase the already increeeedible awkwardness of first dates by refusing to talk ground rules.
2. We (the everybody kind of “we”) can start to work toward a society in which we can actually talk about these things on (or before) the date. What would a world look like in which I could let you pay and not make out with you?
OR pay for you, out of a genuine instinct to be nice, and not spend the rest of the evening looking for clues that we’re going to have to sex?
OR, conversely, what would it look like to split the check like two job-having adults and then go home and make out like two unemployed teenagers?
OR, what if before we even met we could say “Hey, I always split the check on first dates, but don’t take that as a sign that I don’t like you.”?
I don’t know about you, but option 2 sounds a lot better to me. Unfortunately, it implies not only learning to talk about money, but learning to talk about sex and intimacy. Our culture essentializes sex so much that a sexual “rejection” can only be viewed as a rejection of that entire person. Paradoxically, it’s also so puritanical that too overt an interest in sex, even on a date, can be viewed as a sign of “sluttiness” or “looseness,” which might mean you’re “not relationship material.” Why can’t we just say, and mean it, “You’re great, but I don’t want to have sex with you?” or “Hey, that was a really fun date, do you want to have some sex?”
I know, I know. It’s hard. It’s awkward. But is it any more awkward than the continual guessing game that is a first date? Just so we’re clear, I don’t claim to be there yet myself, either. I will undoubtedly continue to sweat profusely when the waiter asks if we’d like the check. But until we start having these conversations in a frank and non-earth-shattering manner, we’ll all have to keep wondering who pays.