The first time Sophie Sandberg remembers being catcalled was when she was just 15 years old. For many of her friends, it happened at an even younger age.
"I was frustrated and confused when it first happened because no one told had me that catcalling was something I’d have to deal with. And I was angry that no one was doing anything to try and change it," Sandberg told A Plus. "At first, I didn’t know how I could make an impact. Since so many people accepted it, I wasn’t optimistic that it was something that could change."
But now, the 21-year-old New York University student wants to try. She hopes to show how rampant an issue street harassment is and help to stop it with her project, Catcalls of NYC.
Catcalls of NYC shows street harassment comments women and girls have actually received on the sidewalks where they heard them. Sandberg asks her Instagram followers to message her about their street harassment experiences. She then uses chalk to write the catcaller's words at the location they were said. She also adds her Instagram handle and #StopStreetHarassment so that those who pass by the quote will understand why the words were written.
"I knew I couldn’t call out men on the streets because I’ve always been shy and the thought of confrontation was scary. I decided that using the words themselves— which are often extremely vulgar, and sexist— would have a large impact on people," Sandberg said.
"I wanted the public to see the words that so many women have been suffering in silence."
Women of all ages are subjected to sexist and unwanted comments, whistling, gestures, or persistent questions about their name, phone number, or destination when they're just trying to go from one place or another. People in the LGBTQ+ community are also subjected to street harassment in the form of homophobic or transphobic slurs. Sometimes catcallers take things a step further and follow, flash, or grope the people they're harassing. Catcalling is far from "no big deal" or "just a compliment."
"Catcalling as a compliment is a sexist idea perpetrated by men. It relies on the idea that women should — and want to — be valued for their appearance by men on the street," Sandberg said. "This is simply not true. We don’t want to be objectified or sexualized. We are more than our bodies. We are probably on the way to work, or the supermarket, or lunch and we don’t need — or want — your approval, or your derogatory comments."
"I don’t know anyone who has been catcalled who would say it’s a compliment. I think that we should respect the opinions of people who are experiencing the comments — not those making the comments."
Sandberg hopes her project will make a positive impact in a few different ways.
"Firstly, I want it to be a space for people who’ve been harassed to share their stories. Harassment can be an isolating, confusing, upsetting, scary situation, and providing them with a space to talk is powerful and therapeutic," she said. "Secondly, I hope that for people who don’t experience harassment, this will be a call to action. I hope that seeing these predatory, vulgar words written out, people who didn’t know about harassment in the past will be empathetic and step in when they see harassment happening in the future."
Sandberg hopes that by showing how rampant an issue street harassment issue, she can be a part of the change to end it.
"Street harassment has been a problem for a long time and it’s been ignored for a long time. That’s why it’s so important to acknowledge it because we can’t hide it anymore," she said. "It’s similar to what’s going on right now with sexual assault — no one realized how huge the problem of sexual assault was until people started speaking up. Now, it’s being taken seriously and times are changing."
"It’s only when we give people a voice that these things surface. We don’t realize something is a problem until we respect and listen to those who have previously been silenced and ignored."
Sandberg started Catcalls of NYC in March 2016 and has learned a lot throughout the process of creating and sharing it.
"Mainly, I’ve learned that social movements don’t always need a microphone to be heard," she said. "All I need to make a statement is my chalk. There is so much room for change and progress, especially at a time like now — when we’re facing a lot of change and upheaval. If you’re willing to work and get your hands dirty, you can get others involved and make change."
She hopes those who see it will learn a lot, too.
"I hope that those who don’t have to experience harassment on a daily basis will learn that this harassment exists — that it’s damaging and pervasive," Sandberg said. "I want people to see the deeply rooted sexism or racism, or homophobia or transphobia … etc. that may be present in the comments. The language of these comments is telling. It’s often exemplary to the type of harassment that happens in other spaces — the workplace etc. I hope people will understand that these words are more than 'just words,' they say a lot about the culture we live in."