What Richard Feynman didn't understand about women

The legendary scientist had a frankly horrible perspective on interacting with women—and it's by his own account.

His autobiographical book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, tells the story of the young Feynman as a sort of proto-"nice guy" asshole who thinks women owe him sex in exchange for buying them drinks.

The point of the story is that he learns a different way of dealing with women — just ask them if they'd like to have sex, instead of buying them things and hoping they get the hint. And, while treating women like human beings and being upfront with them and allowing them a chance to be upfront with you seems like it would make a lot of sense, Feynman then goes and ruins the lesson by getting entirely the wrong message out of it.

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.

Basically, Feynman was convinced that buying women things and expecting sex as payment was respecting them. In order to do anything different, he had to disrespect them and think of them as horrible demons. Because — and here's the part where he really starts to sound like the modern pickup artist — what the women really wanted was to be disrespected. They wouldn't sleep with a nice guy who bought them things and never said, "Hey, let's fuck now." They would sleep with the dude who treated them rudely and just asked for sex.


To Feynman's credit, he seems to decide this isn't something he wants to keep doing. But he never seems to get what was really wrong with the idea and it's frustrating that he seems to get close to the realization that you can (le gasp!) just treat women like humans, only to swish past it and end up in a pit of vile crap.

Again, I'm still thinking about what I think about this and how it affects my views on Feynman. At the very least, it's a great example of how likeable, interesting, really smart people can act and think in ways that are vile — a reminder, if you will, that likeability and charm (and talent) aren't proof of kindness and someone worthy of respect and worthy of your trust. In the context of the recent New York magazine story on Terry Richardson, you might say that it's a great reminder that somebody can be both an artist and a predator. (Please note that I'm not calling Feynman a predator here. I'm commenting on the headline of the New York article.) A person can be both somebody you like hanging out with and be somebody who treats women he wants to fuck horribly.

I think the biggest thing about why this bothers me is that it's a reminder of why I don't actually want a time machine to go back and visit my heroes. I've just run across too many stories, like this one, that tell me that the people I respect professionally and think I would like to have a conversation with didn't really see me as an equal human being. And that's depressing.

Image: Nobel Foundation

Notable Replies

  1. Please avoid:

    • Victim-blaming
    • “This happens to men too”
    • “Not all men”

    And similar defensive derailments.

  2. Based on independent accounts of his life I've read (i.e. not "Surely You're Joking" or "What Do You Care?"), Feynman seemed kind of a dick, in general. There's really no need to reconcile his personality with his contributions to physics.

  3. Wait, does that mean women, who are also nerds, don't understand themselves? That's some profound stuff. You're really blowing my mind here, bro.

  4. rknop says:

    reminder, if you will, that likeability and charm (and talent) aren't proof of kindness and someone worthy of respect and worthy of your trust.

    This is definitely true. But I might take another lesson from this as well. Real people have both good and bad. Somebody you like, somebody you really respect, is likely to have something about them that you don't like. If you're lucky, it's smoething minor. There's not a small chance, however, that it's something major. And, on the flip side, somebody who has something about him you really don't like might also have some redeeming qualities. Isaac Newton, evidently, was an utter arrogant jerk, the kind of person that is all over academia and that sometimes I think is one of the biggest problems with academia. Yet, he was also brilliant, and gave the world tremendous things, and we shouldn't stop celebrating him because he was also a jerk.

    ("Thomas Jefferson had slaves.")

    People are complicated. With current people, you can hope to change their behavior. With historical figures, we should continue to respect and celebrate their contributions and the great things they did, while being aware that there are probably also things about them we wouldn't like-- and not use the bad things as a reason to write them off as no longer worthy of respect for the good things they did. But we should also remember that they were people, and as such, had flaws, perhaps big ones.


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