This Team of International Young Women Is Fighting Catcalls

In chalk: Share your story. #StopStreetHarassment @catcallsofnyc

It all started in 2016 when Sophie Sandberg began chalking the sidewalks of New York City with phrases and quotes that had been hollered at folks on the street — otherwise known as catcalls.

She began documenting the colorful chalk renderings on Instagram, working to bring attention to the daily harassment women — and other marginalized communities — face. 

All entries in the library of catcalls are submitted from followers and community members, and Sandberg chalks them, word for — often gross and explicit — word, at the location where they were said.

A white woman with dirty blond hair wears a red shirt and smiles.
Sophie Sandberg started a movement with her chalk drawings. Photo courtesy of Sophie Sandberg

Each quote includes the hashtag #StopStreetHarassment and a tag to Sandberg’s increasingly popular social media account: @CatcallsOfNYC.

“Chill out,” a chalk rendering begins, “You seemed like the easy type.” 

“He said ‘hey princess,’ and then told me to smile when I walked on the other side. 14 years old,” one drawing reads.

While many chalk writings document street harassment, others focus on issues of injustice. 

“My mom almost died during a miscarriage after I was born,” an anonymous writing shares. “The abortion saved her life.”

“The fight against patriarchy is global and intersectional,” another reads, in solidarity with the women of Iran. “Rest in peace Mahsa Amini.” 

Regardless of the content, all chalkings have one thing in common: They seek systemic change ending gender-based violence.

Change Sandberg couldn’t make alone.

Quickly, her artistry spiraled into a full-on movement: Chalk Back. This youth-led grassroots international organization is now the hub of street harassment stories from around the globe.

Three screenshots from instagram: A Reel encouraging people to write their stories, a the Chalk Back profile, and another Reel calling for story submissions.
Chalk Back has become a global community of young people fighting street harassment. Photos courtesy of Chalk Back/Instagram

The organization, led by Sandberg, builds upon her existing work, with public chalk and art displays, digital media campaigns, and ongoing education. 

Chalk Back is made of a growing collective of over 150 activists who run Instagram accounts similar to the original concept, sharing stories within a specific city or university campus. In 2021 alone, the organization reached over 12 million people through its various social media accounts.

From busy European cities, to small college communities, the organization spans six continents, 49 countries, and 10 cities, and is composed entirely of youth activists. 

Screenshot of Instagram search for @catcallsof accounts
There are over 150 @catcallsof accounts building on Sanberg's work. Photo courtesy of Chalk Back/Instagram

While street harassment is pervasive across countries, it also often leads to further violence and harm against marginalized communities. 

In fact, a study from California State University reported that nearly 25 percent of women who were catcalled said the verbal harassment led to inappropriate touching, and 20 percent said it led to being followed by the harasser, whether their words were confronted or ignored.

By displaying these catcalls in public spaces, onlookers are forced to confront these daily threats.

“All people should be able to be carefree and move without concern on the streets; not just those who are socially privileged,” Janna, one of the moderators of @CatcallsOfBochum said in a blog post

“If they get bothered by the chalking and start feeling uncomfortable, that’s exactly what people experience during catcalling. When the catcalls are out and visible on the street, everyone has to face this problem; not just the ones who have experienced the harassment.” 

In order to continue chalking, the organization uses the Safecity app to gather reports of street harassment, allowing for easier transmission of messages, as well as providing a cautionary tale to other users about where harassment has taken place. 

Followers are also always welcome to message Chalk Back’s Instagram account, or other verified regional profiles, to help share their stories with the world.

In chalk: Share your story. #StopStreetHarassment. @catcallsofnyc
Chalk Back groups are always accepting stories of street harassment to shine a light on the issue worldwide. Photo courtesy of Catcalls of NYC/Instagram

Between virtual educational events, chalking marathons, creative works about harassment, and more, Chalk Back has created a multitude of online spaces where these stories are forced into the light, and young people are able to reclaim their safety and communities.

“Accountability, to me, means calling a thing by its name — no mitigating the effect,” Karimot, the founder of @CatcallsOfNigeria, said in a blog post. “Letting the world see it the way it is.”

Article Details

June 2, 2023 12:26 PM
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