How Sophie Sandberg Uses The Power of Art to Battle Sexual Harassment

Image: Eliza Hatch

Image: Eliza Hatch

With nearly 150,000 followers on Instagram, Catcalls of NYC is combating every day street sexual harassment with the power of art. Taking a unique approach to battle unwanted catcalls directed at many women daily, Catcalls of NYC displays the lewd comments on the streets of New York City using chalk, allowing passersby to understand exactly what many women deal with on a daily basis. Behind this incredibly inspirational work, there is an equally inspiring woman. Meet Sophie Sandberg.

Tell us more about yourself and what led you to start this initiative!

I’m Sophie. I just graduated from NYU with a degree in Gender and Sexuality. I grew up in New York City and that’s what inspired me to start Catcalls of NYC. Starting at age 15, I would get catcalled frequently— on my way to work, on my walk to the school bus, running errands with friends etc. I still remember my first experience with catcalling: I was on my way to my first day of a summer job at age 15. I had gotten dressed up— a purple sun dress and white sandals-- to make a good impression on my boss. All I remember from that day is that at almost every block, a new man would say something to me. “Hey beautiful” “Gorgeous” “You’re sexy” etc. etc. I had no idea what to say or do. I felt so extremely uncomfortable in my body, and self conscious in public space. I ended up feeling like the harassment was somehow my fault because of what I was wearing. Not knowing that catcalling was a common behavior, I thought that I must be provoking the behavior.

This feeling of being objectified and silenced— and somehow feeling like I was at fault— was a catalyst for the project. Unable to respond in the moment, I wanted to find some way to speak back against this behavior. So I decided to write the comments on the street in sidewalk chalk where they were happening along with the handle @catcallsofnyc and the hashtag #stopstreetharassment. This way, I could bring the comments back to these spaces and make people who wouldn’t normally face harassment feel the impact of these words. I also wanted to provide a space for people to talk about the harassment they face on the Instagram account.

“Slow down… Just let me lick your shoulder”

“Slow down… Just let me lick your shoulder”

“Don’t be afraid sweetheart.. I’ll only hurt a little…”

“Don’t be afraid sweetheart.. I’ll only hurt a little…”

“You better learn to answer a man when he speaks to you!”

“You better learn to answer a man when he speaks to you!”

What is the mission behind your work, and why do you believe it's important that these messages are displayed? 

The mission behind my work is to allow for voices that are normally silenced or marginalized to be seen and heard. I hope that the Instagram account and the sidewalk chalk provide a platform and medium for a collective fight against street harassment. These messages must be displayed publicly because that’s the point — they’re happening in public! People are so shocked that I write these quotes on public sidewalks, but that’s where they’re being said in the first place. Displaying the messages on public streets helps people understand how jarring and upsetting it would be to hear these words said to you when you’re walking down the street.

Submitted by Lauren Cohen: Do you believe that art has the power to combat the normalization of everyday sexual harassment?

Absolutely! Art is extremely powerful because it allows its viewers to feel things they wouldn’t normally feel. For example, I think it can be hard to try to explain certain experiences to others who haven’t faced the same things— whether that’s harassment, microagressions, etc.— these are often things that are belittled and normalized. By using art to illustrate the experience, there’s more potential to make people empathetic to these experiences, rather than dismissive. 

Submitted by Zoe Rivera: While the intersectionality of your incredible work is evident, how have you seen the disproportionate effects of the hypersexualization women of colour ignored by other mainstream "artivist" movements?

I think many “artivist” movements flat-out ignore intersectionality. When movements use the term “women,” it flattens and simplifies experiences into one category. For example, if they’re talking about wage inequality or gaining the right to vote — it’s not really appropriate to just talk about “women” as a group, when white women and women of color are and always have been in different positions in this struggle. Women is not a singular experience. While white women are harassed because of their gender, women of color are harassed because of their gender and fetishized because of their race. Trans and gender-nonconforming folks are harassed for their gender expression in violent ways. And as we’ve seen recently, trans women of color are disproportionately killed simply for existing. More and more, there’s attention paid to marginalized identities and intersectionality, but I think to continue using the word “women” without recognizing the ways in which violence targets specific parts of peoples’ identities is pretty harmful. 

Submitted by Zoe Rivera: Has is it ever been difficult to balance the commercialization/growing visibility of your work with equally representing those who are marginalized and affected by sexual harassment?

I try not to commercialize my account too much. But occasionally if I have the opportunity to advertise, and I believe the brand is in line with my mission, I will repost photos from a brand to make a little bit of money for something that is otherwise completely unpaid. This has occasionally been difficult because some of the brands who have asked to advertise don’t have as intersectional of a lens as I would like. I’ve denied advertising shirts that are too “cis” — for example one shirt I was asked to advertise had images of ovaries on it— which wouldn’t be inclusive to the trans community. Going forward, I’m always looking for brands led by marginalized creatives to amplify their message and product.  

Image: Spencer Pratt/Getty Images

Image: Spencer Pratt/Getty Images

Our mission as a magazine and publication is to "dare to defy" boundaries, expectations, and barriers - how have you been "defiant" in your own work?

When I’m out chalking I have to be defiant because so many people ask me to stop chalking or criticize my work. Many people call my work vandalism or claim I’m corrupting their innocent children. Someone said I was disgusting for writing one of the catcalls. One of the chalkers who contributes to the account was even arrested for chalking. People are so upset that we are bringing attention to this behavior in public. They’re upset that we’re addressing something that happens every single day on these very streets. We must be defiant because they’re will always be people who claim that our problems are “no big deal;” that we should just ignore the harassment we face. We must be defiant to fight against issues that have been normalized for so long.