Who is behind @catcallsofNYC?

In March of 2016, then NYU first year Sophie Sandberg was assigned a project in a writing seminar. She had to create a digital platform about something she was passionate about. This was the birth of the street art movement and Instagram account @catcallsofNYC.

Catcalling is all too familiar to women and girls in urban areas. According to a 2019 survey conducted by ‘The Telegraph,’ 84% of women experience a form of street harassment before the age of seventeen, and many first experience catcalling as young as eleven years old.

At fifteen, when Sandberg was catcalled for the first time, she rushed home to tell her parents. “My dad said that I should dress differently… He meant well, but he said that I should cover up more as to not provoke attention,” said Sandberg. “I felt like the only thing I could do to change this was to change what I was wearing; I couldn’t change the reality of street harassment. And I couldn’t respond in the moment because it could be unsafe or provoke more harassment.

Spencer McQuaig
Sandberg checking her work for the chosen catcall, “Can I have your number?”

In her first year of college, Sandberg discovered a new way to respond to harassment. She came up with the idea to gather the stories, usually over direct message, of women and girls around New York City who have experienced street harassment, and then travel to the location of the catcall and chalk the quote on the ground.
Sandberg wanted to visually demonstrate how serious and damaging it is to walk down the street and hear vulgar, suggestive language. “I wanted to raise awareness and show people how frequent this behavior really is,” Sandberg said. “When you’re catcalled, you’re objectified, but when you write it, you become an agent to take the power away from the catcaller.”
The goal of the account, outside of fighting catcalling, was to provide a space where victims all around the world could share their stories. “I wanted to make sure that these victims can have a place to be heard and to be believed.”

Catcalls of NYC gathered more attention than Sandberg originally expected. The account has 171,000 followers and has amassed 18,000 visits to the profile in the last week. There are now over 150 @catcallsof accounts around the world, from Rome and London to LA and Hanover. “I never pictured it growing like this – it was just a class project,” Sandberg said. “But it’s so exciting and invigorating. The growth can be overwhelming, though.”

Unfortunately, though, the growth allowed for negative attention as well as positive. In the comments of @catcallsofNYC, victims are often attacked by claims that invalidate the movement, often aggressively. More seriously, Sandberg has been stalked online by someone who created fake @catcallsof accounts to harass her and her friends through direct message and even her personal cell phone number. “It’s really ironic; it just shows how people get so upset by activists trying to fight back against something and change social norms,” said Sandberg. The online harassment still has not stopped, even after Sandberg contacted Instagram and the police, who did not believe her.

In the month of September, on @catcallsofNYC, Sandberg expanded her focus from street harassment to school harassment. This harassment includes bullying and teasing in a sexual manner as well as reporting the story to the school with no action taken.

“I was getting a lot of messages from students about harassment in their schools,” Sandberg said. “I was noticing that there was a lot of overlap in what happened on the street versus what happened in schools to young people who didn’t know what to do about it. I felt like schools weren’t taking action. So many people have stories.” Sandberg hopes that the school harassment series will be a call to action for some schools to start doing something about it.

Spencer McQuaig
Sophie Sandberg, founder of @catcallsofNYC.

“One of my goals for the account is to do a workshop or program in schools that teaches about harassment.” Sandberg strives to create a world where women and girls can feel safe walking down the street and school hallways.

Spencer McQuaig
Sophie Sandberg finishes up the catcall with the words, “#StopStreetHarassment.”