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Sugar Daddy Lite: Trading Dinner for Dates?

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The question of who picks up the check — or buys the groceries, or the gas — is one that can vex hetero romance. Is a man unmanned by a woman provider? Do women want men who can bring home the bacon? Such problems are thrown into high relief on a first date, when no one knows anything about one another and everyone wants to look good. 

For some, the solution here might seem obvious. Like: “Talk about it.” Or: “Compromise.” Or: “Feel secure enough to reject prescribed gender roles when it suits you and your partner.”

None of this is for certain entrepreneurs, however.

With his new site HiDine (set to launch in the next month), Kyle McGinnis has his eye on a specific niche: gourmands with a taste for old-fashioned sexism  — or chivalry, as he prefers to call it. HiDine is online dating for people who like fancy meals, and agree that men ought to pick up the check. Brandon Wade of the app Carrot Dating, meanwhile, is even more explicit in his aims. “I want to go for the more affordable version of being a sugar daddy,” he told The Cut. “I wouldn’t call it a sugar daddy, I’d call it showing you can be generous.” McGinnis and Wade are hoping that there’s a viable new product category to be found in commodifying traditional dating mores. At the same time, their companies aim to make the pay-to-date model of fringe sites like SugarDaddy.com and SeekingArrangement.com (the latter another of Wade’s projects) palatable to a mainstream audience. And in doing so, they make explicit the uncomfortable assumptions — about money, gender, and transactions — that can lurk close to the surface of ordinary dates.

The HiDine process is simple: After being granted permission to join the “exclusive” HiDine community, would-be daters create a profile in which they list their favorite foods and the specific restaurants they enjoy. The men are instructed to find women who share similar culinary interests and “ask them out to a restaurant you think they will enjoy based on their lists of favorite restaurants.” The women, meanwhile, are instructed to “sit and wait” to be asked on a date. “Chivalry is alive” assures the website’s tagline.

“I come from a small town where guys act more like guys, and this wouldn’t even be a question in some places,” McGinnis told me in a phone interview. “When you take somebody out, you pay, it’s as simple as that.” But HiDine isn’t shooting for the small towns; it’s shooting for the big cities, starting with L.A. And in a city like that, McGinnis said, there’s a lot of competition. “Especially in big cities, where a girl can go out with any guy, [paying for dinner] is such a small and easy thing to do.”

Why can’t women do it for men? McGinnis explains that’s just not how it works. “If I ask a girl out, she’s going to expect that I pay,” he said. “It’s fair that that’s what girls expect, to be romanced in the early stages of dating.” (At no point in the interview did he refer to women as “women”— always “girls.”)

His company’s website suggests a rationale for such expectations. “You spend enough time and money on clothes, shoes, hair styling, and beauty products,” HiDine explains. “Before you even sit down at the table with a guy, you have made an investment in the date in order to look your best. Any guy should appreciate that. And the last thing you should worry about is who is going to pick up the bill.”

In other words, don’t worry your pretty little head about it — but please, make sure your head is pretty.

“Girls can say they’re okay with splitting,” says McGinnis, who wouldn’t disclose how many people have joined the HiDine community so far. “But I think they do appreciate it when a guy acts like a gentleman, like, opens doors for them, and walks on the other side of the sidewalk.”

The new app Carrot Dating, which prompted blogosphere outrage when it launched two weeks ago, strips away McGinnis’s niceties, but offers a similar proposition. The app asks potential couples to agree on a “bribe” — plastic surgery, a tank of gas — before the date. “Give a dog a bone, and it will obey. Give a woman a present, and she’ll ...” the press release for Carrot Dating smirks.

Carrot Dating founder Wade says he hopes to help guys who are frustrated by the dating scene for the same reason he was: He says he was nerdy and shy, and that beautiful women wouldn’t give him a chance because he didn’t have the right “bait” with which to tempt them. He wants to help those guys gain confidence, he told me. Wade has already had success with SeekingArrangement.com and SugarDaddy.com, but Carrot Dating is different, if only because not every nice nerdy guy who wants to bribe a woman into dating him has the money to be a sugar daddy.

Carrot Dating already has 30,000 downloads, many of them by women who, as bribe-ees, get to use the app for free. Wade acknowledges that, as some of his critics have argued, the app sets up an less-than-feminist power dynamic, but notes that money isn’t the only form of power. “Beautiful people have power, especially when it comes to the dating game,” he says, adding that he hopes his app will help correct that imbalance. “It’s about helping people.”

McGinnis insists that on a HiDine date, there are no “expectations” (except about who pays, of course!), and there is certainly no bribery. Again, he reminded me, this is just a nice thing for a (male) person to do for another (female) person. But the website itself is suggestive. The photo that accompanies the presumably, frequently asked question “Why should men treat women to dinner?” is of a woman’s mouth, her lips red and glistening, and clutched between her teeth is a long, red chili pepper.

McGinnis acknowledges that not all women appreciate it when the guy insists on paying on the first date. “Maybe she’s a little annoyed, but it’s in everyone’s best interest for the guy to pay, early on at least,” he said.

He was surprised, though, to find that some people were offended by the HiDine concept. He told me about a Google Hangout with one of his fellow start-uppers, whose girlfriend was home at the time. Suddenly, McGinnis says, he had five girls yelling at him. “It was kind of funny because I was not expecting that at all,” he told me. “So I clarified things for them and they felt a lot better.”

Shop: Pretty Pumps

Photo: Steve Hix/Corbis

Copyright © 2013, New York Media LLC. All Rights Reserved. The Cut® are registered trademarks of New York Media LLC.

Copyright © 2013, New York Media LLC.
All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © 2013, New York Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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