Growing up in New York City, I’ve been dealing with catcalling for a long time. Even before I was 15, I remember men whispering at me and my friends in cars. I didn’t feel like there was a good way to respond to it. I felt silenced by these comments — I’d just keep walking. I forced myself to believe it was OK for someone to call out, “Hey, beautiful” on the streets even though I felt uncomfortable.
As a freshman in college, I was given an assignment to immerse myself in something and then document it in on social media. The project, Catcalls of NYC, gave me the opportunity to respond to catcalling in a different way.
I came up with the idea to actually chalk the words of catcallers on sidewalks and post them on Instagram, creating a collage of different catcalls. The most troubling part of catcalling is that people say they’re just words, or that it’s a compliment. I wanted to take those actual words and show people it’s not just words — they have a really big impact when you’re walking down the street.
At first I was writing about my own and my friends’ experiences. Slowly, people would find my account and message me their experiences to write down on the streets of NYC. Right after the #MeToo movement in December 2017, my account went viral and grew from 900 to 10,000 followers overnight. It’s then that I realized a lot of people care about this and a lot of people need to share their story.
Catcalls of NYC has become such a huge part of my identity. It’s made me grow to be really unapologetic in condemning all forms of harassment and discrimination in the public space. I found the power to say “I don’t feel OK with that.”
It’s unbelievable to see the plethora of stories people open up about. They are looking to be believed and to be heard. If you’re an empathetic person, you’re reading their stories and trying to respond in a way that makes them feel supported — but it’s hard to read more than one story at a time and set boundaries. I’ve learned to cope by taking breaks, as well as by assembling a team to build this community and continue the conversation online and offline.
I’ve found that a great place for dialogue, especially in NYC, is on the street. When you’re chalking, a lot of people stop to see what you’re writing and to talk to you. It’s something special because normally nobody ever stops for anything here. It’s important to build community, but it’s a rare thing since people in NYC don’t often talk to each other.
A few days ago, I talked to a guy who mentioned how he used to catcall with his friend. They were practicing how to flirt, and it was a way for them to bond. He thought seeing the words chalked on the street was disgusting, and never wanted people to go around saying those things.
Having conversation is such an important tool both on social media and also on our streets. If someone is genuinely asking, “Sorry, I don’t understand, I would’ve thought this was a compliment, but please explain,” that’s where the change can come from too. I’m learning how to engage allies who have room to change and grow. Before, I was so strong in believing, “Well this is harassment, you should understand it immediately.” But we don’t talk enough to those people who are maybe somewhere in the middle and learning. In the end, we are all learning.