Sophie Sandberg | @catcallsofnyc
Why I started it:
I was introduced to catcalling at age 15. I had a job at a bakery in NYC and had to walk through downtown Manhattan alone. No one had told me about catcalling, so when it happened, I was caught off guard in the worst way. I felt like I was being watched and consumed. I felt like there was something wrong with me or what I was wearing. I don’t remember the specific comments, maybe a mumbled “Hey Gorgeous,” a breathy declaration of “Beautiful,” a kiss-y sound, or “mmm” noise as I passed by. All I remember is how uncomfortable I was and how much I wanted to be invisible. Every man I passed was a road block, an obstacle, and potential threat. As I walked down long avenues, I saw them from afar and thought, “Don’t say something to me. Please, don’t talk to me.” I fidgeted as they looked at me. It didn’t matter whether they catcalled me because the long walk towards them made me painfully self-conscious either way. What originally made me confused and uncomfortable, very quickly made me extremely angry. But even now, seven years from my initial experience, I’m taken aback with each comment. I know what I want to do — flip them off, yell, get angry— but without fail, I freeze. @catcallsofnyc has been my way to respond and find my voice, while building a collective statement through the Instagram account.
What I do:
I started by collecting catcalls. I remembered some of the many things that men had said to me, and kept an ear out for new material. I gathered stories from my friends. Then, I wrote the comments with colorful chalk on the sidewalk where they happened, and posted the images on Instagram. By doing this, I make a public statement and draw attention to something that is often belittled or ignored. By revealing the words used to catcall, I get in peoples’ faces. I provoke shock, disgust, confusion, anger. So many catcalls are hidden from the public: mumbled on deserted streets and whispered in the dark. By using the sidewalk as a template, I draw attention to the issue in a public and artistic way. The chalk marks are temporary, washed away in a few days, maybe a week if I’m lucky. But the pictures on Instagram, @catcallsofnyc, have grown into a powerful statement. @catcallsofnyc illustrates the catcall spectrum, including everything from supposed compliments, “Hey, Beautiful,” (St. Marks Church) to derogatory harassment, “Ok, walk past me fucking ho.” (Tompkins Square Park). As @catcallsofnyc grew, it became a platform for people to share their stories— through direct message. People of all backgrounds, identities and orientations message me their experiences of harassment in the New York City area, and I share. Some wish to remain anonymous, some give me a quote to put in the caption. Either way, I’m able to give them a place to share their stories and get support from me and other followers who validate their experience. As @catcallsofnyc grows, it begins to shows the racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic harassment that takes place in public space. The more people who submit stories, the more diverse experiences I can record, and the more I can illustrate how widespread street harassment is.
@catcallsofnyc has also been a way to spark conversations. In the most rewarding sense, it has been a voice of support and validation for other people facing harassment. But just as importantly, it has been a way to start conversations with those who disagree. Often, men who have deeply ingrained sexist thoughts will comment something to the like of: “This really isn’t that bad. There are bigger issues in the world” or “If you don’t want to provoke catcalls, you shouldn’t wear tight clothes.” Engaging in dialogues with these men in a civil, educational way is extremely important. Their comments are often based in ignorance and although I mainly want to tell them to go away, it is more productive to engage. These conversations can be frustrating as the men may be unwilling to agree with an opinion other than their own— even when it is rooted in our experiences. However, it is a worthwhile experience to understand the sexist opinions out there to see where catcalling is coming from. It’s often similar to the sexist rationale that is used to excuse sexual assault and other problematic behavior.
Future of @catcallsofnyc:
Of course, the end goal is to denormalize street harassment and to make it a twisted practice of the past. But until then, I want to continue to raise public awareness. I want the Instagram to be a space for people to share their stories and I want to give their stories life on the sidewalks where people walking by will see them and be affected by them. I want to continue to challenge those who doubt that street harassment exists. I want this Instagram to be a testament— like the recent #metoo movement— that this is something that is happening to a lot of people. It’s not a made up phenomenon. It’s not an overreaction. It’s an epidemic. It’s a big deal. It’s connected to the way women and marginalized groups are treated and how we live our lives. More importantly, I want young people to be aware of this. I have people as young as 11 years old messaging me stories of harassment. One 12 year old girl messaged me saying a man in a “expensive care drove by and yelled ‘thanks, gorgeous!’” and then she let me know she “had a short skirt on so it might’ve been that.” I assured her that the issue was not her skirt. Frankie, a Transgender boy, who says he “looks very feminine,” told me he is frequently harassed on the street. The most recent one: “nice ass mami.” I want to continue to educate young people that this is something that happens, and assure them that it’s not okay and it’s not there fault. And finally, I want the movement to grow. New York City is not the only place street harassment happens. I would love to see people start accounts in other cities around the country and around the world.