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Catcalling in NYC: How to fight back against street harassment – Gothamist



Published Jul 2, 2023
Published Jul 2, 2023
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Street harassment, often referred to as catcalling, is something most of us have watched happen on New York City streets, and a great deal of people experience it themselves on a daily basis. A study commissioned by L'Oreal Paris and One Poll found that 46% of those who have experienced public harassment, say they've gone through more of it in the past five years than at any other time in their lives.
Sophie Sandberg co-founded Catcalls of NYC, and Emily May co-founded Right to Be, formally known as Hollaback!, an organization that helps people take action against harassment. They both joined WNYC’s Morning Edition to discuss the issue.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sophie Sandberg: In public space, we really want to draw attention to the word for word phrases of sexual harassment. A lot of people ignore harassment, say it's not a big deal, say catcalling is a compliment. So we really want to draw in passers by and make them see that these words are in no way a compliment, are extremely vulgar, they're extremely explicit, threatening. And then beyond that, when we post on social media, we want to educate people about the range of comments of sexual harassment of cat calling.
Sandberg: In public space, the reactions are really varied. Sometimes people are angry, upset, shocked, you know, they'll splash it with water, because they're just so upset and angry about the vulgarity of the words. And then oftentimes, people are really, really grateful to see stories of sexual harassment talked about and shared.
Sandberg: The impact of street harassment is huge. I mean, a lot of girls, in particular LGBTQ youth, start facing it from a young age like 11, 12 13. And this impacts their whole experience of being out in public space. It impacts how they feel about themselves and their bodies, what clothing they wear. People will tell us that they throw out the shirt that they were wearing when they were first catcalled or the cover up more because they're experiencing harassment, or they'll never walk down the same street because they were so scared.
Sandberg: I think first and foremost, the support that people facing harassment need is to feel validated in their response because there's been so much of this, "it's not a big deal. It's flirting. It's it's, you know, don't take it so seriously." When we're able to step in and say, of course, you feel that way. This is horrible. This is not okay," that provides a validation that is really missing, oftentimes when it comes to street harassment. And then beyond that, people need to step in and say something, if they see it happening, people need to do something and take it seriously in public space, so that folks facing harassment, have support and don't feel so alone and isolated when it happens.
Emily May: So anybody can get trained for free at And a lot of what we train people on is how to intervene when they see harassment happening. So all that stuff Sophie was just talking about whether it be verbal slurs, touching, groping, stares. There's five D's of bystander intervention that we teach at Right To Be. So the first one is distract, creating a distraction to de escalate the situation. Maybe it's about starting a conversation with the person who experienced the harassment about something unrelated. The second D is delegate. So this is about finding somebody else to help. Number three is document. We all have cell phone cameras, but the trick to this one is that we want you to take that documentation and give it back to the person who was harassed, giving them the power to decide what happens with their story next. The fourth one is delay that simple check in Are you okay? Do you need anything? How can I support you? And the fifth is, direct. This is the one that people think about when they think about bystander intervention. But you don't have to swoop down in superhero spandex to intervene. You can very simply set that boundary, "hey, stop talking to her like that, or why don't you step away?"
May: So when people experience harassment, there's a lot of ways that you can respond, but there's also some ways that maybe you should think about not responding. One of those is to escalate the situation. The most common way we see people escalating the situation is to get in a back and forth with the person doing the harassing or even becoming violent. At Right To Be we always say you don't want to harass the harasser, you have to ultimately disrupt it. And we see a lot of young people not being skilled and how to do this, who are showing up and escalating it inadvertently. And your goal as somebody being harassed in that moment, or somebody intervening, is the safety of yourself and the person who is being harassed.
May: So talking about those verbal comments on the streets; staring, leering. We don't want to see an increase in criminalization and here's why: The number one reason is because we are scared that an increase in criminalization will lead to disproportionate attacks on communities of color and low-income communities. We believe that harassment is a cultural problem, and then it requires a cultural solution. And it's not anybody's culture in particular, it's a culture of sexism. It's a culture of homophobia. It's a culture of racism. And it's on all of us to address and change that culture.
May: So New York City government is doing some pretty cool stuff on street harassment, they're actually leading the way on this issue. Ever since 2010, they had the first ever hearing on street harassment in the City Council, in the world. And now they have put together a task force to address street harassment that I'm honored to be a part of, to make recommendations to the mayor on how to show up on this issue. They also have a resolution put forward by Councilmember Crystal Hudson that is looking at mandating bystander intervention in schools for all middle- and high-schoolers all across the city. And the intention here is that if we teach young people how to take care of each other, they're already intervening at a sky-high rate, but they're doing it in ways that aren't necessarily safe.
Gothamist is funded by sponsors and member donations
Gothamist is funded by sponsors and member donations
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