Street Harassment to Street Art: Giving Voice to Victims of Catcalling

Featuring street artist and Alpha Sigma Tau collegian, Sophie Sandberg, Delta Phi

By Kate Wehby, Gamma Xi, Chapter Services Coordinator

Warning: This article contains language that references sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The article also links to an Instagram page that uses graphic and sexually explicit language to bring attention to the problem of street harassment.

Street harassment, or “catcalling,” is a form of sexual harassment that consists of unwanted comments and lewd gestures and actions that are focused on a stranger in a public place. Street harassment includes sexual comments, sexist slurs, following someone, or persistent requests for someone’s name, number, or destination.1 Catcalling can make women feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and fearful – and is more than just “harmless” words. In fact, almost two-thirds of women reported being harassed on the street while 23% had been sexually touched and 20% had been followed.2 Nine percent were forced to do something sexual against their will.3

Half of those who experienced catcalling were harassed before the age of 17.4 One of these is chalk artist, New York native, and Alpha Sigma Tau collegian at New York University Sophie Sandberg, Delta Phi, who was first catcalled when she was 15 years old. “I was going to work for the first time,” she recalls “I was dressed up and excited for work. I felt like every block I walked to work I was getting some sort of comment and I had no idea how to respond … I was completely uncomfortable, I felt like I was being watched constantly.”

Her experiences with catcalling and a class assignment to explore a topic using social media inspired her to create the Instagram account @catcallsofNYC. People who have been catcalled, who are predominantly women, direct message @catcallsofNYC with the catcall and where it happened. Sophie then goes to the same spot where the catcall occurred and writes the catcall on the sidewalk in chalk. She takes a picture of the chalking, tags the location, and posts the photo on Instagram. Quotes range from comments like “hey baby” or “smile for me” to ones that are much more explicit, derogatory, racist, and sexist.

The purpose of @catcallsofNYC, Sophie explains, is to shed light on street harassment. “I wanted to do this on the street because that’s where this is happening,” she says. “I decided to use chalk because it’s colorful and draws attention to the words. It also will go away in a few days so it isn’t vandalism.” @catcallsofNYC has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, and the Huffington Post. Sophie has chronicled over 130 catcalls as a part of this project.

Sophie explains that one of the most common misconceptions about street harassment is that it should be taken as a compliment. “On the street, it can’t be a compliment. This is because of the power dynamic that exists. When you walk by someone and they say something to you, it exerts a power over you. It makes you feel helpless and objectified. It isn’t an equal playing ground.” She explains that street harassment is different from a friend or a partner giving you a compliment because you have a relationship with that person. You know them and trust them.

Sophie emphasizes that it is important to be active bystanders if you see street harassment happening. Having a bystander say or do something could make a big difference in helping the harassed person feel safe and not alone. It also can help make clear that harassing behavior is not acceptable. Sophie expressed that it can be hard to know what to do if you see street harassment happening. Green Dot, a national bystander intervention program, uses the 3 D’s as a model for how you can intervene.5

  • Direct: Confront the situation directly. Before intervening, directly assess the situation to determine if the situation is safe for you and the person experiencing the harassment. Say things like: “Leave them alone,” or “That’s not an okay thing to say.”
  • Distract: Interrupt the incident. You could pretend to be lost and ask for directions, ask for the time, or otherwise take the attention off of the person experiencing the harassment.
  • Delegate: Ask for help from someone else. This could be a bus driver, a police officer, another friend, or a supervisor at a nearby store.

Sophie also explains that it is important to connect with the person being harassed. Even if you can’t act in the moment, you can make a difference for that person by connecting with them after. You can ask them if they’re okay, tell them that you’re sorry that it happened, and ask how you can support them moving forward.

@catcallsofNYC sheds much-needed light on the topic of street harassment and inspires people to intervene the next time they witness catcalling. In the years since its creation, @catcallsofNYC has become more than a class assignment – it has become a movement for change to help women feel safer and walk in peace.

Click here to visit @catcallsofnyc.