Sophie Sandberg on the Fight to End Street Harassment
Updated: Sep 16, 2021
By Sophie Sandberg
Sophie Sandberg tells us about her "Chalk Back" movement and the fight to end gender-based street harassment.
“Last Summer my family and I went to New York for a vacation and we decided to ride the subway. I was 17 at the time and due to a lack of seating, I had to stand while the rest of my family sat in the subway car. A middle aged guy was standing behind me and I didn’t think anything of it since it was crowded until he began grinding himself against me when the train started moving. I froze in fear and didn’t say anything until he groaned in my ear and whispered ‘imagine what I’d do to you if we were alone.’ I started crying and called for my dad. We got off at the next stop.”
This is just one of the many messages sent in via DM to my Instagram account @catcallsofnyc and a prime example of the street harassment women, girls and femmes endure on the daily.
Before I talk about my org, it is important to have an understanding of what street harassment is and who it affects. Street harassment is a form of gender-based sexual harassment which has recently come into the fore as more and more women and girls have started sharing their experiences of street harassment with the public. According to an international study conducted by L’Oreal Paris in 2019, over 78% of women have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. This can range from staring and suggestive whistling, to unwanted sexual comments, groping and indecent exposure. Public sexual harassment is a global issue that leaves many girls, women and LGBTQ+ individuals feeling unsafe and can have lasting effects on mental and emotional wellbeing.
78% of women have experienced sexual harassment in public places.
I started “chalking back” in my home of NYC in 2016. Inspired by my own experiences with street harassment – which had been occurring since the age of fifteen – I decided that enough was enough. I was frustrated that this predatory behaviour was often minimized as “no big deal” and that victims often ended up feeling silenced and dismissed. So when I had an assignment for a university writing class to immerse myself in something and document it on social media, I decided to address street harassment. I started collecting my own stories, and then those of friends and strangers, and would “chalk” them into the streets of NYC where the incidents had occurred. Then, I would post them on Instagram under the handle @catcallsofnyc where they would collect traction and inspire dialogue on the issue.
I started “chalking back” in my home of NYC in 2016.
Over the next few years, I continued to dedicate myself to this work and found that the project had gained momentum and many people from across the world had started to participate. This was becoming a global fight against sexism, femmephobia and our wider society’s rape culture. Flash forward to the present day and there are @catcallsof accounts in 150 cities around the world, spread across 49 countries over 6 continents.
Flash forward to the present day and there are @catcallsof accounts in 150 cities around the world
We call ourselves “Chalk Back” and we are an international youth-led movement against gender-based street harassment. Catcalling knows no boundaries, and neither does youth activism.
Below are excerpts from interviews with young people involved with Chalk Back making change in their communities. We believe that everyone deserves to exist in public spaces free from harassment and we won’t stop chalking until that is the case.
When people passing by see our messages on the street, their common reaction is discomfort, perhaps even a feeling of being targeted themselves. This is precisely how street-harassment victims feel when they are catcalled. The idea of chalking back is powerful, not only because it is in your face, but because it tells a story. An unheard narrative. Oftentimes, activism is targeted towards a specific audience, but Chalking Back is not. It is grassroots and rooted in agency and taking up public space.
Natasha and Maya, Co-Founders of @catcallsofottawa
Gender-based violence in South Africa is five times the global average. People here tend to believe that only “extreme” cases of sexual harassment are notable and that “lesser” forms of catcalling are not gender-based violence at all. Chalking Back gives the power of storytelling to those affected by issues that would ordinarily not be spoken about. - Gadeeja, Founder of @catcallsofcapetown
- Credit: @catcallsofcapetown
When it comes to making positive change, sometimes an issue can feel too large to approach. Chalk Back is proof that an action, no matter how small, can make a difference. When I first started getting catcalled, I felt silenced, confused, and alone. Now I am part of an amazing global movement against street harassment. I feel hopeful for the future we can achieve together.
- Credit: @catcallofdelhi
I think “chalking back” is a good method to raise awareness of gender-based violence because it is quick, efficient and easy to accomplish. When someone walks by, they are drawn to the colourful nature of the chalking. However when they read the messages – which are in stark contrast to the prettiness of the chalking – the passerby naturally feels uncomfortable.”
- Ambrien, Founder of @catcallsofams (Amsterdam)
This is just a peek at the work that is happening on streets around the world. For more information about Chalk Back, you can follow @chalkbackorg on Instagram. To get involved in the project, you can visit www.chalkback.org .
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sophie Sandberg is a gender justice advocate and founder of Catcalls of NYC. She leads Chalk Back, an international youth-led org that uses chalk art to combat street harassment. Sophie is also an inaugural fellow of the Vital Voices and Tresemmé Leadership Incubator and has given talks at UNESCO'S Media Information Literacy Conference in Gothenburg and UNESCO's World Cities Day in Paris. Follow Sophie's work at @catcallsofnyc on IG!