Chalking up sexual harassment in a public area

The international chalk back movement is using coloured chalk and social media to raise global awareness of a form of harassment to which a large proportion of the world population is regularly exposed. Founded in New York by artist and gender justice activist Sophie Sandberg, there are now 150 local groups worldwide. They call themselves ‘Catcalls of’ plus the name of the city in which they are actively combating normalised harassment in public. This name is derived from the English noun catcall, which relates to loud, lewd comments expressed to someone in a public area. No matter whether these are abusive comments, suggestive whistles or lewd gestures, the effect of these catcalls on those affected is almost always the same – degrading and potentially intimidating. This network of activists seeks to rebel against them.

With regard to those affected, researcher Candis E. Bond, who conducts research into English literature, women and gender, has determined that: ‘Victims of street harassment face intersectional forms of oppression.’ This means that the harassment does not refer merely to a person's ascribed gender, but is often interlaced with other categories like origin, race, class, weight or sexuality.

What is it that motivates the activists?

You receive a variety of answers when you ask the founders of Catcalls of Schorndorf why they head out onto the street of Schorndorf in their free time to record acts of verbalised sexual harassment in chalk. ‘Because we want to show that the forms of sexual harassment that we’ve all long since internalised as 'normal', are not normal at all!’; ‘To counteract the powerlessness we feel when we experience the transgressions that women and other socially marginalised people experience’; ‘To empower others.’

Each time that Jeanette, Tania and Liliana receive news informing them of a new act of harassment, they travel to the scene of the crime. There they use chalk to write on the ground the words of the person who harassed someone else in a verbally sexual manner, followed by the hashtag #stopptbelästigungen (stop all harassment). Then they photograph what they’ve written and share the image together with a comment via their Instagram channel. Their aim is to create awareness of the problems associated with sexual harassment in a public place.

The problem: patriarchal power structures

Catcalling is predicated on a very specific attitude: the person sexually harassing someone else in public feels superior to them and is convinced they have the right to eroticise, comment on, touch and humiliate them, in short to ascribe to them no more than the status of an object. This attitude finds its origin in patriarchal power structures – the very power structures on which most societies are based. These structures make men the norm and endow them with certain statuses and privileges that are not equally available to women and other socially marginalised groups.

Many of these privileges are very obvious, just consider the difference in earnings between the sexes, others are more subtle – the fact for example that we often attribute more authority to a deeper male voice than a female one. This has far-reaching consequences, since this way of listening makes women's articulation dwindle, or it only gains gravitas when repeated by a man (‘hepeated’).

Another privilege is being able to walk along a street without being implicitly or explicitly blamed for the assault in the event of a sexual harassment. People who have experienced acts of harassment, very often women, are frequently asked what they were wearing at the time of the crime. This is based on the sexist assumption that a woman provoked the assault because she was wearing a skirt, for example.

In countries like France, Belgium, Portugal or the Netherlands, catcalling is now considered to be a punishable offence and can result in severe fines in some cases. In most other countries, however, it is not yet punished. Student Antonia Quell launched a petition in Germany in 2020 calling for catcalling to become a misdemeanour. This petition is currently before the Federal Ministry of Justice. Let’s hope that Quell’s efforts will be successful.

Author: Rebecca Hahn



  • Dr. Rebecca Hahn Dr. Rebecca Hahn

Dr Rebecca Kate Hahn is an associate researcher at the Centre for Gender and Diversity Studies at the University of Tübingen. She was awarded a DAAD scholarship and was initially employed as a DAAD language assistant at the ‘Alexandru Ioan Cuza’ University of Iasi in Romania after which, as a DAAD scholarship holder, she went to University College London, Great Britain, where she has completed the first year of her PhD in English Literature. Rebecca Hahn writes about socio-political and cultural topics and issues for the Alumniportal.

What do you think?

Why are catcalls often still dismissed as supposed compliments? What can each individual do to take a stand against sexual harassment? Share your view and your experiences with the community.

To the Community

May 2021