Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Going Dutch

During my three years as an undergraduate student I was not once asked out on a date, leading me to come to the conclusion that I was to live my life as some crazy hermit. I had even started picking out names for the hundreds of cats I was inevitably going to acquire. I was thus taken a bit by surprise when I moved to London just over a year ago and suddenly found myself the regular recipient of dinner invitations (probably facilitated by the fact that I was now taking a Masters course that was over 80% male). However while one would expect this turn of events to be warmly welcomed, I instead find myself getting frustrated on a regular basis due to altercations when it comes to paying the bill. When eating out with friends, paying the bill is a relatively simple affair with the total amount being split equally between the diners. This seems a perfectly sensible and efficient way of divvying up a bill and I am left perplexed as to why the men I have dated this last year have been so belligerently averse to such a system.

At the end of almost every date I go on, I am left fighting over the bill. I am frequently surprised with just how irate my date gets during these disputes. On one particular occasion, when I insisted that I pay for my own food, my date replied that he gets offended when a girl wants to pay for her bill. This sentiment particularly irked me; he’s allowed to be offended when a woman offers to pay, but when a man offers to pay I’m supposed to feel grateful? Why am I not allowed to be offended?

I always insist on paying for my half of the bill. Often the man responds by saying that he’s ‘old-fashioned’ (which I have come to realise is code for chauvinist and backwards) and that he considers it gentlemanly to pay the bill. But a man paying the bill for a woman is not gentlemanly. Frankly, it is somewhat insidious. Reading any anthropology or sociology text on reciprocity makes it pretty clear that nothing comes for free. When someone pays for you, you are then bound to that person. You don’t have to repay that person immediately but there is an obligation of reciprocity inherent in any seeming ‘gift’. In Mauss’ eponymous study on exchange, he argues that while gifts appear voluntary, “in fact they are given and repaid under obligation.” Gift-giving forms relationships that join people to each other. As an example, he discusses the Maori concept of hau, the ‘spirit’ of a gift which creates a link between the giver and the receiver. If the gift is not reciprocated, the spirit will make the receiver ill.

Like Mauss, Malinowski emphasises the importance of reciprocity in his analysis of the Kula of the Trobriand Islands. Kula (literally meaning ‘ring’) is a form of exchange linking islands and communities in an unbreakable circuit. Soulava, long necklaces made from red shells, and mwali, bracelets made from white shells, are constantly exchanged in opposite directions around the circuit. The Kula serves many purposes: it fosters inter-tribal cooperation; facilitates trade; cements social hierarchies; and denotes personal honour. The exchange of soulava and mwali forms a “lifelong relationship,” which ”implies various mutual duties.”

Some may argue that I am overreacting with my opposition to having my meals paid for by a man. But these studies, and others like them, demonstrate that reciprocity, and the links it creates between individuals, is a powerful social force that may lead women into future actions that they are not comfortable with. A university friend of mine was once given a highly sought-after ticket to a ball by a male friend and her first comment was, “oh great… now I’m going to have to have sex with him.”

I don’t mind being treated every once in a while and I don’t think that the men I have dated over the last year were necessarily trying to entrap me into some future promise of sex. But constantly being paid for is degrading and humiliating. Healthy relationships require an equal distribution of power and this is impossible when one individual is indebted to another.


Malinowski B (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, George Routledge & Sons, Ltd

 Mauss M (1950) The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, London: Routledge

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