Street harassment exists in a very brief moment of time but sticks with you forever. For the harassed, it hangs heavy, with no visceral trace of its existence except for in the mental notebooks in which detail and bury the most concerning incidents.
However, women around the world are finding ways to turn their experiences into teachable moments, both for street harassers and their subjects. They are showing that leering, catcalling, and following women are not OK, and shouldn’t be expected behavior.
With the Instagram page “Catcalls of NYC,” student Sophie Sandberg has turned her harassers, and the comments directed toward many other women, into sidewalk chalk art for the rest of New York City to see.
Since March of 2016, Sandberg has documented catcalls hollered at her, taking sidewalk chalk to the scene of the harassment and writing down what her harasser said. Over the year and a half, she’s also taken requests from other women, empowering others who might not feel comfortable with calling out their harasser or publicly documenting their harassment themselves.
Speaking to the BBC’s Newsbeat, Sandberg said that when she was first catcalled, she was 15 and that her harasser made his words sound like a compliment: “Hey beautiful, hey sexy.” But really, it made her feel uncomfortable, like she was being watched and that her body wasn’t hers.
Of course, Sandberg receives the common catcalls—men trying to catch someone’s attention, telling women to smile, or calling them sexy or baby.
However, Sandberg’s Instagram shows just how much more graphic, insulting, and fear-inducing these comments can become.
“When I started doing the project, I realized people get really aggressive and vulgar comments,” Sandberg said.
One unusual but harassing comment reads, “If I had an apple pie I’d put it in you, heat it up, and eat it.” Another harasser goes so far as to invoke President Trump, “I’ll fuck you harder than Trump is fucking the country.”
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"I don't live in New York, but i went there last summer with my parents. It was really hot and i was wearing a casual sundress with thin straps. At one point I was walking alone back to the hotel, when a couple of middleaged construction workers yelled at me, that i should lift up my dress, 'show them that pussy' and flash a little more cleavage. So many more things like that happened while i was there. Men looked me up and down, whistled at me and shouted. I was 15." – anonymous #100catcalls
Sandberg’s project follows other viral attempts at squelching street harassment, such as “DearCatcallers,” an Amsterdam-based Instagram account ran by student Noa Jansma. The project also strongly invokes a previous New York City movement by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, whose street art project “Stop Telling Women to Smile” went viral in 2012. Fazlalizadeh has since taken her project to Netflix‘s She’s Gotta Have It reboot, where she worked as the main art consultant and helped inspire main character Nola Darling’s similar anti-street harassment campaign.
It’s an absolute wonder that street harassers feel they can openly say this bullshit to women, or think that women even enjoy it in the first place. Sandberg said she hopes her project has people think twice before catcalling someone on the street, and that people will become active bystanders and say something when they witness harassment happening.
“People haven’t been talking about sexual harassment in the workplace, and now they are—it feels like an avalanche,” Sandberg said, referencing how the “Me Too” movement on sexual assault and harassment has allowed broader conversations about unwanted sexual advances. “If others share their stories, it makes you want to come forward with your story too.”