How did you get started with street harassment activism?
I began to share stories of catcalling and harassment on @woman_a_day on Instagram after receiving many stories from young girls who wanted to be able to confide in someone. These stories came from all over the world, and I realised how pervasive and normalised public sexual harassment is. For the first time, I really thought about how ridiculous it was that I had accepted this behaviour.
One day I saw Sophie Sandberg's @catcallsofnyc which is an Instagram account based in New York for which Sophie writes catcalls in the place they happened with chalk. I loved this idea; the bright colours draw attention and stop passers-by in their tracks, but the words shock.
Then one night I was walking in Bristol. I was on Anchor Road with my friend, a tall man when a man walking towards me started shouting to me. He came up to my face and said: "I am going to rape you." He looked into my eyes and laughed as he saw me speechless with shock, and he repeated it over and over again as he walked past. It was then that I realised that the kinds of people who harass others on the street feel completely safe, within their rights and fearless of any consequences, meanwhile the victims are often embarrassed and shocked, and at times, afraid of what could happen next, especially if they speak up.
I felt angry and completely helpless, and then guilty for not doing anything because I had no idea what he might go on to do to someone else. Inspired by Sophie's activism in New York, I contacted her and decided to do the same in Bristol. "I am going to rape you" became my first chalking.
After moving to Brighton, I realised I was naïve to think public sexual harassment wouldn’t be happening here. I started @catcallsofbrighton to continue to raise awareness of this problem in my local area after I was asked for a massage and shouted at outside my home.
I believe chalking back is effective because it brings the issue back into the public area and confronts the reader with this issue; that harassment has occurred in this exact spot, that this happens every day and is something that many of us experience, witness or think about on a daily basis. Everyone is part of fixing this problem.
What are your aims?
The aim of the project is primarily about raising awareness of peoples' experiences in the hope of reducing public sexual harassment. I want those who argue "it's just words" or "it's a compliment" to understand that this is simply not true.
Street harassment can range from perhaps more ‘well-intentioned’ and patronising comments like "Smile, love!" to explicit sexual harassment like "Sit on my face!", to threats like "I'll break your legs you slag”; but all of this is unacceptable. To comment on a woman's appearance and reduce her to an object in the street is sexist, and no matter how extreme the comments might be, they are part of an experience that contributes to us modifying our behaviour. We change our clothes to not draw attention, change our routes to work to avoid building sites, walk each other home to feel safe and hold our keys between our fingers in case the man with the "well-intentioned" comment gets angry when you don't respond. This modification of behaviour not only infringes on our rights to feel safe and free in public spaces but contributes to low-confidence and self-esteem, as well as long-term mental health issues.
I want to end this.
It is even more problematic that girls are learning from a very young age that their appearance is up for public commentary and scrutiny; they are learning all too young that women are over-sexualised and objectified. This is reflected in the number of young girls who contact the @catcallsof pages all over the world with stories about their catcalling experiences. A large proportion of the girls report being catcalled in school uniform on their way to or from school. In Bristol, studies show that the majority of people who have experienced catcalling first experienced it between the ages of 10 and 15. (see http://www.bristolzerotolerance.com/about-2/why-do-we-need-bristol-zero-tolerance/). Sometimes I write the age of the girl who has been catcalled in the chalking itself so that the prevalence of this issue is more apparent. "Hey! Nice arse!" suddenly becomes a lot more disturbing when you can see that it was shouted at a 13-year-old girl.
Stopping this from being a taboo subject for those who are harassed, and allowing them space to talk about what experience, without blaming them for what they are wearing is a start. The more we talk, and share our perspective, the more likely we are to get through to the bystander who usually ignores catcalling when they see it. Perhaps we can get through to the guy who usually says nothing when his friend shouts at women from the car. Maybe one day those who participate in catcalling and harassment may one day be able to challenge their thought process and think twice before they disrespect us.
I hope to go about this project with an intersectional feminist lens; an understanding that the intersections of our identities dictate our experience in the world. For example, women of colour, LGBT+ people, and people with disabilities are more likely to experience harassment and violence. Women of colour experience multiple disadvantages as they face racism as well as sexism when they walk the street; and are often fetishized in the catcalls they receive. I hope that in chalking such examples of catcalling we can become more aware of how those who differ from us experience their everyday lives.
Currently, there are over 80 active worldwide catcalling accounts, and many more are getting started, showing this truly is a universal problem. I will continue to chalk up the streets of Bristol and Brighton with these stories to empower myself and others to shine a light on misogyny, and to de-normalise public sexual harassment in our part of the world.