In Salon, Ann Marlowe argues that feminists should reject the tradition of men paying for dates. "[A]s long as we construe gender as being about the flow of funds from men to women," she writes, "in some deep but inescapable way all women are prostitutes, and all men are johns." Lisa Dusseault agrees.
I could be snide, of course, and ask why a hardcore "equality" feminist would object to women being prostitutes and men being johns in the first place. After all, few men would consider themselves devalued victims if women paid them for their sexual services; why, then, should women feel any differently?
Fortunately, I'm not a hardcore "equality" feminist, and I know what I disparage about prostitution: not "the flow of funds from men to women", but rather the reduction of something as personal and central as sexual intimacy to a cash transaction between strangers, degrading both parties in the process. Most men who pay for a date's meal, on the other hand, do so for roughly the same reason most women on a date wear lipstick: it's a simple, popular and effective way to enhance one's attractiveness to the opposite sex. Both might seem slightly unsavory if analyzed too closely for anthropological origins and social meanings, but in practice their immediate motivation is nothing more disreputable than a natural desire to put one's best foot forward and make a good impression--in short, to "look good". (And, as Billy Crystal's "Fernando" would say, "to look good is to feel good.")
No doubt there are plenty of people--both male and female--who see dating finances in Marlowe's coarse transactional terms. But such people are also far more likely to embrace "equality" feminism, with its disdain for chivalry and hearty endorsement of cold sexual self-interestedness, than traditional romance, which recoils from crude notions of sexual barter. In other words, it's not the man who always automatically pays, but rather the man who doesn't always pay, who's obviously thinking carefully about what he's giving up--and what he might get in return.