Stickers boldly declaring “Stop Street Harassment” adorn the city’s poles. A man leaning against one calls out, “You’ve got a nice ass for a white bitch” to a 19-year-old NYU student named Audrey Harper. She shoots him a look and continues the 15-minute walk to her morning classes.
Harassment, namely catcalling, is inescapable in the New York City streets—but Sophie Sandberg, a 22-year-old Gender and Sexualities graduate from NYU, wants to change that.
Tired of the crass, vulgar words being hurled every day, Sandberg started the Instagram account @catcallsofnyc as a freshman in college. Every post features a victim sharing their personal experience with catcalling, which Sandberg then chalks on the street where it happened. Each submission gets its own physical space at the scene of the crime; each submitter is heard by thousands.
“If you respond [to a catcall], you could be called a bitch, and if you don’t respond, you could be called a bitch,” Sandberg said. “Reclaiming it in the moment can be really hard, because it’s like all of your power is taken away. You get silenced and uncomfortable—it’s hard to respond. So I find reclaiming the streets after the fact, whether it’s through chalking or something else, to be really great for me.”
Sandberg started the account in March of 2016 as a class project when she was assigned to immerse herself in something and then document it on social media. It started picking up traction in late 2017, which she believes had to do with the rise of the #MeToo movement.
“I was really shy when I started the account, I was 19,” Sandberg said. “I was so shy about taking up space on the street, getting in people’s way, and now I’m like ‘No, fuck it—I’m going to get in people’s way.’ They can walk around me. It feels very empowering, because we’re made to feel so small on the street.”
Bringing light to the fetishization and violence that often accompany catcalls, Sandberg wants to show how people experience catcalling differently based on race, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion. Black and Hispanic people, after all, not only disproportionately face street harassment but are more likely to experience violent harassment.
“It’s hard to name a particular instance of street harassment but for me it usually has to do with my afro, sometimes even my skin color,” 19-year-old Zoe Gonzalez said. “I get ‘foxy brown’ a lot, and I remember a couple instances of men saying ‘love your skin,’ but I’ve gotten really graphic ones too. Most of the time I ignore it because of how uncomfortable it makes me. I just feel as though—and from my other friends’ experiences—that women of color are treated with even more disrespect, especially black women.”
Sandberg finds it especially upsetting when she receives submissions from young girls who have been fetishized in their school uniforms. Using somebody’s identity (like their age, race, or sexuality) is what makes catcalling so much more sinister, she believes.
“We live in a culture where people just let it happen,” Sandberg said. “I know a lot of people who say they’re fine with comments, or that it’s okay when it’s ‘Hey, beautiful,’ but it’s a big deal when it becomes violent or harps on underrepresented communities. How do you differentiate those then, when it’s all part of the same behavior?”
While running the account, she’s noticed a lot of patterns. For example, catcalling usually has two parts. First, a man makes a comment disguised as a compliment, like “Hey, beautiful” or “Nice legs.” Second, the man grows angry when the woman doesn’t respond. He might follow her, yell at her, or even assault her.
“I was walking down the Lower East Side the other day, and this guy came up to me saying something about how I looked Latina,” 19-year-old Sofia Piana said. “Something like ‘Oh, you’re Latina, let me talk to you.’ I said ‘No thanks I need to go home.’ I started walking, and he ended up following me for like ten minutes, singing that he wanted to put his penis in my butt.”
Catcalling is most dangerous in its escalation, which Sandberg believes to be indicative of the thin line between how sexuality and violence are portrayed in the media.
“Just last week, a sophomore at the University of Illinois was raped and murdered after ignoring a catcaller’s remarks,” Sandberg said. “It’s this power dynamic where they’re doing it because their masculinity is threatened, and they’ll keep doing it until it’s not acceptable anymore. Feminism is about creating new versions of masculinity.”
According to a 2017 study by UN Women, educated and unemployed men are the most likely catcallers. The motive behind street harassment—namely catcalling—is less about the victim and more about the power the perpetrator derives from it.
This makes sense, considering that female sexuality, queer sexuality, and the objectification of people of color are all stories of ownership. Perpetrators feel as though the world—namely their victims—owe them something. Sexualizing a stranger on the street is an easy way to exert power, which is why underrepresented groups face a disproportionate amount of harassment.
Maybe it’s only the women who have been bombarded with catcalls and spitballs that are looking down as they walk, while the street harassers stare ahead with pride.
Though Sandberg’s work is less permanent than the patriarchal values she’s fighting, it’s bold. Even if you’re lucky enough to look forward, music at full blast, keys not between your knuckles, her work can still find its way into your social media feed. At the end of the day, the stories of @CatcallsOfNYC are clearly not a burden any submitter should carry alone.