Interview with Instagram’s ”Catcalls of NYC”

I’ve been following Sophie on @catcallsofnyc through Instagram for a year or two before deciding to reach out to her for an interview. She willingly and happily agreed to a set of 6 questions answered through email. My thanks to Sophie for being kind enough to allow this interview to happen!

What is @catcallsofnyc?

@catcallsofnyc is an Instagram account that collects stories of street harassment and circulates them through public spaces — the street and social media — by turning the words into colorful chalk art on the sidewalks of NYC.

When did you start @catcallsofnyc?

I started @catcallsofnyc on March 29th, 2016 — a little bit over two years ago.

What drove you to start @catcallsofnyc?

Growing up in New York City, I experienced catcalling from a young age and I hated it. Most of the comments I received were so-called “compliments”— like “Hey, Sexy,” “Good morning Beautiful” and these made me extremely uncomfortable because I had no idea how to respond. Should I say thank you? Or smile? Usually, I just kept walking with my head down.  As I continued to grow up in NYC, I became more and more frustrated.  No one was talking about catcalling, and if they did they would mainly chalk it up to an annoyance — something you just have to deal with.  But for me, it was more than just annoying. It affected how I felt walking down the street — sometimes it made me feel like not even going outside, or avoiding all men on the street (which is impossible) or changing what I was wearing to not provoke any comments (but that never worked either).  I decided to start @catcallsofnyc as a way to draw attention to this problematic behavior and how prevalent it is. I wanted people walking down the street to see the words that were being used to catcall. I also wanted to give the people facing harassment a place to share their stories to help them feel that they are not alone.

What was your first experience with catcalling?

My first experience with catcalling was at 15 years old. I had a job downtown at a bakery.  It was my first day and I had decided to get dressed up in a lavender dress and sandals.  On the half mile walk from the subway stop to the bakery, approximately 10 men catcalled me. I was so taken aback by each comment. I had no idea how to respond. These comments made me feel so uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt like everyone was watching me and judging my appearance. Each block felt like a new hurtle and every man felt like a threat. The worst part about this experience was that I was completely unequipped to deal with it. No one had told me about catcalling so I didn’t know what was going on.  I felt like it was my fault — I thought my dress must be too short, or too low-cut. I didn’t realize that this happened all the time so I assumed I was the one provoking this behavior.

What is it like when you’re chalking? Do you experience negativity or positivity?

I experience both positivity and negativity when I’m chalking. I often have women come up to me and say things like “Wow, this is really powerful” or “This sounds really familiar, thanks for drawing attention to this.” These responses are extremely encouraging. I’ve had men come up to me, and they are often so surprised that people actually say these things. It’s hard for them to believe how vulgar and extreme these comments are because they’ve never heard anything like it before. I clarify that these comments are very real — as unbelievable as they might seem. I try to talk to them about how widespread the issue is and encourage them to intervene if they see something happening.

The most negative responses I’ve received are from people who are appalled that I would be writing such disgusting things on the sidewalk — sometimes people even call it vandalism. They are upset that I am writing inappropriate words in spaces where children might see them. Sometimes, they say what I’m doing is disgusting.  They don’t realize that I am trying to raise awareness about what has already been said. In my opinion, we should teach children about catcalling, rather than shielding them from it. If we teach young people about catcalling, they will be able to deal with it in better ways when they get older.

Ironically, I’ve also had men catcall me when writing the chalk. One man even persistently tried to get my number and got angry when I walked away. He certainly didn’t get the point of the project. Overall, chalking can be exciting and a great way to talk to people about the issue of street harassment. But it can also lead to these complicated situations.

Do you have any future plans or goals for your Instagram page?

One of my goals for the Instagram page is for it to prompt people all around the world to start “catcallsof” accounts — and that’s happening right now. People are starting accounts all over the world — from Massachusetts to Mexico to Morocco. I’m so happy that my account inspired people in other places to raise awareness about street harassment.

Another goal I have for the Instagram page is to start collaborating with other feminists, activists, and artists.  I want to start new collaborative art projects about social issues — not limited to street harassment. There are many other contemporary issues — like gun violence, sexual violence, police brutality etc. I would be interested in teaming up with other people to draw attention to these issues in creative and public ways.

What advice do you have for women and men being catcalled in the streets?

Know you’re not alone. Being catcalled can feel like an isolating experience. To combat this, it’s good to talk to friends about your experience or message me on @catcallsofnyc. Sharing your story of harassment is a powerful thing. At the moment, it can be hard to respond to the person who catcalled you. It’s easy to feel powerless and silenced.  By sharing your story, you have power to slowly change the normalization of catcalling. By speaking up, you can contribute to changing the culture that has accepted catcalling for so long.

Who is your biggest activist inspiration?

I am inspired by so many activists. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh started the art series Stop Telling Women to Smile to combat street harassment. She draws portraits of women with a caption that speaks directly to the offender. This project was part of my inspiration in starting @catcallsofnyc. Emily May started the global nonprofit, Hollaback!, that seeks to combat harassment worldwide by sharing stories and conducting bystander intervention training. These women are just a few who inspire me with the amazing work they’re doing.


Featured Photo: (@catcallsofnyc Instagram page)


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