One characteristic of street harassment —or catcalling—is that it generally happens fast. A man yells, "Hey baby!" from a moving car, or someone says, "Nice ass," after you've already walked by. It happens so fast, and then it's over, and anyone who may have seen it happen can go on acting like it never did and move on with their day.
For almost two years, a student in New York City has been trying to change that. Since March 2016, Sophie Sandberg, a gender and sexuality junior at New York University, has been using vibrant sidewalk chalk to give a little more permanence to the catcalls and harassment people have had tossed at them around the city. She documents her work on an Instagram account, @catcallsofNYC, where she also asks people to DM her instances of street harassment, and where they took place, so she can document even more.
So far, Sandberg said she's written 101 phrases around New York. "These catcalls happen all around NYC and Brooklyn and Queens," she said. "The most time-consuming part is traveling to the spot where they happened." She lives in downtown Manhattan and plans trips out to sidewalk destinations in other boroughs on the weekend. Once she's gotten to a spot where someone says they've been catcalled, she said it only takes about 10 minutes to get out the chalk and write it down.
A lot of Sandberg's submissions come from people who were harassed on the subway or in a subway station, and those she writes near the station where it took place. "Of course there is a lot of sexual harassment that doesn't happen in public spaces, in the workplace, etc.," she said. "I haven't found a way to incorporate that into the project yet but I've thought about trying it in the future."
Sandberg grew up around the city and knows how often street harassment happens. But since working on the catcall project, she's learned new things about how dangerous it can be. "I didn't realize how often catcalling could escalate into being followed down the street or being physically harassed," she said. "The stories I receive via DM show that catcalling usually involves more than just comments. Many instances pose a serious threat to the safety of those being harassed."
She also noticed another theme in the stories she's gotten from New Yorkers. "A lot of submissions show the intersection between racism and sexism," she said, and gave some examples she's drawn that include racial slurs. "People's experience of street harassment is dependent on their racial and gender identity."
Sandberg hopes that by literally drawing attention to sexist and racist things people say to strangers on the street —and by documenting them more permanently on Instagram—more people will see street harassment as a serious threat to a person's safety. "I hope that my project exposes that street harassment is more than just words—it's a big deal. I hope that it forces people who don't normally deal with harassment to put themselves in our shoes and become better bystanders."
For Sandberg, documenting the catcalls isn't necessarily just about shutting catcallers up. It's about calling bystanders to action, and hopefully creating a culture where people are more likely to intervene when they see someone being harassed or followed in a public space.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.