Project ‘Cat Calls of NYC’ is changing the streets of New York one chalk message at a time, raising awareness about the street harassment women go through every day

by Asfa Shakeel

Sophie Sandberg started Cat Calls of NYC in March 2016. In 2 years, the project has expanded to include dozen accounts worldwide and an upcoming event called Chalk Back.  

Cat Calls of NYC

Image source: Journal Post/Sophie Sandberg

Sandberg is currently a rising senior at New York University studying Gender and Sexuality.  The 21 year old told Journal Post that she became aware of catcalling at the mere age of 15. Growing up in New York, she said catcalling was common but still uncomfortable and that she “didn’t know how to respond to comments such as ‘hey beautiful’, ‘mmm sexy’, ‘good morning sweetheart’ etc.” She said that at her young age, these comments made her feel ‘powerless and silenced’. She started this protest as a class project back in 2016 to take back the control from those commenting senselessly on the streets.

Cat Calls of NYC

Cat Calls of NYC

She said, “Using the chalk to record instances of street harassment of NYC is my way of speaking back against this behavior that I endured silently for all those years. It’s a way of giving others a voice who also feel silenced, showing those who don’t have to deal with harassment what is going on and what is being said and hopefully encouraging those who do catcall to stop.

Cat Calls of NYC

Sandberg carries this project out by asking for submissions from her followers as well as the locations of where they were cat-called. Once a story of street harassment comes in, she goes to the location where it happened. Here, she finds the best place to chalk down the exact lines that were said to whoever has submitted the story. She added, “I’ve learned over the years that I can’t chalk in front of establishments or doorman buildings (I’ve been stopped before in those situations).

She writes down the comment, her Instagram handle, and #stopstreetharassment. She also uses the chalking opportunity to explain the project to people passing by so as to build awareness.

Cat Calls of NYC

Cat Calls of NYC

Sandberg emphasized that when she started this project, she could never have imagined it would expand to what it is today. She said that the growth of the project makes her both happy and sad, saying, “The fact that it’s grown to almost 30K has completely exceeded my expectations. It’s amazing. It also shows how widespread the problem is and how many people are facing street harassment.

Cat Calls of NYC

She is changing the sidewalks of New York City one chalked story at a time, but the process has also made its mark on her. She said, “This project has certainly changed me. I continue to be shocked by how vulgar the comments are that people send me. It illustrates an anger and disrespect towards women that I didn’t truly understand from my own experiences of catcalling.

Cat Calls of NYC

The project has also inspired in Sandberg a vision to do something more, and allowed her the chance to get in touch with people that can make it happen. She explained, “As this project continues to grow there have been many new opportunities for me. I’ve been able to collaborate with other feminist organizations and continue to get the word out about the project. I’ve been able to go on live TV to discuss the project. I’ve been able to travel to some of the different “catcallsof” sites and meet the women running the accounts around the world.

Cat Calls of NYC

The project originally started as an isolated attempt by Sandberg to fulfill class project requirements and to make a difference to her own environment, but it is now a worldwide phenomenon. Sandberg explained, “There are already over a dozen accounts worldwide including, catcallsofldn (London), catcallsofdenver, catcallsoverger (Germany), catcallsofparis, catcallsofams (Amsterdam), catcallsofnz (New Zealand), catcallsofflorence, catcallsofbristol, and many more starting up each day.

Cat Calls of NYC

According to Sandberg, “The project is really important for two main reasons. The first is to give people experiencing these comments a place to share them, and a whole community of support via the Instagram page. The second way the account seeks to make change is through educating people.

Cat Calls of NYC

The sidewalk drawings are meant to be as thought-provoking as they are meant to catch attention. She said, “They’re meant to provoke emotion and make people realize the severity of the behavior.”

Cat Calls of NYC

She wants her work to educate people and raise awareness, and ultimately hopes that it enlightens them as to how common the problem of street harassment is. If they realize it, it “hopefully makes them more likely to intervene when they see something happening.

Cat Calls of NYC

She hopes that this project inspires similar projects around the world (which it partly has already) and educates people. She personally wants to use the platform she now has to start going into school and teaching kids about appropriate public behavior from a young age. She explained the reason behind that particular aim, saying, “A lot of young girls contact me with story that happened to them in the hallways of their schools (that they think might be considered catcalling). Unfortunately, negative attitudes towards girls and women are often prevalent in schools as well as on the streets.”

Cat Calls of NYC

Currently, Sandberg is taking the project further with her event Chalk Back, scheduled for 21 July at Washington Square Park, New York City. According to Sandberg, “The Chalk Event is meant to build community and allow those facing harassment to share their story in a public way. It will be a peaceful rally against street harassment as everyone writes their own experiences of harassment in chalk around Washington Square Park. It will raise public awareness about the problem in a big way because everyone walking by will be exposed to the many comments people write.

Cat Calls of NYC

The participants will be receiving catalogs of the chalk drawings as well as submissions that Sandberg has not yet had a chance to post. Along with that, Sandberg had the innovative idea to try and equip women to educate men that catcall them on the streets. She explained, “We will also be handing out faux business cards for women to give to men who catcall them. The cards will not give the men their real information, rather they have the Mary Sue Rejection Hotline and the information for catcallsofnyc. This will equip women to better deal with harassment and hopefully make harassers aware of how damaging their behavior is.

Cat Calls of NYC

Sandberg also had a message for everyone that has ever been a victim of street harassment and has held themselves back from speaking out. She said, “If you are a victim  of street harassment, it’s important to share your story and speak back. If there’s something that is making you uncomfortable, chances are it’s making other people uncomfortable too. Don’t let instances of violence, however seemingly small, build up. Don’t carry them alone. We’re stronger together so it’s important to join forces with like-minded people to fight against injustices.”

Cat Calls of NYC

Using her own example as a way to inspire other victims of harassment to make a change, she said, “I started this project by myself with just an idea and some chalk and it has grown to be a global movement. This goes to show that you don’t need much to fight back. If you persevere you can resist and make change.

Cat Calls of NYC

If you are in the New York City area, you can sign up for Chalk Back here.

[Images: Instagram/Cat Calls of NYC]



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