Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Emelia - I’m originally from NYC and I lived in Seattle for 10 years, but now I’m going to college at Temple University in Philadelphia where I’m studying Psychology. I’m also very interested in visual arts and I make a lot of art. I love being an activist and reminding people that you can create change in little ways even if you don’t have the time or resources to do big things!
When did you start your account?
I started @catcallsofphiladelphia in mid-August of 2019.
Why were you inspired to start an account?
I have always gone to school in the city and get catcalled and harassed daily on my way to school and back home. Getting catcalled is absolutely paralyzing when you experience it first hand, and although many women - including myself - think up witty comebacks to catcalls, you almost never get to use them. It really shuts you down in the moment. You are being stripped of your identity and being told that you are nothing but an object to look at and touch. And after you experience that, to hear somebody say “it’s just a compliment” makes you feel so lonely and invalid. It’s gaslighting. This movement allows people to tell their stories of street harassment and really raise awareness through it - but also helps people understand the experience, and that’s why I started my account.
Why do you think “chalking back” is a good method to raise awareness?
There’s something very powerful about writing the catcall in the place where it was said to someone. It adds a layer of “oh, this really happened - right here” to those who read it. You hear about street harassment a lot, but when you see it physically like that, it allows that story to reach people differently. I believe it’s powerful to write down these stories in any form - but especially on the street for this reason. Sometimes after I’m done chalking a catcall I’ll sit somewhere nearby - it’s really fascinating to see how many people react to it. People will stop, look, comment on it to their friends, take a picture - it really pays off to see people interacting with these stories, and in a way, experiencing a tiny piece of that story as they’re walking down the street. I believe those stories speak to people differently when they’re on the sidewalk.
Why do you think ending street harassment is important?
Street harassment is terrifying, in a way that you don’t realize until it happens to you. For me, as a woman, it affects what I choose to wear and feel confident in, and it reminds me that so many people see me as an object to sexualize. Getting catcalled can affect a whole day for me - my confidence in school, my willingness to speak up for myself, how comfortable I feel in my own skin... it silences you and crushes your confidence. Not only that but how we treat strangers reflects our whole society. If you allow groups of people and communities to be taunted and harassed on your streets, that will be reflected to every part of your society. If we fight to end street harassment, this will also be reflected to all aspects of our society and set an example for everyone in it.
What’s your favorite thing about your city?
I love the history here. The first American art museum is here, first zoo, first public library, first hospital... the list goes on. I think something great about being in Philly today is the contrast between all of this history, and the history that’s being made - bringing the Chalk Back movement to Philly contributes to the history we’re creating, and the story we choose to write for future generations in this city, and in this world.
How can your city better address street harassment?
It’s absolutely essential that this issue continues to be addressed by politicians in Philadelphia and talked about in a formal setting. Street harassment is often seen as a very low priority issue, even when it affects the daily lives of people and their self image and mental health. Many people don’t realize that there are laws prohibiting street harassment in Pennsylvania. However, these laws are rarely enforced and rarely referred to. This shows that it’s more of an issue in how our society views catcalling and street harassment. No matter how many laws are put in place, nothing will change if we don’t address key issues and listen to peoples’ stories.
What do you hope is the outcome of your account?
I want people to see that these things happen in their own city. I feel as if a lot of people think “Oh, I know that happens, but it doesn’t happen here” when really, it happens almost everywhere. I want this account to show Philadelphians that yes, this is happening here, and yes, you can do something about it. I think when people realize that there is something tainting their city - their home - it brings the issue into focus and gives them the motivation to fight against it.
What’s the most difficult street harassment situation you’ve experienced?
I was coming out of a train station and a group of about 10 guys surrounded me as I was walking and started calling to me like how you would with a dog or cat. I started almost running up the stairs away from them and one yelled “Yeah! Run, bitch!” It was humiliating. I was frozen and completely scared. The word “objectified” is used so often that we’ve become numb to it - but that’s exactly how I felt. Like none of them saw me for who I was and I was reduced to a physical object. It’s entirely dehumanizing and there’s no other way to describe it.
What does being a part of this campaign mean to you?
Sharing your story, or listening to someone’s story of harassment can bring about more change than I think most realize. That’s really what this movement is about for me: the power and change that comes from sharing our stories.