One Hour on the Sidewalk

I'm writing from the inside of one of the many Mexican restaurants in the Mission area of San Francisco. I'm writing from inside this fine establishment because, as a woman, I can't exist freely on the sidewalk.

This is a piece on feminism. It's a buzzword these days -- everyone from Beyoncé to Jessica Williams (who recently did a phenomenal piece on catcalling on The Daily Show) is commenting on the plight of the modern woman -- but so long as misguided and disrespectful things continue to happen to women, I will continue to write about them. Unfortunately, I'm all but convinced that I will be writing about feminism until my dying day.

Now, the events of the last hour may seem minor -- I was not physically assaulted in any violent way, nor was my future jeopardized by the actions of the men that I encountered. But these are the actions that women so often brush off as "normal," or even tragically covet as "complimentary." In my mind, these everyday actions are the seeds of those larger, more violent encounters -- those that spring up when the environment is conducive (no sunlight, no company, no self-control) and leave behind bruises, scars and corpses.

I don't usually walk around by myself. It isn't a concerted effort on my part, it just so happens that I am usually either teaching my students or socializing recreationally out in the big, bad world. (I had forgotten how big and bad it is until today I was forced to remember.) Today, however, I found myself with a few hours to myself in The City -- I thought I'd read a book and enjoy the beautiful California sunshine (which so rarely graces San Francisco in the summertime). I had forgotten, however, (silly me), that I am a woman. And, as a woman, simply existing in the public sphere has some really sickening strings attached: Being in public counts as automatic consent to my own objectification.

Like I said, I wanted to read outside, so I found a bench and sat down. A man three feet from me murmured some abusive comments under his breath -- either at me or at the woman walking past. I made the mistake of lifting my eyes from the pages of my book and turning my head in curiosity. He met my eyes and said, "Oh, you're jealous aren't you?" Obviously, I went back to my book.

He then proceeded to tell me how I should improve my appearance, commenting on each piece of my exterior (after all, that is all that I am -- an exterior), everything from my hair to my shoes, explaining that if I follow his oh so valuable advice, I would be able to get a man. Because that is obviously all that I am after -- male attention is the only thing that I, as a woman, could possibly be interested in.

I got up and walked away with the bitter taste of silence in my mouth, replaying the scene in my head. The encounter made me recall a confrontation that I had last year in Paris when I let my tongue loose and ended up in a physical fight with a man twice my size.

Last December, a guy on a bike pulled over and asked my friend (another girl) and I if we were in love. We were hugging and saying goodbye since we wouldn't see one another for a while. He went out of his way to stop and ask the question as if it were so incredibly important to him, as if he were completely entitled, as if he simply had to know and approve of our interaction.

I was monstrously offended by that question and the assumptive, entitled way that he asked it. I told him to "go away" (although not so politely); he began yelling at me about respect and my "dirty mouth." He spat in my face. I was enraged; as he started riding away, I said it again. He circled back, got off his bike, and demanded that I apologize. I didn't. Of course I didn't. I believe in telling disgusting men to f*ck right off when asking about my personal life, when exploitatively prying into a situations that don't concern them. I don't believe in apologizing under pressure.

So he hit me. He hit me on the back of my head. I was moving away, so the blow didn't hit as hard as it should have, but it knocked both me and my glasses to the ground. My eyes were blurry from losing my glasses at first; then my eyes became blurry with tears.

Perhaps other people wouldn't have been so offended, but I simply cannot handle men who think that they are somehow above women, that they somehow own any woman they may see, that women are things to be harassed on the street.

Memories of that encounter made me bite my tongue. I walked on in a state of misandry, reflecting on the upsetting fact that when girls are outside, they become objects. Ten blocks later, I finally settled down on an empty stretch of asphalt, leaning against the side of a building. I was there for all of three minutes when, entirely unsolicited, a man comes over, entirely out his way, and extended his hand.

"Excuse me, hello there. My name is Samuel." I told him my name and shook his hand. "I just wanted to tell you that you are absolutely beautiful." Ha. I mutter a curt thank you with a forced smile. He kisses my hand, walks away and proceeds to stare at me from afar in so lecherous a manner that I again gather my things and depart.

If I were to peel away the layers of those interactions, dissect each of them carefully, and submit them for socio-cultural analysis, what would I find? On the surface of their superfluous soliloquies, there is a sense of entitlement: "I am entitled to my opinion and, by virtue my maleness, I will vocalize that opinion." Below that crust, there is a plasma layer of arrogance, because obviously men know best and women should be either educated or congratulated by their superiors for their appearance and behavior. And finally, at the core of his disgusting monologue, of his unwelcome compliment, is the toxic and all-too-prevalent idea, upon which all sexism is ultimately predicated, that women exist solely to please men.

At this point, I realize that there is no escape: A combination of entitlement, arrogance and objectification manifest in this kind of presumptive sharing. I am simply an object to be criticized or admired, condemned or praised, with the same consideration (or lack thereof) as a piece of art; my only concerns are superficial and male-centric because, as we all know, women without men or good looks to attract men are worthless.

As a woman, I exist solely to be commented upon -- unsolicited opinions, either positive or negative (their stupidly contrasting judgments only further show the caprice of the male gaze), are mandatory conditions to which I tacitly agree upon entering the public sphere. And so I am forced sit here in the safety of a private commercial establishment, seeking refuge from the male gaze and its bolder iterations.