First of all, what led me to remember and reconsider what I wrote was a post at Geek Feminism called "Feynman called a woman 'worse than a whore' for not exchanging sex for sandwiches". I've decided not to post this as a comment there because I don't want to derail the conversation; and furthermore, my intent is only to refer to that post in order to elaborate my own point of view on those issues. It's not meant as a refutation of the Geek Feminism post, but as a rectification of my previous post.
So here is my take on the passage discussed there. To begin with, If I can fault Feynman for anything, it is this:
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?”
It is disappointing that Feynman didn't break away from the idea that asking a woman for sex is disrespectful. It's also troubling that he contrasts a "bar girl" with a "nice, ordinary, Southern girl" in a variation of the virgin/whore dichotomy. He comes across as someone who never fully managed to question the values he was taught when growing up, values which were pervasive in his society. So when I read the book two years ago, I suppose I filed this attitude under "things that a man born in 1918 would think"; much like, for my own sanity's sake, I have to let go when my 72 year old uncle says (in an Eric Cartman "What should I do?" voice): "I just couldn't allow a daughter of mine to sleep with her boyfriend inside my house. What should I do? It's just not the the way I was raised to see things." If he had a daughter who wasn't already married with children, I would press the issue further; but I thought it useless to argue with an old man who had just been talking about the preparations for his possible death in the next decade. You just kind of laugh and agree to disagree.
I wish I could say Richard Feynman was unqualifiedly awesome. But he was not. Like I said in my previous post, his somewhat underdeveloped views on art were frustrating, because a man as intelligent as him was fully capable of working them out. The same is true of his social attitudes and beliefs--and the notion of "respectability" in relation to women is among the worst. To be fair, I do sense some ambiguity here: his use of the word "disrespect" doesn't seem to fit his general modus operandi, as if he had been using the word simply because it had been handed down to him. Even though he thinks he's "disrespecting" the Southern woman towards the end of the story, I honestly don't see any slut-shaming in this passage:
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?”
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.
This passage shows some of his usual excitement for figuring things out ("so it worked even with an ordinary girl!"), and I don't think he denigrates her for being bold about sex; but ultimately, even though he doesn't think of her in any demeaning terms (his words are a far cry from "haha, the bitch said yes!" or "it turned out that the nice girl was a whore"), he found it a little hard to let go of the idea that he was disrespecting her--which I suppose is understandable in the light of the cultural climate of the time, since the reactions you get by being "respectful" or "disrespectful" aren't defined by what you think is right. But still, I expected more of him: he could have reflected on the meaning of the word, on the whole virgin/whore dichotomy, and overtly rejected it.
As for the rest of the anecdote, I find it hard to take it apart. Surely, we can all agree that thinking "those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything" is just plain sexist--not because we must think each and every woman is valuable in virtue of her being a woman, but because the concept of "bitch" itself is highly problematic, and any standard that defines people's worth based on their bitchiness or unbitchiness is a glaring double standard. And I hope no one here disagrees that it's horrible to coerce women into having sex by making them feel it's something they owe. Either way, I find it harder to make a case that Feynman's behavior was an unfiltered expression of his sexism, because he was admittedly adopting a different attitude as a social experiment. We can still question the ethics of performing social experiments on unknowing people. We can still find issues regarding the notion of respectability in them; but I find it disingenuous to take the whole thing at face value, claiming that "Feynman called a woman 'worse than a whore' for not exchanging sex for sandwiches", since it is quite clear that he was playing a role.
But really, I do find it important to say that no, Feynman never quite used his intelligence to push the envelope regarding certain social views. It's also cringe-inducing that "most of the male geeks who read his book will use this anecdote to rationalize calling women 'bitches', 'whores', and 'worthless'." No objections here. But there's still something about the post at Geek Feminism that bothers me: as far as feminism goes, I just don't think it was radical enough.
I can't read that chapter without thinking Feynman is playing the role of an asshole. I think we are in agreement here. But take this passage:
So we go out. We walk down the street a few blocks and see a café, 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 café and she orders three coffees and three sandwiches and I pay for them. As we’re going out of the café, 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!”
Let's get all the caveats out of the way first. The worst thing he said here was that she was "worse than a WHORE!", and that's because there is absolutely no shame in being one. Though popular, the idea that a prostitute is in any way worse than any other person makes my skin crawl. (I also think the same about porn stars. The problem with porn isn't that "it's degrading to women", but that people--including, but not limited, to the very people who watch it--see casual sex as degrading to them.) The issue is not so much his belief that he could insult the woman for taking the sandwiches and not giving him sex (something which, outside his social experiments, he probably didn't believe in), but the specific and seemingly less calculated way he chose to insult her. Once again, to be completely fair here, elsewhere in the book Feynman does not seem to treat the prostitutes he befriends with disdain; so this might be another case of him thoughtlessly and contradictorily expressing the sexist tradition that was handed down to him.
The other thing that bothers me in the passage is the assumption that a man is entitled to sex once he does one thing or another for the woman. Once again, in context, this seems to be a temporary attitude Feynman adopted as a social experiment; but whatever may be the case, we can all agree that a man is never entitled to sex, no matter what he does. That's not under discussion. It's a damaging attitude that has to disappear as soon as possible.
That being said, I can't help but see something questionable about her attitude. Let's assume for a second that sex is not what is at stake here--say it's just her companionship for a meal. She clearly suggested that they "get some coffee and sandwiches, and go over to my place and eat them." And, just as he bought the sandwiches, she said: "You know, I won’t have time to eat these sandwiches with you, because a lieutenant is coming over…" Unless she told him to keep the sandwiches, it's hard to believe she changed her mind (which would be a perfectly valid thing to do) rather than having it planned all along. The fact that they bought one sandwich too many is also telling. At this point, we can question Feynman's account of the events, but the question is whether this is a plausible scenario, not whether it happened this time.
I don't think it's unreasonable to say that yes, it sounds perfectly plausible--and that's definitely not because women are manipulative, cunning or whatever else you want to call them. Woman, as a monolithic entity, does not exist. The problem here is that human relationships in general are a fucking mess. And if all you see in Feynman's anecdote is an odious social attitude towards women (and don't get me wrong, it is there), then you're just not pushing the issue far enough.
As I was writing this, the phrase "not radical enough" kept popping up in my head. I wasn't sure why, but Google helped me out:
The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough.
- Terry Eagleton in "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching"
I won't go into whether I agree or disagree with Eagleton about Dawkins, or if I share his Christian/Communist ideology. The point is that "reforming" the sexist attitudes we find in Feynman's story is analogous to the social democrat instance that Eagleton deems insufficient. Were I in Feynman's position, I would say, alright, goodbye, and then eat my sandwiches. But the point here is that I would probably never be in his situation in the first place, because I refuse to participate in some of the power dynamics that take place between people, and which are exacerbated when we have two people of the opposite sex.
I do think the sexism in "those bar girls are all bitches, they aren’t worth anything" should be pointed out, but the problem goes far beyond sexism--because it's not a simple matter of men thinking those bitches are worthless and then going after them anyway, for their own personal fulfillment. That happens, but it also fits into a larger picture. It just so happens that men are more socially privileged than women and can make use of that power; it just so happens that society is more forgiving of men, and gives men more room to exploit women. But even if we managed to level the playing field, we'd be left with just that: men and women evenly manipulating, shaming and exploiting one another.
I don't care if people need others to lead a fulfilling life. It's none of my business. But I do think it's an awfully harmful practice to base your interactions with people on those needs. And I can't for a minute believe that the rampant manipulation that goes on in sexual relationships is not based on a sense that my needs come before their needs. Rape culture is one example of this fucked up sense of entitlement with some male privilege thrown in for good measure, basically a social institution that legitimizes the use of another person against their will.
But perhaps my favorite example is the concept of "cheating", because of how pervasive it is. I really hope I'm not the only one who finds it deeply disturbing that an individual doing whatever they want to do with another willing individual represents some sort of betrayal. I'm not necessarily speaking against monogamy; I have nothing against people who choose to be monogamous. But speaking for myself, I have never and will never be in a relationship in which my sexual or emotional life is held hostage by another person. I may engage in monogamy, but if after careful deliberation I find out that it's important to me to become close to someone else, sexually or otherwise, this is not to be taken as me doing my partner "wrong". My partner can choose what to do with her life (stay or, if she is uncomfortable, go), but I'll never allow myself to feel guilty for failing to provide something I never promised anyone.
Likewise, I wouldn't want to trap and control a partner that I claim to love. You might argue that it's a lot easier for a man to get away with this (as far as societal reactions are concerned), and you would be right. My partner would have more trouble if she got involved with someone else than I would if I did. But let's not forget that while slut-shaming is alive and well, cuckold-shaming is not any better. I concede this might not be true in all countries, not even all Western ones--but it certainly is where I grew up. In Brazil, worse than being a "corno" (literally, a horned one, meaning a cuckold) is to be a "corno manso" (a tame horned one)--an object of derision that matches the figure of the slut and, along with her, is only less scorned than marginalized people like transgender individuals. Obviously, this is an expression of the misogynist idea that a man should take control over his woman, and it legitimizes the way most men do just that; but for the few men who choose not to play along, the consequences are no less severe.
My point, once again, is that human relationships are a mess. While the social consequences of "cheating" are different for men and women, at a personal level both sexes go great lengths to stop each other from doing it, to have control over their partners' lives. And what Feynman does in his story, and does pretty decently in my opinion, is explore some of the dynamics between both sexes--sure, not in an involved sexual relationship, not far enough into it for the concept of "cheating" to hold, but in its inception, which is nonetheless important. Feynman plays a role that is certainly problematic, but I think he does this consciously, even if his understanding of those issues is somewhat blurry. From my point of view, he isn't just showing that women manipulate guys for drinks and sandwiches (too simplistic a reading), but that men and women--in the ways allowed by their social positions--play each other to get what they want. This happens even in non-sexual scenarios, but it's particularly evident in courtship, because it paves the way to more complex sexual relationships.
Maybe the writer at Geek Feminism is right that "most of the male geeks who read his book will use this anecdote to rationalize calling women 'bitches', 'whores', and 'worthless'." But male geeks are no more free from stupidity than anyone else; and, should they ever misread Feynman, it's not entirely Feynman's fault. I think the picture Feynman paints is quite a bit more ambiguous--he certainly doesn't portray the bar girl in a very flattering light, but I get the impression that he never quite enjoys the manipulation that men practice either. And my hunch is that if he says he never tried to put the lesson into practice again, this wasn't because he enjoyed the game, but because the way the lesson was taught did bring a considerable amount of disrespectful shit with it. Contrast the passage we've been discussing with the following one:
The other thing that was fun in Las Vegas was meeting show girls. I guess they were supposed to hang around the bar between shows to attract customers. I met several of them that way, and talked to them, and found them to be nice people. People who say, "Show girls, eh?" have already made up their mind what they are! But in any group, if you look at it, there's all kinds of variety. For example, there was the daughter of a dean of an Eastern university. She had a talent for dancing and liked to dance; she had the summer off and dancing jobs were hard to find, so she worked as a chorus girl in Las Vegas. Most of the show girls were very nice, friendly people. They were all beautiful, and I just love beautiful girls.
We went over to their table and he introduced me to the girls and then went off for a moment. A waitress came around and asked us what we wanted to drink. I ordered some water, and the girl next to me said, "Is it all right if I have a champagne?"
"You can have whatever you want," I replied, coolly, 'cause you're payin' for it."
"What's the matter with you?" she said. "Cheapskate, or something?"
"You're certainly not a gentleman!" she said indignantly.
"You figured me out immediately!" I replied. I had learned in New Mexico many years before not to be a gentleman.
Pretty soon they were offering to buy me drinks--the tables were turned completely! (By the way, the Texas oilman never came back.)
After a while, one of the girls said, "Let's go over to the El Rancho. Maybe things are livelier over there." We got in their car. It was a nice car, and they were nice people. On the way, they asked me my name.
"Where are you from, Dick? What do you do?"
"I'm from Pasadena; I work at Caltech."
One of the girls said, "Oh, isn't that the place where that scientist Pauling comes from?"
I had been in Las Vegas many times, over and over, and there was nobody who ever knew anything about science. I had talked to businessmen of all kinds, and to them, a scientist was a nobody. "Yeah!" I said, astonished.
"And there's a fella named Gellan, or something like that--a physicist." I couldn't believe it. I was riding in a car full of prostitutes and they know all this stuff!
Of course, there is something to be said about the way he "just love[d] beautiful girls". I wrote a little about that in my previous post. But that's not the point I want to make here. The point is that while imperfect, he never describes them as "whores", much to the contrary; and his surprise that he was in a car full of prostitutes who knew all that stuff was more about the irony of the situation, about how no one gave a damn about science but the prostitutes everyone dehumanized.
I also appreciated the way he said, "I had learned in New Mexico many years before not to be a gentleman." That's not your usual Nice Guy™ remark, because being a gentleman is not the same as being respectful. I find it refreshing that Feynman learned that if you engage women in an egalitarian way, without trying to manipulate them into a sexual situation with artifices like being a gentleman, they are more likely to tone down their own manipulative behavior. No, this is not a recipe for scoring some random sexual encounter; I'd guess that more often than not the woman simply wouldn't be interested. But it is a pretty simple recipe for having interesting interactions and maybe befriending them: put your guard down an drop the pretense, and maybe they will feel like they can do the same. If you treat people as human beings, they might treat you as a human being too.
It's true that Feynman wasn't discerning enough to understand all that the word "disrespect" entailed in that context. Really, it's safe to say this about his understanding of gender issues as a whole, given the amount of time I've spent explaining why I couldn't simply read his words and think he was unqualifiedly awesome. But I still think that saying that "Feynman called a woman 'worse than a whore' for not exchanging sex for sandwiches", and grouping him together with "self-professed Nice Guys™", misrepresents his behavior, including the sexist behavior he is in fact guilty of. And it fails to acknowledge that Feynman does touch on certain points that are incredibly important, specifically about the manipulation that takes place between both genders, which in his story is limited to a simple courting situation, but that in real life leads to entitlement issues that often get women the short end of the stick. Maybe I'm being unfair here, since I don't believe you need to address Life, the Universe and Everything every single time you point sexism out; but I still think his behavior was more nuanced than it was given credit for, both at Geek Feminism and in my previous post.