I never pented, so how can I repent? »« You are not less than

The non-sexual worth of a woman never occurs to him

Some detail on Feynman’s view of and behavior toward women.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter You Just Ask Them?, Richard Feynman frequented a bar and desired to have sexual intercourse with the women there. He discovered that the women in the bar did not provide sexual favors in exchange for monetary compensation in the form of drinks. Although he gained a reputation for spending money on drinks for women, he was frustrated at the fact that the women did not consider alcoholic drinks to be payment for sexual services.

So he got some advice, and followed it. The advice was to treat the women like shit.

On the way to her motel she says, “You know, I won’t have time to eat these sandwiches with you, because a lieutenant is coming over…” I think to myself, “See, I flunked. The master gave me a lesson on what to do, and I flunked. I bought her $1.10 worth of sandwiches, and hadn’t asked her anything, and now I know I’m gonna get nothing! I have to recover, if only for the pride of my teacher.”

I stop suddenly and I say to her, “You… are worse than a WHORE!

“Whaddya mean?”

‘“You got me to buy these sandwiches, and what am I going to get for it?Nothing!”

So she reimbursed him for the sandwiches, and his guru said then she’ll have sex with you, and she did. Lesson learned: treat women like shit.

Feynman, like most self-professed Nice GuysTM, “learned” that women want to be disrespected, instead of learning that a woman’s sexual consent is not bought with money. Unfortunately, most of the male geeks who read his book will use this anecdote to rationalize calling women “bitches”, “whores”, and “worthless”. (Of course, a man who wants intellectual justification for disrespecting women thinks that women are “worthless” when they are not sexually available to him. The non-sexual worth of a woman never occurs to him.)

Feynman continues:

When I was back at Cornell in the fall, I was dancing with the sister of a grad student, who was visiting from Virginia. She was very nice, and suddenly I got this idea: “Let’s go to a bar and have a drink,” I said.

On the way to the bar I was working up nerve to try the master’s lesson on an ordinary girl. After all, you don’t feel so bad disrespecting a bar girl who’s trying to get you to buy her drinks — but a nice, ordinary, Southern girl?

We went into the bar, and before I sat down, I said, “Listen, before I buy you a drink, I want to know one thing: Will you sleep with me tonight?”

“Yes.”

So it worked even with an ordinary girl! But no matter how effective the lesson was, I never really used it after that. I didn’t enjoy doing it that way. But it was interesting to know that things worked much differently from how I was brought up.

Feynman initially assumed that if a man bought drinks for a woman, she owed him sex. After these experiences, he assumed that if a man “disrespected” a woman by not buying her anything, she provided him with sex because she was stupid or masochistic.

Sadly, in both these cases, he never considered the possibility that a woman’s sexual consent and worth should not be monetized in the first place.

But he’s seen by many as a mavericky hero.

Comments

  1. says

    They deleted these parts from later printings.

    I remember bringing this up years ago and someone was outraged, telling me how wonderful he was, how much he cared for his wife while she was dying…

    Their conception of him was based on a movie starring Matthew Broderick.

  2. drken says

    I’m not sure what the point of the story about the grad student’s sister was. He asked her to go with him to a bar and once there, he bluntly asked her if she was going to sleep with him. She said yes and I assume a consensual good time was had by both of them later. It’s not like he told her she was a whore like the other woman. How was that disrespectful?

  3. Beth says

    @J Hots: I didn’t know they had removed those stories from later editions. That’s interesting.

    @drken: The point of the story, as I recall from my reading, was that what the ‘master’ had told him worked. But like ‘The Rules’ for women, it works by winnowing out all the people who aren’t willing to accept the conditions you have placed on a relationship. Had my husband taken such an approach, we never would have had a second date, much less been married for over three decades.

    As for disrespectful, I think, given the culture of that time and place, asking directly for sex would be considered disrespectful by a most people. But anyone offended by the question is unlikely to sleep with someone the first night they meet, which was the information Dr. Feynman’s wanted. He would simply dump her and move on to another prospect if she said no.

  4. Menyambal says

    My edition of that book had that stuff in it, and I didn’t take away a bad impression of Feynman from it. He was running a social experiment, based on what some pick-up artist guy had told him. And, as he says,

    But no matter how effective the lesson was, I never really used it after that. I didn’t enjoy doing it that way.

    He did care very deeply for his wife and he respected women in general. He didn’t seem to me to be a sexist or a horn dog. He hung out in a strip club, yes, where he actually worked on his ideas, and was friends with the girls. He drew nude female models, sometimes, and never seemed to regard them as different from other models, or as sexual objects for hire. He was accused of being a sexist pig after writing about “the only man who” knew something that man had just discovered, and women that knew him came to his defense (he didn’t hammer on the fact that the accusations had been orchestrated by a man).

    I don’t see the segment above as being representative of his attitude toward women in general. Nor do I see it as complete as to context. I also disagree with the accompanying characterizations.

    Richard Feynman was married three times. The first was as touching and noble a love story as can be found, not ended by her death — the death that they knew was coming before they married (and if I recall correctly, sex between them was not recommended, as pregnancy would have been fatal).

    Feyman’s second marriage did end badly, but her complaint was about his dedication to his work.

    Feyman’s third marriage seemed happy, and lasted until his death.

  5. screechymonkey says

    From the quoted text in the OP:

    Feynman initially assumed that if a man bought drinks for a woman, she owed him sex. After these experiences, he assumed that if a man “disrespected” a woman by not buying her anything, she provided him with sex because she was stupid or masochistic.

    Well, that’s one way to spin it. But that’s all it is. Feynman doesn’t call them stupid or masochistic. If anything, he faults himself as being stupid for thinking that women would feel obligated to have sex with him in exchange for drinks or other material things.

    I read that section of his book (it was in the paperback version that I bought about 5 years ago) as being a story of a guy who had one screwed-up view of women (the old-fashioned, “buy them stuff and they owe you sex”), who was disabused of it, who then briefly indulged in another messed-up view (some PUA-type techniques), and then discarded that as unsatisfying. He really doesn’t come off that badly to me.

    Which is not to say that there isn’t other stuff. I have zero investment in the issue of whether or not Feynman treated women well; I’m perfectly capable of admiring his inquiring mind and his scientific achievements and still questioning his behavior. I recall him writing that he spent a lot of time in strip clubs in Pasadena, and while I have no moral objection to them, I don’t think I’ve ever known a guy who was a regular at such places who had a healthy attitude towards women.

  6. Alex says

    The story certainly still is in my relatively new edition of the book…
    So as I recollect the whole thing, Feynman starts out having been taught some rather cliché (for todays standards chauvinistic) ideas about how to court women, someone tells him about PUA methods, he is curious and tries them out, finds that, oddly, they seem to work to get consensual (!) sex even though he’s acting like a total ass, and then drops the act again because it doesn’t feel right for him. In my book, he could have done much worse. Also, I really don’t think that this is the attitude he had towards his wife(s), one of whom was terminally ill.
    That being said, Feynman never struck me as the most emphatic guy, and I have never considered using him as a my role model for ethics and morality.

  7. alqpr says

    #5 Do you have any evidence to support your statement that “He would simply dump her and move on to another prospect if she said no”? I would not like to think that he would think any the better of her for saying “no”, but there is no evidence that he would have thought the worse either. I do think it was wrong of him to think of asking a direct question as “disrespecting” her, but in that he was really just reflecting “how I was brought up”.

    The fact is that there have always been a significant number of women who want sex and preferably without too much of the usual dancing about beforehand. Unfortunately(?) I am only aware of this indirectly since I have always been afraid of alienating even a prude like Beth (though I suspect that my own wife would just have laughed at the question and said “not this time”, but back then I wasn’t prepared to take the risk).

  8. sonofrojblake says

    Feynman initially assumed that if a man bought drinks for a woman, she owed him sex. After these experiences, he assumed that if a man “disrespected” a woman by not buying her anything, she provided him with sex because she was stupid or masochistic.

    Citation needed.

    You take away from this story what you bring to it. Come to it with a negative view of Feynman, and you can spin this story that way. But it does require you to make shit up, like the line about the women being (or being thought of by Feynman) stupid or masochistic.

    What I took away was that Feynman was brought up with the idea that if you buy a woman a drink, she “owes” you something, and discovered that it didn’t “work” – i.e. that the society he grew up in was screwed up. Can’t see how that reflects badly on him.

    He was then given the (to him) revolutionary and counter-intuitive idea that if you want something from a woman you might try treating her like a human being and simply asking her for it.

    And indeed he found this idea works, not just on “lower class” women, but even on “ordinary girls”.

    This advice seems the antithesis of PUA techniques, which usually seem to focus on bullshit psychological “tricks” to get women to agree to do something that, if asked straight out, they wouldn’t agree to. I can’t see anyone making much money in the PUA “community” if their advice amounted to “you just ask them”.

  9. Gerard O says

    I got into a prolonged argument at Pharyngula for strongly asserting that Elliot Rodger had Asperger’s Syndrome, and I have read several opinions claiming the same retro-diagnosis for Feynman.
    There are definitely hints at some form of HFA (High Functioning Autism) in Feynman, especially his narrow interest range (he was so terrible at subjects other than physics and mathematics it almost cost him a university position). I don’t have enough information on Feynman to speculate further.

  10. A Masked Avenger says

    Beth, #5:

    As for disrespectful, I think, given the culture of that time and place, asking directly for sex would be considered disrespectful by a most people.

    I agree with you, but speaking as a middle class, educated, white, cis, het, male of a certain age, I think the disrespect goes deeper than that. Simply consenting to sex point-blank like that, without a ritual seduction, marks the woman as a slut. By asking point-blank, he’s really asking, “Are you a slut?” When she answers, “Yes,” he feels guilty for exposing the slut’s slutty sluttiness. A chivalrous man in that approximate culture still thinks of sex as a commodity, and still thinks of women who do it as sluts, but thinks that it makes him a gentleman when he candy-coats the whole transaction and never actually calls her what she is.

    (Washes mouth out with soap for even articulating all that…)

  11. says

    I got into a prolonged argument at Pharyngula for strongly asserting that Elliot Rodger had Asperger’s Syndrome

    And Hitler too! Don’t forget that part.

    Jackass.

  12. Alex says

    @Gerard O

    Feynman, especially his narrow interest range (he was so terrible at subjects other than physics and mathematics it almost cost him a university position)

    Sure, that explains and excuses, everything!
    I suppose this incredible lack of interest in anything besides physics is the reason why he’s worked on desciphering parts of the Mayan Dresden codex, played in a brazilian Samba band, did an exhibition as a painter, and was a hobby safe cracker.

    Pfft, get out of here.

  13. qwints says

    I don’t get mutual desire and consent between two equals from the story related in the linked post, and I don’t follow those who claim to. Of course the former is a good thing, as explicit and direct inquiries can be in the right contexts, but that’s not what this is. Look especially at Feynmen’s line: “After all, you don’t feel so bad disrespecting a bar girl who’s trying to get you to buy her drinks — but a nice, ordinary, Southern girl?”

  14. Alex says

    qwints,
    Why do you see lack of consent in that, do you think he was pressuring her too much into something by putting her on the spot like this? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the approach he’s describing is particularly commendable, but I don’t see the lack of consent yet…

  15. Gerard O says

    If Alex #16 wants to dispute my claim about Feynman he/she can take it up with Lawrence Krauss, who made the original statement.
    To ‘soogeeoh’ #15, comments sections are not the best places for complex discussions, but if you read all of my comments on Elliot Rodger you would get a basic understanding of my position.
    To SallyStrange #14 — BRILLIANT ANALYSIS!

  16. Alex says

    @Gerard O

    As far as Alex is concerned, you misrepresented Krauss’ position, or Krauss is wrong, and Alex also feels that unless you have an actual argument, that settles the matter for him or her.

  17. malmo says

    Someone mentioned the support the Feynman gave to a Woman at Caltech when she was unfairly refused tenure and promotion in the early 1970s (at the time they had no tenured female professors). I found this interview of Janijoy La Belle, who was the woman, and got far more interested in her story than her connection to Feynman. It’s well worth a read.
    http://oralhistories.library.caltech.edu/175/1/La_Belle,_J._OHO.pdf

  18. Marius says

    Asperger’s is not the same thing as misogyny. If Feynman was on the spectrum, it still wouldn’t excuse his behaviour towards women.

    Feynman’s books and lectures first made physics exciting to me, but I like him personally less the more I learn about him. It always bothered me how his misogyny is so often denied or treated as just another eccentric quirk. Why can’t we admire people’s work while accepting they had serious flaws as human beings?

  19. sonofrojblake says

    he was so terrible at subjects other than physics and mathematics

    No talent in music, art or languages at all. Who are we talking about again?

    It always bothered me how his misogyny is so often denied or treated as just another eccentric quirk.

    What’s always bothered me is how his misogyny is held up here and elsewhere as in some way unusual and particularly bad, rather than being actually quite mild by the standards of the society around him.

    Do please refute me by citing an account of a woman who knew him and/or worked with him. Actual stories of his appalling misogyny told by the victims seem in curiously short supply. I’ll join those disappointed in him if anyone can. Til then, count me still an admirer.

  20. carbonfox says

    “After all, you don’t feel so bad disrespecting a bar girl who’s trying to get you to buy her drinks — but a nice, ordinary, Southern girl?”

    It’s not lack of consent that’s the issue (as far as I read it), but he’s making it clear that he thinks he is disrespecting women by propositioning them for sex. Why would that be considered disrespectful? I’m thinking it’s along the lines of what A Masked Avenger said. Women who have sex reveal that they have severe moral shortcomings, and by directly asking women to have sex, he is insinuating and/or exposing their flawed characters. By this viewpoint, the romp cannot be a mutually pleasurable excursion: the woman is devaluing herself at his expense. But the woman can’t win either way: if she rejects his advances, she’s still a whore; if she accepts, she’s been disrespected. Sure, it falls miles short of rape, but the ideas that women are prizes and that women who have sex are less-than feeds the misogyny that feeds rape culture.

  21. Bjarte Foshaug says

    My edition of that book had that stuff in it, and I didn’t take away a bad impression of Feynman from it. [...] He didn’t seem to me to be a sexist or a horn dog. [...] I don’t see the segment above as being representative of his attitude toward women in general. Nor do I see it as complete as to context. I also disagree with the accompanying characterizations.

    Of course you don’t. Let me guess. Male, right? My edition had that stuff in it as well, and I think he was an absolute monster.

    He was running a social experiment, based on what some pick-up artist guy had told him.

    Yeah, a social experiment that only the lowest life-form on Earth would have found worth running in the first place.

    He did care very deeply for his wife and he respected women in general.

    Except, as Janet Stemwedel points out, that he “actively target[ed] female students as sex partners, a behavior that rather conveys that you don’t view them primarily in terms of their potential to contribute to science.”

    Feyman’s second marriage did end badly, but her complaint was about his dedication to his work.

    Actually…

    …His ex-wife reportedly testified that on several occasions when she unwittingly disturbed either his calculus or his drums he flew into a violent rage, during which time he attacked her, threw pieces of bric-a-brac about and smashed the furniture.”

    See also Feynman is not my hero

  22. Lordxor says

    So what? Most scientist don’t look up to Dr. Feynman for his character, they look up to him for his intelligence and contributions to physics. He did not win a Nobel Prize for being a good feminist. (Last I checked, it was not a requirement, nor should it be.) He won it for what he did in his field. No male scientist uses Dr. Feynman as a character to emulate in how they relate to the opposite sex.

    Was Dr. Feynman so anti-woman? He encouraged his sister to go into physics herself, and that she did. She earned a PhD in physics. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Feynman) Odd thing to do for someone who completely disrespects women so much, yes?

    Was he a womanizer? Sure. No doubt about that. But, it is irrelevant to what he did in the field of science and that should be looked up to. Not his interpersonal skills.

    Also, I think you are over simplifying the man’s attitude just to vilify him. You do get that he was a product of his time. And, what good does it do to pass judgment on him now that he is long dead and gone? None. The only motivation i see for this is simply to deconstruct a male viewed as a role model. It is born of a sexist attitude towards men that I often see displayed on FBT.

    It’s easy to sit on your ass in front of a PC and judge others. Especially when you do not have all the facts about that person. It’s far easier than trying to achieve something on your own. Why work on doing something positive when you can destroy others? It is far easier to destroy than create. Being a ranting on-line social justice warrior, or going around to give talks to like-minded drones, is meaningless and useless. I have far more respect for people who actually go out and achieve something positive in the world and/or do something productive for society. So, instead of tearing down others, do something positive like run for congress and get bills passed that help women and LGBT have more equality. Or, like I am doing, work inside an organization to effect change to get more women into scientific fields like physics and astronomy.

    Finally, posts like this do not help the issue. They cause people to become more entrenched in their views. It is counter productive and just preaching to the choir. It’s a big turn off and will cost your readership in the end. Your message then becomes lost in the noise. You really should think harder before you post. You should listen more to your detractors than those who praise you often as well. That is how you can tell if your message is getting through or not. And, your critics might have valid points you should not just dismiss out of hand. That is how we work in science by listening to our critics. We learn, advance, and achieve more that way.

  23. Anthony K says

    Actual stories of his appalling misogyny told by the victims seem in curiously short supply.

    Curiously? Did they just roll the rock away from your tomb?

    I mean, if there’s anything to be learned from the Shermer debacle, it’s clearly that victims of well-regarded scientists have all the reason in the world to come forward and no reason whatsoever not to.

    So what? Most scientist don’t look up to Dr. Feynman for his character, they look up to him for his intelligence and contributions to physics. He did not win a Nobel Prize for being a good feminist. (Last I checked, it was not a requirement, nor should it be.) He won it for what he did in his field. No male scientist uses Dr. Feynman as a character to emulate in how they relate to the opposite sex.

    No male scientist does, eh? I’m impressed you were able to survey them all. Must have been a helluva study.

    Anyway, before I let you all get back to your “everything exists in a vacuum and nothing means anything” conversation, I wanted to ask people’s opinion: I run a small club for people with interesting facial hair. Naturally, our clubhouse has pictures of some of the greats in facial hair: Stalin, Hitler, etc. (Note: we are not, I repeat NOT lauding either Stalin or Hitler for their policies or politics, but just their facial hair.)

    Several people have told me that they’d like to join, but as Ukrainians and Jews they feel pretty uncomfortable in the clubhouse. Whatever could they possibly mean?

  24. says

    I changed the time stamps on comments 25 and 26 to the time I approved them rather than the time they were submitted, which was about 12 hours earlier.

  25. deepak shetty says

    @sonofrojblake
    that if you want something from a woman you might try treating her like a human being and simply asking her for it.
    Approaching someone you barely know and asking them for sex is treating them like a human being?

  26. carbonfox says

    Why can we not acknowledge somebody’s contributions to science and disapprove of their behavior at the same time? If this was average Joe Blow, most folks would quickly condemn his behavior. But when you’re famous, you get a pass for being a cad. I’m capable of accepting that he was a great scientist but . It doesn’t detract from his work if we note that he wasn’t perfect in his personal dealings. Nobody is saying he wasn’t a good scientist. Nobody is saying he has no positive characteristics, or that 100% of his ideas about women were wrong. That’s not the point of this article. Quit deflecting.

  27. says

    As a teen I didn’t have any girls, sisters or anyone, to get sex advice from, and I was naive. But even I figured out by the time I was an adult that, whaddayaknow, sometimes girls just plain want to have sex.

  28. Alex says

    @Anthony K

    Several people have told me that they’d like to join, but as Ukrainians and Jews they feel pretty uncomfortable in the clubhouse. Whatever could they possibly mean?

    I think I can help, I’ve read that these two men are responsible for genocide and millions (!) of deaths, many even among the ethnicities your acquaintances belong to. Maybe you should remove those photos from your club house, because they feel bad because these men killed so many people… There might be some other persons who look similar.

    @malmo

    Someone mentioned the support the Feynman gave to a Woman at Caltech when she was unfairly refused tenure and promotion in the early 1970s (at the time they had no tenured female professors). I found this interview of Janijoy La Belle, who was the woman, and got far more interested in her story than her connection to Feynman. It’s well worth a read.
    http://oralhistories.library.caltech.edu/175/1/La_Belle,_J._OHO.pdf

    Ugh. That link of yours doesn’t exactly support the idea that Feynman’s relations with women were very healthy. Sure, on the face of it she reports what a all around great guy the man was, and he may have done good things for her, but good lord does he come across like a creep from an outsider perspective

    @carbonfox

    Why can we not acknowledge somebody’s contributions to science and disapprove of their behavior at the same time?

    Can I, please? I don’t want to calculate all those amplitudes using that schwinger dyson stuff, it’s such a schlep.

  29. malmo says

    @Alex

    “Ugh. That link of yours doesn’t exactly support the idea that Feynman’s relations with women were very healthy.”

    I thought my post made it clear I wasn’t trying to do that. I read it and got interested in her struggle for acceptance and recognition.

  30. qwints says

    @Alex, I can see how what I wrote could imply that. I meant that Feynman’s approach wasn’t ethical because he didn’t respect the women as equals. Masked Avenger said it best, this isn’t the story of a sex positive person simply being direct in an appropriate context..

  31. Peter B says

    I usually admire your column at FreeThought and ButterfliesAndWheels. But this time you seem to have wandered into a blind alley.

    Why on earth is a man who was born in 1918 being singled out for abuse now? Of course he’s celebrated as a “maverick”–he surely qualifies. It is proper to not whitewash his shortcomings, but since they were so typical his times, and since he was himself so candid about them, I’m not sure what the point is, unless you mean to suggest that he set an especially pernicious example, or illustrates something important about current physics culture (arguments you do not make, but could perhaps be developed).

    And why should this particular anecdote be considered so damning? He was not propositioning women in the bus, or the grocery store, or the neighborhood pub; he was at a singles bar: a place both men and women went with the intention of seeking sex with strangers. Such places operate by unspoken rules. Feynman learned that the rules he learned in the 30’s didn’t work in the 60’s, and that he didn’t really enjoy treating it as a game anyway. You and the author you quote from studiously ignore the central point of his story: both the “treat ‘em like dirt” and the “ask ‘em directly” approaches worked. (There seems to be some projection here: it is clearly the author who thinks that the women who said “yes” to Feynman must have been “stupid or masochistic.”) The story certainly says something disturbing about a generally disturbing era, but I don’t understand what it has to do with Feynman in particular.

    I am not particularly concerned with defending Feynman. You allude to affairs with students, for example, which I would regard as a much more serious marker of character. To say that someone’s positions on a social question were common to their time doesn’t mean they weren’t wrong. We can admire people for being ahead of their time on some issues without excusing them for failing to challenge others.

    But I suspect that this really isn’t about Feynman at all. Rather, it is about about “taking down” an icon of physics as surrogate attack on physics itself. There is a peculiar kind of anti-intellectualism among certain kinds of intellectuals, which expresses itself in hostility towards the physical sciences and mathematics. Thus the stereotype that these subjects are essentially cold (as in the comments above, where the bongo-playing prankster/painter/archeologist/biologist/etc. is portrayed as having “narrow interests”, and the famously outgoing “Great Explainer” and Carnival performer is posthumously diagnosed with a mental disorder characterized by extreme introversion). In particular, to a certain kind of feminist it is obvious that physics is somehow intrinsically abusive, so any prominent physicist has to be deconstructed as an abuser.

    I know this is not your position (I do read both your blog and your books) and I don’t really mean to attack you or the author you quote. I can understand why Feynman’s reminiscences (and his apparent obtuseness about them) could trigger such a reaction. I’m just unhappy to see so much outrage directed at a dead man who, whatever his failings, was basically on the side of liberalism and humanity, when there are so many genuine monsters among the living.

  32. karmacat says

    The whole point of these posts is that we should not idolize anyone. Feynman is just an example that no one should be free from criticism. Looking at his behavior is also part of looking at why there aren’t more women in certain fields. If we can say now that behavior should not be tolerated, then this may encourage more women to go into these fields of study.
    Feynman being a creep and seeing women has sexual objects is not a product of those times. Seeing women as less capable is more consistent with those times. Hitting on undergraduates when you are not one is creepy in any decade or century

  33. Athywren says

    Hmm… I have the audiobook version waiting for me to listen to it. Suddenly I’m both convinced that I need to listen to it next and that I desperately don’t want to.

    @sonofrojblake, 23

    Actual stories of his appalling misogyny told by the victims seem in curiously short supply.

    While that might help to paint a broader picture, how about the actual story of his pretty distasteful misogyny told by himself in his own book? The one being referenced in the quoted article?

    @Lordxor, 26

    Was Dr. Feynman so anti-woman? He encouraged his sister to go into physics herself, and that she did. She earned a PhD in physics. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Feynman) Odd thing to do for someone who completely disrespects women so much, yes?

    So it’s impossible to disrespect women in general while also holding some degree of respect for a particular woman who is likely not listed as a sexual being at all in your mind and have known for more or less your entire life? Feynman cannot have been a misogynist, because he thought his sister was capable of studying physics? I can’t help but see flaws in that reasoning. Do you think that to be a misogynist, you must universally despise, discredit and deride women?

    Also, I think you are over simplifying the man’s attitude just to vilify him. You do get that he was a product of his time.

    Sure, a person is made of many aspects. There is likely nobody who is flawless, and people are influenced by their societies, however, not all people who are raised in misogynist societies embrace it. We shouldn’t shield our heroes from criticism just because they grew up in a time when their society taught bad ideas. The man is supposed to have been one of the towering intellects of his age, yet he failed to notice the obvious failings of his culture’s views on women? Surely you’re joking, Mr Lordxor!

    And, what good does it do to pass judgment on him now that he is long dead and gone? None. The only motivation i see for this is simply to deconstruct a male viewed as a role model.

    Many people refuse to accept that their heroes are flawed. They will take anything and everything they say and turn it into inspirational doctrine. Why should we hold the words of our heroes sacred and beyond reproach? Because they’re dead? Because they were “of a time”? Because they’re our heroes?
    If they were wrong, they were wrong. Is that not enough motivation to point out the fact that they were wrong? Yes, Feynman is dead. Yes, he was born in an era that was essentially pre-feminist and saw women as worth far less and capable of far less than is now the case. Yes, he’s a hero to many people. And yes, he was wrong. It is not blasphemy to criticise the people you respect.

    It is born of a sexist attitude towards men that I often see displayed on FBT.

    Pfft. This place is as sexist against men as it is bigoted against Christians.

  34. karmacat says

    Sigh. Criticizing a person is not abuse. What feminist ever said physics was intrinsically abusive. No one is challenging his status as a physics icon

  35. karmacat says

    I should amend that statement: criticizing the BEHAVIOR of a person is not abuse

  36. Stacy says

    But I suspect that this really isn’t about Feynman at all. Rather, it is about about “taking down” an icon of physics as surrogate attack on physics itself.

    That’s a laughably ridiculous suspicion.

  37. Peter B says

    A brief qualification: The allusion to “certain feminists” should probably have had an extra set of quotation marks around “feminists”. The prospect of being lumped with MRAs or other misogynist nutballs is a horrifying one, and I’m sorry to have put myself in a position where the question could even be raised.

    That said, such claims are not my invention. Ophelia Benson, among others, has written about “feminist” critiques of science in general, and physics in particular, in Why Truth Matters (chapter 6; see also Sokol’s Fashionable Nonsense, or Gross’ Higher Superstition). The particular views dissected in these books are thankfully fringe, and have received a disproportionate amount of attention from people looking for ammunition against feminism in general, but softer versions of them are still around.

    One of the reasons I like FreethoughtBlogs is that it is one of the few places where rationalists confront the bigotry in our own ranks. So please keep up the good work. If it means facing up to the unsavory side of people I otherwise admire, well, I’ll get over it.

  38. says

    Yup, I did write that part of Why Truth Matters. (I just looked it up, to check.) I take batshit claims about women’s “different ways of knowing” very personally.

  39. Alex says

    But I suspect that this really isn’t about Feynman at all. Rather, it is about about “taking down” an icon of physics as surrogate attack on physics itself.

    In particular, to a certain kind of feminist it is obvious that physics is somehow intrinsically abusive, so any prominent physicist has to be deconstructed as an abuser.

    I am a bit confused what your point was in the end. Since it is in response to a post by OB that you claim that “this” is really about something different entirely, it reads like you mean to reveal OBs true intentions behind criticizing Feynman – and then you emphasize that you’re sure it’s not what she thinks?

    I take batshit claims about women’s “different ways of knowing” very personally.

    Everyone should take that personally in my opinion, not only women. Hell, I take it personally as a scientist and skeptic. The last thing the world needs is feminists joining the Shermers of this world in the “It’s more of a guy thing” choir…. And it’s absolutely marvellous that there are feminists like you who push the rationalist perspective on this issue, which will ultimately be the winning strategy for all of us. Before I’ve encountered the authors of FTB and the Skepchicks, most feminism I’ve come across (not too much, to be honest) was of the somewhat anti-science variety connected e.g. with the old-school feminists and green movement that started in the 70s and expecially 80s, which was very dominant in Germany in my childhood and youth, and where alternative medicine, “spirituality”, anti-anything chemical and genes, is usually mentioned in the same breath with womens’ rights.

  40. sonofrojblake says

    @Anthony K, 27:

    >>Actual stories of his appalling misogyny told by the victims seem in curiously short supply.

    Curiously? Did they just roll the rock away from your tomb?

    I mean, if there’s anything to be learned from the Shermer debacle, it’s clearly that victims of well-regarded scientists have all the reason in the world to come forward and no reason whatsoever not to

    I hope you don’t mean to draw an equivalence between the trauma of having been treated meanly by someone who’s been dead for 24 years because they were a misogynist, and the trauma of being the victim of pre-meditated drug-assisted rape by a living, litigious person? Because if you are drawing that equivalence, sorry, can’t take you seriously.

  41. sonofrojblake says

    @Athywren, 38:

    how about the actual story of his pretty distasteful misogyny told by himself in his own book?

    As I believe I said, you take from this story what you bring to it. If you arrive predisposed to see misogyny, then you’ll find it. If you arrive more open minded, it’s arguable (and others have) that there is no misogyny here, at least not from Feynman. Note he is not inclined to treat women in a way he perceives as “disrespectful”, is surprised when it “works”, and even when presented with the evidence that it “works”, declines to continue with that attitude. This does not strike me as a man who hates women. Your mileage obviously varies.

  42. Athywren says

    As I believe I said, you take from this story what you bring to it. If you arrive predisposed to see misogyny, then you’ll find it.

    See, here’s the problem, you’re assuming that we’re arriving predisposed to see misogyny, that we’re bringing it with us, but it’s right there in the story. Now, granted, you’re playing the “but how can he be a homophobe if he doesn’t scream and run out of the bathroom when a gay man scuttles up out of the plug hole” game with your “this does not strike me as a man who hates women” comment, so obviously we’re talking about different things anyway (not that I really believe that you’ve honestly misunderstood what’s being said, but whatever), but the fact is that we’re not bringing things to the story – you’re taking things out of it.

    Firstly, how did this whole PUA routine begin? Well, he already has a pretty misogynist idea about women from the start – that if you buy a woman a drink, she should give you sex in return – and he complains about his lack of success from acting on that idea.

    “I’m fairly intelligent,” I said, “but probably only about physics. But in that bar there are lots of intelligent guys – oil guys, mineral guys, important businessmen, and so forth – and all the time they’re buying the girls drinks, and they get nothin’ for it!” (By this time I had decided that nobody else was getting anything out of all those drinks either.) “How is it possible,” I asked, “that an ‘intelligent’ guy can be such a goddamn fool when he gets into a bar?”

    As is made obvious, the woman with whom he’s been a “goddamn fool” has been exploiting that attitude, but he’s already assuming that all the other women in that bar are doing the same and that, likewise, all the men are acting the same way he is with the same results.
    He’s then shown that the woman who has been exploiting that attitude in him can exploit that attitude in another man, which somehow cements his belief that this is what’s happening in all cases. Following this, he’s almost given some good advice.

    “OK,” he says. “The whole principle is this: The guy wants to be a gentleman. He doesn’t want to be thought of as impolite, crude, or especially a cheapskate. As long as the girl knows the guy’s motives so well, it’s easy to steer him in the direction she wants him to go.
    “Therefore,” he continued, “under no circumstances be a gentleman! You must disrespect the girls. Furthermore, the very first rule is, don’t buy a girl anything – not even a package of cigarettes – until you’ve asked her if she’ll sleep with you, and you’re convinced that she will, and that she’s not lying.”
    “Uh . . . you mean . . . you don’t . . . uh . . . you just ask them?”

    There’s good advice in there – drop that whole ‘gentleman’ thing, just ask them – but the rest is garbage and he buys it. It doesn’t occur to him that his own attitude is a problem, instead it’s the women who are at fault – they’re taking and not giving, because if you’re given alcohol, you should give sex back in return, and when you don’t you’re a bitch. In his mind, women in bars are a step up from prostitute – you pay them in alcohol rather than cash, so it’s different – but also worse than them, because they don’t give you what you pay for.

    Well, someone only has to give me the principle, and I get the idea. All during the next day I built up my psychology differently: I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything, and all they’re in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they’re not going to give you a goddamn thing; I’m not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on. I learned it till it was automatic.
    Then that night I was ready to try it out. I go into the bar as usual, and right away my friend says, “Hey, Dick! Wait’ll you see the girl I got tonight! She had to go change her clothes, but she’s coming right back.”
    “Yeah, yeah,” I say, unimpressed, and I sit at another table to watch the show. My friend’s girl comes in just as the show starts, and I’m thinking, “I don’t give a damn how pretty she is; all she’s doing is getting him to buy her drinks, and she’s going to give him nothing!”
    After the first act my friend says, “Hey, Dick! I want you to meet Ann. Ann, this is a good friend of mine, Dick Feynman.”
    I say “Hi” and keep looking at the show.
    A few moments later Ann says to me, “Why don’t you come and sit at the table here with us?”
    I think to myself, “Typical bitch: he’s buying her drinks, and she’s inviting somebody else to the table.” I say, “I can see fine from here.”

    On the way to her motel she says, “You know, I won’t have time to eat these sandwiches with you, because a lieutenant is coming over…
    I think to myself, “See, I flunked. The master gave me a lesson on what to do, and I flunked. I bought her $1.10 worth of sandwiches, and hadn’t asked her anything, and now I know I’m gonna get nothing! I have to recover, if only for the pride of my teacher.”
    I stop suddenly and I say to her, “You . . . are worse than a WHORE!”
    “Whaddya mean?”
    “You got me to buy these sandwiches, and what am I going to get for it? Nothing!”

    True, he apparently didn’t use it after that, because he didn’t enjoy it, which I guess counts as a small mark in his favour. But here’s the problem: He thought that just asking outright was disrespecting them, which isn’t really the case, but failed to consider that it’s treating women as sex vendors who should put out if you buy them a drink or a sandwich that’s disrespectful. Add FBI reports of him flying into a violent rage when disturbed… ok, that might not be misogyny, it might be that he would have flown into a rage no matter who disturbed him, in which case it’s another massive character flaw in its own right which would surely have caused problems when people disturbed him at work, but it certainly doesn’t make him sound like someone safe or pleasant to be around.
    So… yeah, you’re going to have to show me what I had to bring along with me to make the misogyny magically appear here, except for, you know, the relevant data.

    If you arrive more open minded, it’s arguable (and others have) that there is no misogyny here, at least not from Feynman.

    Considering that some details seem to have fallen straight through, I feel it’s probably worth pointing out that your mind doesn’t need to be open at both ends in order to reach a reasonable conclusion.

  43. Anthony K says

    I hope you don’t mean to draw an equivalence between the trauma of having been treated meanly by someone who’s been dead for 24 years because they were a misogynist, and the trauma of being the victim of pre-meditated drug-assisted rape by a living, litigious person?

    Well, that would be a load of bullshit, and and you can take your “having been treated meanly” and shove it up your ass.

    Secondly, do you think the reason people don’t step forward is only because they’re afraid of the perpetrator? Is that what you think the issue is?

    Was elevator guy the person who’s been harassing Rebecca Watson these years? Is it only Shermer’s litigiousness that has women avoiding professional skeptics cons?

    Of course not. It’s also the blowback from people like this and worse. It’s threads like this. It’s the culture (and you can guess which culture I’m referring to) that minimizes any harassment less than violent rape by an ne’erdowell hiding in the bushes. “He politely asked for coffee.” “He’s a wonderful scientist.” “I wouldn’t mind getting hit on.” “Let’s not speak ill of the dead.”

    sorry, can’t take you seriously.

    To be fair, your not taking me seriously would put us on equal footing, at the very least.

  44. Anthony K says

    As I believe I said, you take from this story what you bring to it. If you arrive predisposed to see misogyny, then you’ll find it.

    I’m predisposed to see a lot of things. When I see, for one small example, ring species, I’m predisposed to see evolutionary processes in action. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” wrote Dobzhansky, clearly, openly, and proudly predisposed to find evolution wherever he saw life.

    When I read of ice sheets calving I’m predisposed to see the effects of climate and climate feedbacks. When I see humans engage in ritual, I’m predisposed to see anthropology. When I cook, I’m predisposed to see chemistry. It’s a function of having learned something about the world. You’re trying to cast it as dogmatism, but predisposition itself is insufficient to make that claim.

    Feynman was pretty predisposed to see physics in everything, and he was exceptionally good at finding it. If you think he was wrong to do so, then by all means, come out and say so.

  45. Athywren says

    @Anthony K,

    Feynman was pretty predisposed to see physics in everything, and he was exceptionally good at finding it. If you think he was wrong to do so, then by all means, come out and say so.

    Of course he was wrong – he should’ve been open minded and seen not misogyny in everything.

  46. sonofrojblake says

    @AnthonyK, 49/50:

    Well, that would be a load of bullshit

    Well yes, that was rather my point – your making a comparison to the Shermer situation in this context is exactly that. Bullshit.

    you can take your “having been treated meanly” and shove it up your ass.

    Thank you. Not sure what you mean by this – perhaps you have evidence, even third hand, that Feynman had a pattern of misogynist behaviour that could be fairly described as worse than merely mean treatment (e.g. persistent verbal harassment of colleagues or students, inappropriate touching, or even, hey, premeditated drug-assisted rape).

    Why is his behaviour with his second wife held up as evidence of a pattern, when his other two marriages are known to have been loving and happy? A nasty, violent relationship with one person and a long, loving relationship with two others makes the violent one the exception, not the pattern – doesn’t it? It doesn’t excuse it, it doesn’t explain it,

    do you think the reason people don’t step forward is only because they’re afraid of the perpetrator?

    Given your careful inclusion of the word “only”, your question boils down to “do you think there is a single factor act work in this area of complex human behaviour”, to which the best answer I can think of right now is “obviously not, dimwit”.

    Here in the UK right now, there is an ongoing investigation into the actions of a man named Jimmy Savile, a bizarre character who, over the course of decades, serially abused vulnerable men, women, children and (it is alleged) corpses to an extent that is literally almost unbelievable. During his lifetime, his fame and perceived power prevented many victims from coming forward. Before your knee jerks, let me clarify that it probably wasn’t the ONLY thing that stopped them. But time and time and time again, not one or two or three but dozens and dozens of victims have explicitly said that they feared him, and that was a reason for not telling anyone. And when he died – more or less as soon as he died – the accusations began to surface. And after just a few months, once a few accusations had been made, the floodgates opened. Many other television personalities “active” at the time have been swept up in the ensuing investigation, and some of them are now in prison.

    Feynman has been dead two dozen years. While he has (and probably will have for some time yet) enthusiastic cheerleaders, his attitudes as demonstrated in his memoirs are questioned by many. And yet, despite the passing of time, no similar slew of “victims” of his behaviour is apparent. Indeed, and critically, what evidence is there from people who knew and worked with him? Where are the women who interacted with him personally, lining up (even anonymously), to say “whatever else he was, he was a misogynist dirtbag to me”? Where is the blogpost by PZ Myers reporting the email he got from a woman who told him her anonymous friend met Feynman once and got called a whore by him? All the criticism of him seems to be coming from people who never met him, on the basis of stuff they’ve read about him.

    I’m not bending over backwards to defend Feynman. His attitudes do not conform to the currently acceptable norms. Nor would I expect them to, given that he was born in 1918. But it’s egregious in the extreme to invoke Shermer in any discussion of his attitudes or behaviour.

  47. sonofrojblake says

    Rather than comparing Feynman egregiously to Shermer, a more instructive comparison may be to his close contemporary, Gene Roddenberry. It is reasonable to assume there is some overlap between fans of Feynman and fans of Star Trek. Roddenberry stands as an example of another powerful, creative individual with a huge number of people who admire his work to a degree one might characterise as beyond rational. But do fans of Roddenberry’s work have any problem with the accurate characterisation of him as a raging misogynist? No. Why would they? There is ample evidence all over, including throughout his work, in his life, and crucially in the many reports of people who knew him and worked with him. Women were set dressing, Nichelle Nichols was hired so he could sleep with her, and so on – all these things are acknowledged by Trek fans as accurate statements of fact about the character of the man. Doesn’t stop them liking the show, but they don’t in general hero-worship or wish to emulate Roddenberry.

    People admire Feynman for being a mavericky hero because he was exactly that, and the story above does not, for a sufficiently large number of those who read it, dramatically “out” him as a raging woman-hater.

    Those who defend him from such charges do so at least in part for want of evidence they find convincing. When there is no such want of evidence (as with Roddenberry) there is no defence.

  48. Maureen Brian says

    I think, sonofrojblake, that you try to draw too close a parallel between Savile and Feynman.

    With Savile we have a catalogue of criminal acts – some reported but disbelieved, the majority of them not reported because of both fear of him and because he operated from behind a carefully constructed myth, a myth which persuaded a good many people who should have had more sense.

    With Feynman we have a long and boastful record of behaviour which was boorish and quite frankly, juvenile but which we know made life difficult for his students, for other students and for his fellow academics. Apart from the violence to his second wife, almost none of it was criminal as far as we know. Feynman, too, had a myth but it was mostly about his intellectual prowess: it had some basis in fact.

    As to who was born when and how long they’ve been dead, none of that is relevant. What you see about you is a discussion initiated now by mature women – which some men can understand and some just can’t – in which we reassess recent history in the course of trying to work out why after a century of women in university education we have made so little progress. Or why we have so many men going on about the inherently poorer qualities of the female brain, on the basis of no evidence at all, and so few even wondering whether rules devised by and for the convenience of men were being abused to keep women down.

    A provisional conclusion by Dr Stemwedel among others is that, perhaps, the advice we were given has proved counterproductive. All that don’t make a fuss, indulge your professor’s little foibles and if he tells you he’s a hero then believe him may have been wrong, even a means of keeping us “in our place.”

    As free agents we get to say to the world not only would we refuse to tolerate such behaviour now, we should not have tolerated it them. And we already know that all hell can break loose if a women should dare to say publicly, “I will not tolerate that now.” Even today!

  49. Anthony K says

    Given your careful inclusion of the word “only”, your question boils down to “do you think there is a single factor act work in this area of complex human behaviour”, to which the best answer I can think of right now is “obviously not, dimwit”.

    You can boil any number of questions down to “is there one factor at work” but you lose a lot in the reduction. Anyway, I’m glad you grok some semblance of the concept of multiple factors at play. You still seem to think that a salient point in the lack of victim’s stories has to do with some difference due to Feynman’s being dead and Shermer’s being alive and litigious. I’m arguing that it has little to do with that: both men have rabid, slavering, unthinking fan bases who are very much alive and will go through any number of contortions in order to refuse to admit any wrongdoing by their idols. It’s the culture, not the man, that reduces the likelihood of victims coming forward. That’s why your ‘curiously short supply’ is passive-aggressive, deflecting bullshit.

  50. Anthony K says

    And really, it’s about time we stop with the “Feynman’s dead” as if that were relevant. If he were alive, the narrative would simply shift from “He’s dead, why dredge up the past?” to “His career’s on the line, why do you want to destroy a man with your spurious slander?” Either way, it boils down to STFU, haterz!

    Well, fuck that.

  51. qwints says

    sonofrojblake

    Those who defend him from such charges do so at least in part for want of evidence they find convincing. When there is no such want of evidence (as with Roddenberry) there is no defence.

    People contemporaneously protested him for his sexism, starting in the 1960’s. The 1993 book “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman” talked about his sexism. Commenting of Feynman’s clay feet is nothing new.

  52. Anthony K says

    Those who defend him from such charges do so at least in part for want of evidence they find convincing. When there is no such want of evidence (as with Roddenberry) there is no defence.

    Ah, the old “Rape is a serious crime that everyone takes seriously and we’re all oh so serious about it” claim.

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