The “Cat Calls Of New York” Instagram Is Chronicling Incidents Of Harassment In Chalk All Over The City

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Street harassment is distressingly common — but just as distressing is the fact that so many people ignore it, either when they witness it happening to other people or just when it comes to its existence in general. New York University student Sophie Sandberg’s ‘Cat Calls Of New York’ project, however, aims to change that: It makes street harassment impossible to ignore — by splashing it across the sidewalks of New York City in brightly colored chalk for everyone to see. “A whistle or passing comment may not seem like a big deal, but it has big effects,” Sandberg tells Bustle in an email. And seeing them literally writ large — and at the exact locations in which they occurred, at that — drives home those effects in a powerfully tangible way.

Sandberg, who is working towards a degree in Gender and Sexuality Studies at NYU’s College of Art and Sciences, has been documenting her project through the power of social media. Via the @catcallsofnyc Instagram account, she asks viewers who are willing to share their experiences of street harassment to send her their stories and the location in New York in which the instances occurred; then, she goes to that spot, writes the words (or, in some cases, describes the actions) the harasser used on the sidewalk in colorful sidewalk chalk, takes a photograph of it, and posts and tags the location of the picture on Instagram.  

According to Hollaback! and Cornell University’s landmark 2015 study, the International Street Harassment Survey Project, the vast majority of women worldwide report experiencing street harassment for the first time before the age of 18. In the United States, almost 85 percent report experiencing at age 16 or younger — and that’s exactly what Sandberg’s own experience has been: She says she’s been experiencing street harassment since the age of 15.

“When I was 15, a lot of the catcalls I received were simple, and not particularly notable,” Sandberg, who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, tells Bustle. “All the same, they impacted me.  I remember feeling like every block I walked down someone made some small comment, whether it was just ‘Good morning’ or ‘Sexy,’ ‘Hey Gorgeous,’ Hey beautiful.’” They might not seem like much — but that’s the thing about street harassment: It’s insidious. “All these small, supposed compliments made me feel so uncomfortable in my skin,” says Sandberg. “I hated being watched as I walked down the street. It made me nervous and suspicious about every single man I walked by.”

As she’s gotten older, the catcalls have gotten more vulgar, and more physically threatening (she’s been followed down the street before). “What I hate most in these moments is how extraordinarily powerless I feel,” she says. “Even as I raise awareness and fight against harassment, I’m still unable to respond in these situations. I’m still afraid in the moment.”

Cat Calls of NYC is a direct reaction to these experiences. Originally, Sandberg began it as part of project for a writing class in which students were meant to “immerse [themselves] in something and document it on social media,” as she puts it. She chose catcalling — an issue that had been on her mind for some time.                                                                  

Initially, she had thought of snapping photographs of each and every man who catcalled her as she went about her daily life. She ultimately rejected this idea, however; “Realistically, I knew I would be too shy and nervous to do that — and it could provoke unwanted confrontations, and escalate the situation,” she says. (Her concern is justified; it’s far from unheard of for incidents of street harassment to escalate into terrible and sometimes fatal violence.)

So, she opted to focus on the specific words that the catcallers used. “By exposing the words, I could have an impact on people,” she says. “I wanted to publicize the intimidating words that women had been suffering in silence.” Of her choice of sidewalk chalk as a medium, she says, “I decided to use chalk because it’s colorful,which catches people’s eyes — and in turn draws attention to the words, and the issue.” She adds, “Chalk is also washable, so no one would accuse me of vandalism or defacing the sidewalks.”

The earliest post on the @catcallsofnyc Instagram dates back to March of 2016. It’s a phrase that might sound innocuous — “Hello, Beautiful” — but as Sandberg’s caption on the photo notes, “Seem like a compliment? It doesn't feel like one on a quiet street at 2am.” You know what it does feel like, though? Athreat. It feels frightening. It feels like you’re in danger simply for daring to walk somewhere at night.

Sandberg has continued the project for nearly two years. In addition to using her own experiences, she also collected catcall stories from friends; then, in order to include a more diverse group of people from different areas of the city, she added a callout in her Instagram bio: “Send me your experiences of street harassment in the NYC area and I will share.”

And the stories rolled in.

Although many of the statements included in the entries might be surprising to some, they are distressingly familiar to many. But no matter how familiar you might be with the kind of language and behavior Cat Calls Of New York documents, seeing it written down highlights how unbelievable it is that so many think it’s OK to say these things to complete strangers — and that so many seem to think that they’re even compliments.

Take this, for instance:

Or this:

Or this:

Or this:

How are these kinds of statements considered acceptable to say to a person you pass by on the street whom you do not personally know? It boggles the mind.

Not all of the catcalls featured in the project are as overtly vulgar as these ones, but a good deal of them are. And regardless, the less-gross ones still aren’t OK.

This is not OK:

Because women do not exist purely for someone else's enjoyment.

This is not OK:

Because women have the right to do what they want with their own bodies, including not hugging someone who demands they do.

This is not OK:

Because women are not objects for you to have or possess.

The number of catcalls Sandberg has documented that treat women as food is truly astonishing, ranging from noises:

To single words:

To statements like this:

And this:

Again: Not OK. Women are not food. Women are not objects. Women are people.

The most common “genre” (so to speak) of harassment seen on the Instagram page, however, exemplifies exactly why street harassment is not a compliment. If I had to give it a name, I’d call the “genre” something like, “The About-Face”: Each statement that follows this format begins with a demand from the harasser for the receiver’s attention, and when that attention is not forthcoming, an abrupt flip to abuse.

Sometimes the demand for attention is dressed up to look like a compliment (although, again, it’s not):

Sometimes it’s a request for a smile (consider this your reminder that women do not owe it to you to arrange their faces in a way you find pleasant):

And sometimes it is upfront about the fact that it expects to be looked at it when it demands it:

In each instance, though — and keep in mind that these three photos are just a small sampling of scads and scads of similar images on the @catcallsofnyc Instagram — it’s the second part of the comment that underlines exactly why these “compliments” and are not compliments (or "innocent requests," or any other phrase that pretends that they're really not that bad): When the woman at which they were lobbed does not give the harasser her attention, the harassers immediately turn violent — if not physically (although that happens, too), then at the very least in their language.

The threat of violence is not a compliment.

But there is empowerment in drawing attention to this issue — as well as the community that builds as you do so. Strangers of all different identities and backgrounds started sharing their experiences has been what Sandberg calls “the most empowering and rewarding part of this project.”

“I love being able to give people a place to share their stories and then giving their voices life on the sidewalk for people to see,” she says. “When people thank me for listening to their stories, or for what I do, it makes all the work worth it. I want this project to be a service to people who need to share their stories, who have felt isolated by harassment and want to find a community and a way to speak back.”

And if you’re someone who doesn’t get catcalled, Sandberg has some words of advice for you, too: “Don’t be afraid to step in when you see something happening. Being an active bystander means more than you would think.”