I cannot pinpoint the exact time that I found out about @catcallsofnyc. Maybe their posts were recommended to me by an Instagram algorithm, maybe one of my friends liked their page, maybe a page I follow reposted one of their pictures. I do remember my reaction to the content on @catcallsofnyc. The words written in bright, happy chalked colors contrasted with the vulgarity of the message. The Instagram account caught attention with their hashtag: #stopstreetharassment. For those who are unfamiliar, @catcallsofnyc is an Instagram page, now with over 174,000 followers. The activists behind the page receive direct messages from women who have experienced cat calling, a form of street harassment, and they document their stories on the streets of New York in chalk. Whether it be from New York’s seasonal drizzle or street cleaning, eventually the quotes are washed away but the impact the words leave on passerby is irrefutable. The movement has grown around the world and there are now @catcalls Instagram accounts around the world, from @catcallsofperu and @catcallsofparis to even a @catcallsofbhm. The entire movement stemmed from one woman: Sophie Sandberg of New York City.
In conversation with Sophie Sandberg, I got a first-hand account of what it is like to start and continue this movement. Sandberg, a New York native who graduated from NYU in May, describes her inspiration for the movement stemming from her own experiences with street harassment when she was 15 and manifesting from an assigned class project into what it is now. The class project, assigned to her during her freshman year at NYU, asked her to immerse herself in something and to document her experience on social media. From there, @catcallsofnyc was born. Sandberg took the opportunity to discuss the issues presented by catcalling and street harassment. She describes her personal experience with catcalling and street harassment when she was in high school as well as the response from adults in her life as her initial inspiration for the class project. “I was so confused because I didn’t think of my own body in that way, I guess in a sexual way, so it was super weird to start getting sexualized,” Sandberg says, “…I never felt like there was a good way to respond when I was harassed. I felt like the adults in my life didn’t think it was a big deal, you know, they told me to keep walking. My dad told me to dress differently at first, so I felt like there was no support that I was getting for this issue. And then it was continuing. I was getting older and it wasn’t going away. So, I decided to use this class project as an opportunity to address it in a creative way.”
Over the years, Sandberg’s @catcallsofnyc grew from a single Instagram account of maybe a hundred to multiple accounts representing different cities around the world, each with thousands of their own followers. In response to the spread of the movement, Sandberg reports, “In some senses, it grew really quickly. I was doing it for a few years before it spread at all. It got a lot of attention, it got picked up by the press, and that is how it spread around the world.” She attributes a big part of the spread of @catcallsof to how easy it is to act within her movement. “It is pretty easy to get chalk and to go write words, in some senses. You don’t need to be artistic necessarily and you don’t need a college degree… You need to be brave and you need to have the guts to do it, but I think a lot of people saw that it was something they were capable of.” She also attributes her movement’s success to young people and their enthusiasm for activism. “A lot of people who start [Instagram] accounts are really young. I think the fact that they can do this, run the Instagram account and write on the streets, is really empowering because maybe they feel like they don’t know how to join an organization, or they are not old enough. I think that the hands on, grassroots activism parts of it really appeals to a lot of people. They feel like they are able to do this.”
In Sandberg’s words, the goal of the accounts and therefore the movement is to create a cultural change where anyone and everyone can walk down the street safely and comfortably, without worrying about being sexualized or objectified. The movement is condemning such behavior. @catcallsofnyc is also a place where people can feel empowered simply by telling their stories and being validated. In Sandberg’s opinion, it is a human right to walk down the street safely. “Something like street harassment gets in the way of people having access to public space, going to work, and doing the most basic things to live a fulfilled life. Street harassment gets in the way of that. By fighting back and sharing our stories, we are fighting against that injustice.”
In addition to the Instagram accounts, Sandberg and her team have created Chalk Back events where they invite their followers in a city to come together and record many stories in one area. Sandberg wants to turn what is happening on Instagram into a real life experience, with people sharing their stories and supporting each other through interactions not contained to Instagram. There have been 3 chalk back events in New York, 2 in Ottawa, 2 in London, and 1 in Brighton. Sandberg has also expressed her involvement in 16 Days of Activism where she and her team with work with an organization to plan events in Cairo, Nairobi, and Kampala.
As the movement has grown across the world and gained momentum, Sandberg and her team have received considerable backlash, especially regarding the public nature of chalking on city streets. Sandberg herself is trying to be more public with her identity. She says that she initially wanted to remain anonymous. With time, as she has begun speaking at conferences and events, she has allowed her identity to become more public. Because of her increasing publicity, she has had to face personal harassment online and in person. One particular situation included a man cyberstalking her. The man created fake @catcallsof accounts, @catcallsofchicago and @catcallsofnottingham, while harassing Sandberg from his personal account. Soon, he began to harass her from the @catcallsofchicago account. Sandberg describes that, “It was difficult because he basically infiltrated the movement. I immediately trusted that anyone who wanted to create an account would be well intentioned.” As this situation was dealt with, Sandberg prefers to look at it as a learning experience. “It has been really hard to deal with,” she says, “but it has also made me set new boundaries. Now I ask anyone starting a new account to send in a quick video explaining why they want to start it. In general, it is a good thing for making the movement stronger.”
Writing the street harassment comments on the streets of New York is a very public action that yields both positive interactions and negative consequences. “I always tell people that I have been hit on while chalking,” Sandberg says, “I remember early on when I was chalking, I was writing out the comment, ‘hey beautiful,’ and then something else. A guy walks past me and is like, ‘oh yeah, damn beautiful.’ Yeah, so that was creepy. Some guy asked me for my number, another guy asked me out on a date. They see me doing this in a public space and they think of it as an opportunity to hit on me. It is telling about gender in public space.” As for more positive reactions, Sandberg says that she really appreciates the amount of support people have shown, especially in New York. The act of chalking on the street creates a space for productive conversations between Sandberg and passerby. Sometimes people stop to give her a hug or to give her a simple “thank you” for what she is doing.
Sandberg is no longer the sole chalker for @catcallsofnyc. She has a team of twelve people backing her in New York and countless others around the world working for the myriad of other @catcallsof accounts. One of her team members was arrested outside of a New York City school because she was writing a comment that the school’s principal said to a student: “The bigger the hoop, the bigger the hoe.” The school’s safety officers called the police. The principal who said the comment has since left the school. Sandberg attributes the source of much of the outcry surrounding her movement to be that it would be possible for children to read the often crude and offensive words that are written. In response, Sandberg replies, “They are not thinking about all of the things children must overhear on the street. I think that people get really upset that we are actually writing these things without thinking about the background or the mission.”
In regard to the future, Sandberg views the movement as changing over time while staying true to the basic idea of letting people share their stories and then giving those stories power by putting them on the street. She says, “In the long term, I hope that we get less submissions, because we get so many submissions right now. I could see changing it to fit what people need in the moment. To be honest, it sounds pessimistic, but I don’t see street harassment ending in the near future. I just see, hopefully, the way people react to it changing.”
For those interested in learning more about Sophie Sandberg’s fight against street harassment please visit the Chalk Back and Catcalls of New York websites. You can also find the original Instagram page @catcallsofnyc