Andrew Smiler wonders why changes in gender roles have had a minimal impact on dating.
Gender roles have changed dramatically over the last forty years or so. In 1970, men outnumbered women on college campuses two to one; today, women outnumber men by a several percentage points. Women have moved into a variety of jobs that weren’t open to them. They’re members of every branch of the US Military and can now participate in combat. They serve in high political office, holding a record 20 seats in the US Senate; Secretaries of State Albright, Rice, and Clinton, were 4th in line to the presidency (after the Vice-President and President Pro Tempore of the Senate).
Men’s roles have also changed. In 1970, about 2% of households were headed by a single-parent father; today, it’s about 8%. That’s coupled with a shift from dad as provider-disciplinarian to dad as someone who is involved and emotionally present for his children. The younger generations are also doing more housework than their fathers did, although parity has yet to be achieved. And fewer men than ever are working in “traditional” male jobs like manufacturing, especially after the recent “mancession.”
So with all this change, what’s happened to dating? Although it’s fashionable to talk about “hookup culture” and lament the end of dating, the research is clear that dating is still very common and that only a minority of teens and young adults participate in hookup culture.
A recently released study by Ana L. Jaramillo-Sierra and Katherine R. Allen from Virginia Tech, looked at one piece of dating: who pays. The article, will be published in the academic journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity.
Working with a few colleagues, and under the supervision of the Institutional Review Board (IRB), they offered students taking Human Sexuality courses extra credit for writing a one page essays in response to the question “how do you decide who pays for things such as movies, gas, dates, meals, trips, condoms/other contraceptives, and so forth, in a dating relationship?” The directions also asked how the length of relationship (e.g., first dates vs. long term), type of expense, and other issues effect the decision. There were other essay options for obtaining extra credit; thirty four young men aged 18 to 25 answered this question. All of the guys wrote about their experiences dating women, so I will too. The authors make no claims about how these issues might related to same-sex couples.
The study demonstrates that equality hasn’t reached the dating realm yet; at least, not when it comes to paying. To be sure, progress is being made. About half of the young men who answered this question said the couple should split costs more-or-less equally. Of course, this also means that half the young men believe they should be picking up most, if not all, of the costs.
But equality also took another hit. Every guy in the study said that it was the dude’s responsibility to pay all costs for the first few dates. It didn’t matter what they expected for an established couple that recognized themselves as boyfriend-girlfriend, every guy said it was his job to foot the bill while “courting.” (I note that “all” is from the 29 guys who talked about differences between the initial stage and later stages; the other 5 guys only talked about established couples.)
The guys gave several reasons for paying for those first dates:
- To impress the girl
- To demonstrate they care (because one way to show caring is to provide for another person)
- To act like a gentleman
- To conform to social expectations
I have no problem with the first three of these, and I think they’d all work just fine in the other direction. The girl could pay in order to impress the guy, show him she cares, and still be a lady. It’s the last one that bothers me. Despite all the other changes in gender roles over the last forty years, why do we still expect the guy to pay for the first date?
We’ve seen greater public acknowledgement of women’s sexual desires, including the whole media frenzy over “cougars.” Similarly, most boys and men now understand that sex should be mutually pleasing and not just focused on his orgasm.
Yet we seem to have missed the equality puzzle piece that says girls and women can and should pay for first dates. Nor have we really said that girls can and should initiate first dates instead of just indicating that they’re interested and waiting for the guy to ask. We need to move from “Call Me Maybe” to “I’d like to take you on a date.”
Maybe that’s why we hear whispered horror stories about teenage girls throwing themselves—or at least their bodies—at teenage boys. Nobody has really talked to them about how to start a relationship or challenge the notion that “guys just want sex,” so they rely on gender stereotypes.
Then again, asking someone on a first date is one of the scariest things a teenage boy or young man can do. The risk of hearing “no” is huge: it means that you’re not good enough, not desirable enough. It’s a very different rejection than when trying out for a team, applying for a job, or the like. In those settings, a guy might not be the most skilled, might have a bad day, etc. and thus it’s easier to accept the no. When it comes to dating, that no is necessarily a rejection of the guy; it is explicitly about him. Given our general concern about girls’ self-esteem, maybe that’s why we haven’t pushed them to start asking boys out.
Of course, we’ll also need to teach boys what to do when a girl asks them out or insists on paying for those first dates. We all need to understand that it doesn’t mean she’s sexually aggressive, easy, or a slut, but rather that she’s just expressing her interest, trying to impress him, and perhaps trying to show that she cares. Boys and men will also need to understand that being asked out—and saying yes—doesn’t somehow threaten their masculinity or make them “whipped.”
Equality between men and women isn’t just about elevating women by increasing their access to education and professions or reducing the amount of unpaid housework and childcare they do. Creating a more equal society means that women will need to give up their privileged position as guests (vs. payers) in first dates (and later in the relationship) and will need to share decision making about their special day.
–Photo: Moriza / flickr