Feynman called a woman “worse than a whore” for not exchanging sex for sandwiches.

This post was originally published at Restructure!

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.

Feynman felt he was being cheated, and complained to his two friends from the bar: a female nightclub entertainer and her husband, the master of ceremonies. The master offered Feynman lessons on how to ensure that a woman he meets in a bar has sexual intercourse with him:

“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?”

“OK,” he says, “I know this is your first lesson, and it may be hard for you to be so blunt. So you might buy her one thing — just one little something — before you ask. But on the other hand, it will only make it more difficult.”

In other words, instead of treating a woman like a sexual service provider to be purchased with alcohol, the master suggested that a man “disrespects” a woman by being honest and asking for sexual consent. Feynman takes his advice, and consequently trains himself to think of women as “bitches”:

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.”

A little while later a lieutenant from the military base nearby comes in, dressed in a nice uniform. It isn’t long, before we notice that Ann is sitting over on the other side of the bar with the lieutenant!

Later that evening I’m sitting at the bar, Ann is dancing with the lieutenant, and when the lieutenant’s back is toward me and she’s facing me, she smiles very pleasantly to me. I think again, “Some bitch! Now she’s doing this trick on the lieutenant even!”

Then I get a good idea: I don’t look at her until the lieutenant can also see me, and then I smile back at her, so the lieutenant will know what’s going on. So her trick didn’t work for long.

A few minutes later she’s not with the lieutenant any more, but asking the bartender for her coat and handbag, saying in a loud, obvious voice, “I’d like to go for a walk. Does anybody want to go for a walk with me?”

I think to myself, “You can keep saying no and pushing them off, but you can’t do it permanently, or you won’t get anywhere. There comes a time when you have to go along.” So I say coolly, “I’ll walk with you.” So we go out. We walk down the street a few blocks and see a cafe, and she says, “I’ve got an idea — let’s get some coffee and sandwiches, and go over to my place and eat them.”

The idea sounds pretty good, so we go into the cafe and she orders three coffees and three sandwiches and I pay for them. As we’re going out of the cafe, I think to myself, “Something’s wrong: too many sandwiches!”

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!”

Ironically, Feynman believed that Ann was a whore because she did not return sexual favors in exchange for sandwiches. Literally, Feynman claimed that she was worse than a whore because he did not receive sexual compensation, perhaps implying that at least a whore would reciprocate with sex. However, it is clear that if she did agree to have sexual intercourse with him, he would not have become upset and called her a “whore”. This means that Feynman thought she was a “whore” because she did not behave in the way that he desired, not because her behavior actually resembled that of a prostitute.

“Well, you cheapskate!” she says. “If that’s the way you feel, I’ll pay you back for the sandwiches!”

I called her bluff: “Pay me back, then.”

She was astonished. She reached into her pocketbook, took out the little bit of money that she had and gave it to me. I took my sandwich and coffee and went off.

After I was through eating, I went back to the bar to report to the master. I explained everything, and told him I was sorry that I flunked, but I tried to recover.

He said very calmly, “It’s OK, Dick; it’s all right. Since you ended up not buying her anything, she’s gonna sleep with you tonight.”

“What?”

“That’s right,” he said confidently; “she’s gonna sleep with you. I know that.”

“But she isn’t even here! She’s at her place with the lieu —”

“It’s all right.”

Two o’clock comes around, the bar closes, and Ann hasn’t appeared. I ask the master and his wife if I can come over to their place again. They say sure. Just as we’re coming out of the bar, here comes Ann, running across Route 66 toward me. She puts her arm in mine, and says, “Come on, let’s go over to my place.”

The master was right. So the lesson was terrific!

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.

26 thoughts on “Feynman called a woman “worse than a whore” for not exchanging sex for sandwiches.

  1. Erika

    Whaaaaat??? I read this book many years ago, but I don’t remember that passage. I must have repressed the memory. Blecch, what a creep he was!

  2. Laughingrat

    Why am I not surprised that a much-lionized, male geek icon would think this way?

    I noticed that you put quotation marks around “disrespected” when–well, here:

    the master suggested that a man “disrespects” a woman by being honest and asking for sexual consent

    In this particular case, I don’t think this particular pick-up artist was really all that worried about consent at all, which is exactly why he framed this approach disrespectful. His attitude, and Feynman’s, seems to be that women are for sex, and that sex is a commodity women owe to men–in that model, consent is always irrelevant, and therefore women are “bitches” for “withholding” sex. The pick-up artist was just coaching Feynman on how to suss out which women were most strongly conditioned to obey an inherently dehumanizing directive–to allow men to use their bodies sexually at any time, regardless of actual the woman’s actual interest or desire.

  3. Nick

    My interpretation of this part of the book, was that he realized even if things do work this way between some people, he wasn’t comfortable with it because its too disrespectful.

  4. K00kyKelly

    Interesting that the good advice of “be honest” and “ask for what you want” is so foreign it must be reinterpreted into Nice Guy language.

    Also, “orginary girl”… what does this mean? Marriage material?

  5. Shauna

    I found the comments on the original post even more disheartening than Feynman’s words. The explanations of why Feynman’s attitudes aren’t *really* sexist, why women really *are* bitches/whores… people are willing to trivialize some awful stuff when trying to defend someone they like.

    1. Restructure! Post author

      If you are interested in other reactions to the original post, it has been discussed a few times on reddit (warning: sexism and misogyny):

      * A lesson from Richard Feynman on buying drinks for women (posted in /r/seduction)

      * comment on Recently, I offended every female in a ten mile area. in which the commenter claims that there is an argument explaining why “Feynman is not sexist”.

      * comment on Whoring it up for a drink in which someone says to the original blogger (i.e., me), “fuck you, you whore bitch” (bold emphasis theirs). Instead of negative points, this comment was rated 6 points.

      I reiterate what I said in the original post: ‘Unfortunately, most of the male geeks who read his book will use this anecdote to rationalize calling women “bitches”, “whores”, and “worthless”.’

  6. Torvaun

    I’m really quite glad I read this book, because otherwise I’d have had nothing to do but believe all the folks who are quite enamored of Mr. Feynman. To be more accurate, I’m glad I was interested and involved in social justice before reading the book, otherwise I’d have picked up on all the ways he was clever and none of the ways he was a douchebag. Besides the vile behavior mentioned above, there was an anecdote about a prank wherein he would fill a glass with water and place it upside down on the table in diners. And then, naturally, not inform the already overworked waitresses (no instances of this ‘joke’ being played on a waiter were mentioned in the book) that they would spill water everywhere when moved.

    1. Michele

      Apparently “Nice” people who are rude to wait staff or other service people are Not. Nice. Learning this lesson hard and early has saved me significant amounts of grief ever since.

      Feynman does not get a “by” on that one.

  7. Restructure! Post author

    Here is another example of Feynman being sexist. In Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine, W. Daniel Hillis for Physics Today writes:

    The charming side of Richard helped people forgive him for his uncharming characteristics. For example, in many ways Richard was a sexist. Whenever it came time for his daily bowl of soup he would look around for the nearest “girl” and ask if she would fetch it to him. It did not matter if she was the cook, an engineer, or the president of the company. I once asked a female engineer who had just been a victim of this if it bothered her. “Yes, it really annoys me,” she said. “On the other hand, he is the only one who ever explained quantum mechanics to me as if I could understand it.” That was the essence of Richard’s charm.

    I don’t forgive Feynman for his sexism, despite his charm.

    However, I am a huge fan of Feynman and Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, despite all the problems. It’s one of my favourite books ever, and I highly recommend it, if you haven’t read it. Now that you’ve been warned about the sexism, it would be less of a nasty surprise.

    1. Cessen

      That’s interesting. In some respects he was sexist (treating all women like servers), and in other respects he was remarkably non-sexist (presuming women are intelligent and can grasp quantum mechanics).

      1. Restructure! Post author

        Feynman’s first wife, Arline, was pretty geeky, and his sister is a physicist, so he should know better. IIRC, Feynman also thought that anything could be explained to a layperson if done correctly, so his willingness to explain quantum mechanics to a female engineer isn’t much of a compliment.

  8. Liz

    It never stops amazing me that people so misognyist actually want to have sex with, or even be around, creatures they consider to be so low. Wouldn’t a Real Doll or a fleshlight sort of thing be cheaper? It doesn’t need sandwiches!

    I remember being appalled by this when reading Feynman’s book. Really disappointing and it’s especially horrible to have this person held up as a hero for young people.

    Has anyone else here read Paul Feyerabend’s memoir, Killing Time? He was an anarchist and a philosopher of science. I thought his observations on sex and dating were slightly creepy and archaic, but kind of interesting and fairly respectful of women.

  9. Alice

    I remember my “Feynman” moment, it came on the heels of reading Watson wining about Franklin presenting sans makeup and Bertrand Russell’s __th wife. Boy was I one disillusioned youth.

    As paranoid as this may sound, even in these modern times I never let the gentleman pay for anything knowing said reciprocity might be implied.

    1. K00kyKelly

      I tend to shy away from letting guys buy me things also. After reading this post I’d consider following an offer to by a drink with, “I’m not planning to sleep with you. Do you still want to buy me a drink. It is ok if you say no.”

  10. FatWookiee

    I haven’t read that book so far, yet. But even in the beginning he shows that he had somehow a different youth. I see in Feynman a great and awesome scientist and also I like some of his philosophical ideas… but not much. Some of them read like some Una Bomber ideas.
    Weirdo…

    [note: please don’t be offended by my next passage]

    Also, as male European I tend to classify this story about Fenyman as a stereotypical US-American story, which could be happen in US from 1900 to 1970… and in some southern US states maybe until today. Seriously I’m not fair with the US people. I got all I know about US school system from TV series. So all I know is this strong categorization of pupils and students into “Sports Guy”, “Cheerleeders”, “Nerds”, “White Trash”, “popular people” vs “debating club people”, etc.

    I actually believe that the intellectuals of my generation (Born 1980) are far away from Feynman’s point of view. But I fear, that I’m to optimistic

    @KookyKelly I would like that

    1. K00kyKelly

      Sadly, you are extremely optimistic. This was an eerily accurate description of a roommate of mine from when I was in college. At one point we were discussing my current boyfriend and he basically asked me what I was doing dating a business major when there was a perfectly good computer scientist right here. Um, what? Do you realize that all of my immediate family are business majors? When I saw the XKCD Nice Guy comic for the first time I recognized that way of thinking instantly. Fail! I was born in 1984. It’s not going away with time. :/

    2. kaberett

      I live in the UK. I’m an undergraduate at a Russell group university. I have encountered the explicitly-stated view that women owe men “something” in exchange for being bought drinks, even in a University society where the culture is that people-with-salaries (mostly post-graduate men) buy drinks for people without (often undergraduate women), because it’s what you do.

      I hear much worse opinions expressed outside that society.

      You are overly optimistic.

  11. FatWookiee

    hm… I think you’re right and I’m too optimistic. When I think longer about this I have to admit that this is one of the topics where I don’t understand our society. Indeed I can tell you similar examples… I just read the NiceGuy article in your geek feminism wiki. I’m a bit upset coz I remember that I sometimes act like a NiceGuy TM and now… I dunno. Also men are have to deal with social expectations. Sometimes we all just act and maybe think like we think that the mass will act/think. Only a few of us are doing Epistemology about their own thinking.

    Back to topic: Yes, I agree (now) that Feynman’s way of thinking is still present in many heads. And I don’t like that fact.

  12. Lynet

    The weird thing is, I read that bit in SYJ years ago and all I can remember thinking about it is ‘No shit, it pays to be bold enough to ask for sex, and maybe the point is that it shouldn’t be disrespectful to ask in the first place’. I remember being slightly disappointed with Feynman for continuing to view ‘asking’ as an insult that he didn’t want to use if he could help it, although I can understand finding it difficult to shake off that sort of social conditioning.

    Somehow I never connected Feynman’s obvious mistake with broader misogyny. Which was a pretty big thing to miss, now that I read this post.

  13. DarthRachel

    I just had a long conversation with a geek male I know about this article. We disagree fundamentally on the ending. He takes it to be,

    “He was uncomfortable with the tactic and so never did it again (though the truthyness of that is dubious”

    and I took it to mean that Feynman would rather not ask a woman directly if she was even interested. Probably because it destroyed his ideas of “good normal girls” and “bad bar girls” and probably found the whole thing emasculating.

    Clarification?

  14. Cessen

    Can you really blame men for thinking they have to exchange something for sex? I mean, this is not a believe even remotely limited to men.

    The idea that women “give up” something by having sex is a common belief among both men and women. Women’s sexuality is considered valuable, men’s sexuality is considered toxic (and this only gets reversed when differences in physical attractiveness are large). Thus men gain something when they have sex, and women lose something. It’s the same reason women can generally get away with touching guys as much as they want, but guys are immediately creepy and nasty if they do the same to women.

    So if you are a guy (involuntarily!) indoctrinated with this belief system, then of course you will view it as disrespectful to just asking for sex without “giving” anything in return. I’m hardly going to fault Feynman (or anyone else, male or female) for falling into this cultural BS. He’s just as trapped as everyone else.

    But yes, your nasty words about Feynman and men like him aside, I agree with your analysis. It’s not the least bit disrespectful to be direct about sex with women, as long as you’re willing to take “no” for an answer.

    1. Restructure! Post author

      But yes, your nasty words about Feynman and men like him aside,

      What nasty words? I’m very curious about why people think this is overly hostile to Feynman.

      1. Cessen

        Re-reading the post, you have a point there.

        The only nasty words I see are where you call him a Nice Guy(tm). But that’s only nasty insofar as you consider Nice Guy(tm) to be intentionally manipulative assholes.

        1. Restructure! Post author

          Yes, perhaps Feynman’s nasty words about women were projected on to the post itself. I don’t think Nice GuysTM are intentionally manipulative assholes, but unconsciously manipulative assholes, who earn the Nice GuyTM label only at the point when/if they start to blame women.

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