On Being Paid For

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I took the plunge and went back to one of the bigger online dating sites. In a little over two weeks I’ve been viewed by over two thousand men!! —though I have to upgrade to the Paid plan in order to see who they are. Since I’m determined not to pay ever if I can help it—a strategy of literal non-investment which helps protect my sanity by keeping me figuratively non- (less-) invested—I have no privacy on that site. If I look at someone’s profile, he’ll know it; and since I browse profiles while watching tv, as though I were flipping through a Crate and Barrel catalogue (similar marketing: you’re paying for appearance and aspirational fantasy, as much as for actual quality…), and only have half my attention on either, I consistently forget that my clicking and scrolling is as ostentatious as if I were frankly checking a man out in a bar (more frank, as I’d have the sense, and the means, to be far more surreptitious in an actual public space). At the same time, I have very little control over what other users do in response to my profile: my details are laid bare, to be perused, judged, leered over and dismissed, or (shudder) leered over and kept, by any passers-by. Which is why I’ve been careful to make my profile as revealingly non-revealing as possible, and set all my filters high. I can’t stop hundreds of horrible people from looking at me, but I can be less hassled by the ensuing invitations (“Is 24 too young for you to answer?” “Hey pretty Im looking for a nice lady My name is Tom lets chat.” “Sex? Now?”).

I’ll confess here that, this time around, I’ve also decided to play demographic hard-ball, and have lied just a teeny-tiny bit about my age—not so much that I’ll only “pull” younger men—I just took a couple of years off to defeat the sad, vain, search parameters of men my age who can’t bear the thought of going out with someone exactly as old as themselves. It’s stupid, ageist, and sexist (of them), but I’m trying not to by thwarted by my own perfectionism, so am tolerantly making allowances. By lying. All the cool kids are doing it now!

I’ve found that on these sites, it never rains but it pours. I can be completely uninteresting to every man within a 50 mile radius for weeks, then have half a dozen fish on the line, struggling to keep straight which one’s in finance, which one lives in Lowell (whence I have vowed never to return), which one has cats (deathly allergic), which one is a 98% match but is almost certainly unemployed…and which ones are nice, reasonably-well adjusted people I’d actually want to meet in person. I’m in one such spate of local-area flooding now, having had lunch dates with 3 guys in 4 days.

There’s all kinds of awkwardnesses to these blind dates, meeting someone you’ve been set up with not by your mother, or your colleagues, or your book club, but by an algorithm. While you might share lots of interests and values, clearly you don’t have all that much in common, because otherwise you wouldn’t be absolute, complete strangers whose paths have never crossed ever and are unlikely to again if this initial date doesn’t work out. So trying to gauge how much you like this other person—whose inner life, history, outstanding criminal warrants, and active STIs are all a complete BLANK to you—makes the initial encounter really nerve-wracking. It’s equally impossible to control your own demeanour, so skewed by the performance you’re trying to give of poised, erudite-but-not-elitist cosmopolitanism, by self-consciousness, by hyper-vigilant watchfulness—you could come away from a lunch date with a well-trained poodle loaded up with all manner of observations and yet completely missing the most salient details (how was the date, P2? Oh, not bad—the guy seemed really friendly, but he’s a really noisy eater, and I think he’s got a hairy back…).

But there’s just no other way to do it, is there?

So, I have allowed myself to be taken out to lunch.

Lunch isn’t really my favorite first date. I think food of any kind just gets in the way, and it’s a shame to waste a good meal on two people who are too nervous to appreciate it. I’ve had friends advise me that the first date should be coffee—casual, warm drinks relax people, but you keep your wits about you. I’ve had others say it should definitely be cocktails—casual, boozy drinks relax people, and you don’t want to keep your wits about you. Not that one ought to go out with the intention of drinking herself into harmful suggestibility, just that the atmosphere of an urban cafe at 9 am is a little too amped up with goal-oriented ambition to conduce to romance, whereas drinks at 7 pm allow you to unfold yourself carelessly on your barstool, well-dressed, but dimly and romantically lit. I’ve come to prefer the drinks idea myself. (And just btw: one place never to go to for a first date with a complete stranger—hiking, just the two of you, alone, in a state park. When I declined that particular offer, the guy was offended that I’d let such unreasonable paranoia come between us…). The problem with lunch is that it takes place in a kind of romantic limbo—the service is too quick; you can’t order drinks or act uproariously because you have to stay clear-headed and respectable for your return to the office; the lighting is too bright; and while there are many, many occasions where you’re grateful to have the office delimiting the start and end of the date, there’s always that one where you aren’t. And yet—we’re all busy professionals with full schedules who are also cynically reluctant to waste our writing, gym, or social time on unproven candidates—so, sometimes, lunch it must be.

Thus it was that in the space of four days, I had two slices of pizza, a salad, a pressed cuban sandwich and home-made potato chips, way too much diet coke, and one very-yummy cream doughnut. I spent, total, about 9 hours with 3 very nice men, any one of which I’d be happy to see again. And I wasn’t allowed? able? encouraged? expected? to pay my way for any of it.

I’ve been a feminist pretty much my whole adult life (which now, alas, is more time than I got to spend not being an adult. All the more reason to lie about one’s age…); and I’m endlessly puzzled by the way we cling to the most nonsensically old-fashioned, gendered, sexist practices. Women with advanced degrees, high-powered careers, all manner of accomplishments, who have been living self-sufficient, and generally pretty nice, lives without ever being dependent on a partner—take it as absolute givens 1) that they will take the man’s name if they marry, 2) that he will always be in charge of the barbecue and she will always control the decor, and that, 3) in the courtship phase, he had damn well better pick up the check or else. Many men seem to really buy into all of these assumptions too; others suspect that it’s a weird system but aren’t willing to risk the consequences of trying anything too unconventional without elaborate, explicit social reinforcement (in the form of what? incidental commentary during a baseball game? an article in Men’s Health? an earnest discussion of feminism on The Bachelor? if women are getting their instructions from magazines and rom-coms, where do the men get theirs?)

When I first started dating a few years ago, I naively took it for granted that we were over this particular bit of nonsense; as a consequence, there was more than one occasion when the server had to bring another copy of the check as the original had been torn in a tug-of-war with one date or another who insisted on picking up on the tab. This was in the height of the recession, when many of these dates were living in their parents’ basements, un- or under-employed. Never mind splitting the check; if we were trying to establish the kind of bread-winner dominance that went out with pill-box hats and cars without seat belts, my dates should have been batting their eyelashes and tittering helplessly while I grandly settled up. Except to perform those roles in that way would be to infantalize them and degrade us both…So instead, I gave in, batted and tittered, and let them pay for me.

Determined to thwart the patriarchy, I then started to make a point of arriving extra early, so that I could buy my latte or pinot grigio for myself (and choose the optimal place to sit, preferably with an eye on the door and my back to a wall). This would confound the men at first—then they’d settle in for a nice long gossipy date, to ensure a second round—on them of course.

By now, I’m resigned to just playing along—I make a gesture or two of concern for my share of the bill, move feebly to lift my bag, then defer to my date. I hope I don’t titter, but I know I do the eyelash thing. My acquiescence seems to set them more at ease, to let them act the way they think they should.

I’ve read advice columns where women argue strenuously that having the man pay is actually the egalitarian option: since we spend so much time and money on making ourselves pretty, for the man to buy us steak and cocktails allows us to break even. Other women (and some men) still assume that a man has to declare his suitability as a future provider by a display of prosperity, in the form of a $5 venti hazelnut macchiato as an absolute minimum. There seems to be a deep-seated belief that a man who doesn’t pay is somehow—sexually, economically, socially—not really a man.

We all see the problem with the preceding arguments, yes? Let me go over them, just so we’re all sure.

1) While I do put a fair amount of effort—perhaps more than is necessary or healthy—into emulating the ideals of beauty established by western patriarchal capitalism, I’m doing it mainly so that people will think I’m pretty and tell me so. I’d like at least one decent partner to be so overcome by my charms (of which the glamour cast by my cheap mascara and ridiculously expensive eye cream makes only a small part) that he pledges unending fealty to me—but he doesn’t have to literally buy my charms, or offer a bride-price in the form of the tasting menu at Ten Tables to secure the deal. And I suppose it needs to be said—there is no seedier transaction taking place, where on the first date I’m taking a sandwich and a diet coke as the down-payment for temporary access to my body, and the deal is closed on the second date with a couple of measly Manhattans (and where, if a cab ride home at 5 am is part of the arrangement, then dinner will definitely have to be paid for in advance). I know that plenty of people see dating as no more than a set of calculations to optimize social and sexual “profit”—but I’m not one of them.

2) As part of getting to know a potential partner, I am—I’ll be honest—taking his earning potential into consideration. That’s NOT because I’m the much-dreaded, vampiric Gold-Digger of MRA legend (vying for fearsomeness with the repulsive Drama Queen) who’s looking for a sugar-daddy she can drain dry of assets and testosterone (Ugh…do people actually talk and think like that in a non-facetious way??). On the contrary: while I wouldn’t kick Thomas Crowne out of bed for eating crackers, in general, I don’t require that my mate be RICH. Rather, I just need someone who will a) not drag me down into his unmanageable debt and indigence; and b) be able to afford to go on vacation with me. His financial stability is really only one indicator, or symptom, of his ability to look after himself in contemporary society—and that level of capability depends on a whole host of conditions and qualities; his ability to toss a piece of plastic on the table and buy me a couple of glasses of wine tells me little of use. Earlier I mentioned the extreme hyper-vigilance I experience on dates—for good or ill, I’m taking in a lot more information than whether he’s Visa, AmEx, or Discover (not to mention whether the name on his card matches the name he’s given me. Yes, that’s happened). I’m gathering and analyzing information throughout the whole encounter—I might still end up completely, fantastically wrong about the man, but whatever my assessment, it doesn’t hinge on him buying my diet coke for me.

And finally, there’s this (3) business of “proving” that he’s a man, where paying for drinks or dinner or whatever is part of a larger ritual, where he demonstrates his fitness as a mate by dancing back and forth and shaking his feathers at me, or charging his male opponents and breaking their horns….Oops—I’m getting him confused with birds and elk. Because a considerable amount of gendered behavior (for male and female people) is completely made up to serve various social ends which might have made sense 3000 or 300 years ago but are completely obsolete now—I really don’t care about this performance of manliness, just as I don’t want to be held to any set criteria of womanliness. It would be useful for me to find a partner who could clean my drive train (not a euphemism—I don’t have a repair stand for my bike)…but after years of living on my own, and figuring out how to open my own jars, or do my taxes, or—heaven help me—kill my own mice, I can’t think of a single thing I need doing that only a man could do (except clean my drive train—you may now apply the euphemism—though in a pinch that’s a household chore that I’ve learned how to do on my own too).

I dated a guy who was really into manliness—that is, he occasionally asserted “I’m a man” (really), took umbrage when other men would look at his woman (that would be me), and insisted on opening car doors for me, to the point where if I “mistakenly” attempted to get out of the car on my own, he’d insist that I get back in and wait for him to hand me down from his sedan. His “manliness” was a symptom of a whole raft of narcissistic, controlling behaviors that were, at best, tediously anachronistic and, at worst, offensive-to-menacing. I’ve gone out with plenty of guys who have VIEWS on what it means to be a man or a woman in our culture (views usually outlined in diatribes beginning with “the problem with you women…”). I’m kind of over manliness now.

When a man makes a big deal out of paying for my drinks or my food or whatever, there’s a part of me—the indulged little girl, the woman who’s grown up in a culture where all manner of inequality is accepted and endlessly reinforced—who really likes it. That’s the part of me that likes to get presents, that expects to have her behavior rewarded with cake and ice cream, that fantasizes about being marked out for favor by the Prince, or Mr. Darcy, or Thomas Crowne. —What a lot of personal and cultural baggage to impose on another person over one lousy cocktail, one inconsequential sandwich! What a lot of reciprocal, and irrational obligation that imposes on me, to reward that performance! No wonder people who are dating lie compulsively to one another!

Here’s a crazy idea: what if we treat one another as humans, whose worth is partly intrinsic, just because we exist, and partly a function of the mindful application of logical and ethical reasoning, of kindness, generosity, and respect? What if we treated one another as equals? What if, when two people meet for the first time, not yet knowing if they’ll meet a second time, they speak, and act, openly, courteously, and equitably with one another, regardless of what the world says they ought to do?

What if they just split the damn check?

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2 Responses to On Being Paid For

  1. laurakcurtis says:

    This is a wonderful piece. This, particularly, hit home for me: “His financial stability is really only one indicator, or symptom, of his ability to look after himself in contemporary society…”

    Before Internet dating sites really took off, my mother (who was far more invested in my social life than I was) subscribed me to a high-end dating service as a birthday present. It was not the kind of thing I could have afforded, nor the kind of thing I would have come up with on my own, but when she asked me if I would like her to do so, I said “sure.”

    I filled in rafts of paperwork, interviewed with a very nice woman, and signed the papers that would allow them to do all the appropriate background checks on me that they would also do on my prospective partners to be sure I was “safe” and that the men were “appropriate”. And the service was very clear about who would pay for the dates: I wasn’t even to consider it.

    But part of the reason I agreed to the whole shebang was that I had moved to Austin, TX from the northeast maybe a year or two before and was having trouble fitting in. I had this strange idea in my head that I would be intellectually as well as (possibly) romantically interested in and compatible with the people they set me up with. What I found most distressing was the fact that that was not the case. Only one of the men was the kind of guy I wanted to spend a long time talking to, and I felt it unfair to lead him on in a romantic fashion since I had felt no spark.

    Later, some friends (yes, I eventually made friends) set me up on a blind date. We went out to dinner and after fifteen minutes agreed there was no spark. And on that night, we split the check. After all, we were both in grad school. Because we’d gotten the romantic idea out of the way up front, we had a wonderful time and went on to become fast friends. I wondered, then, about that guy I’d met through the dating company, and reading this has made me wonder again: aside from the obvious “if we’re just friends, your debt isn’t my problem,” are there reasons we don’t look for the same things in friends as we do in lovers? Why is it that once the question of romance (sex? future?) is out of the way, you don’t even have to talk about splitting the check, it just happens? And do people who meet on Match.com or whatever other dating site ever just find a friend for life, or if the dates don’t work out as romance, do they abandon those people and move right along?

    Like

    • farkasca says:

      I had that exact thought as I was writing this piece, that my friends and I have no trouble splitting the check, because there’s no aspect of our friendship that depends on one person being able to pay for the others. In fact, that’s the recurring subject of advice columns: when friends *know* that one of their number is really well-off or really struggling, how do we strike a balance between egalitarian and fair? Because amongst friends, we value both of those things (equality, fairness) very highly, and yet–if we go along with dating “rules”–amongst potential lovers, we don’t value them at all…? When one person insists on paying, and feels obligated to do it, the relationship has a commodified aspect to it even before it’s begun–and that’s sexy how…? Which gets at your questions at the end (and gives me the idea for another blog post too!): what *is* the difference between friends/lovers/partners? Sex would seem to be the one obvious thing, but we don’t want sex without sexiness, and *that* seems to still depend somehow on money and other evidence of social and economic power (with the power to avoid living in your car being the minimum requirement)…darn our rapidly-evolving culture, and all these challenges to traditional expectations about gender and relationships!

      Like

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