Meet the Woman Who Went Viral for Taking Selfies with Her Catcallers

"I noticed that all of those catcallers loved posing for pictures with me; they weren't suspicious at all. This shows that they don't view their own behavior as unwanted."

by Vera Kurpershoek; translated by Mari Meyer
Oct 12 2017, 3:19pm

Photo courtesy of the Instagram account @dearcatcallers.

This article originally appeared on Broadly Netherlands.

Once, I decided to confront a guy on the street who asked me where I was going and if he could tag along. "Yes," I replied, "of course I'll offer my body to you: a total stranger."

Of course, that's not what I said. But I did ask him what kind of response he was hoping for. Surprise, surprise—he didn't know how to answer. After an uncomfortable conversation that lasted less than 30 seconds, I walked off, leaving him with a look of astonishment on his face.

This kind of scenario is all too familiar for 20-year-old Noa Jansma, who decided to start calling out the men who catcalled her. Over the course of a month, she took selfies with men who yelled at her on the street, and then posted them on the Instagram account @dearcatcallers.

After an interview with Red Pers, a Dutch website for young people, her story went viral in the Netherlands, and was picked up by international news outlets. Broadly talked to her on the phone while she was in London about whether or not she thinks her project will help to reduce catcalling.

Photo courtesy of the Instagram account @dearcatcallers

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

BROADLY: Noa, you're in London right now. How come?
Noa Jansma: The morning show Good Morning Britain invited me to talk about my project. It's a classic British television talk show. [The interview aired on Tuesday morning, October 10].

You're getting a lot of media attention and your project is getting featured all over the world. How does that feel?
It happened incredibly fast. I'm very proud of it, because this is why I do what I do. Women from all over the globe are sending me messages—I think Antarctica is the only exception. At the same time, it's been very overwhelming and I get a lot of hate mail—but that's what happens on the internet.

Sounds intense, especially because you're so visible in this project.
The most intense part of going viral was the sudden awareness that the internet can take something and run with it. I started this project in the spirit of openness: It wasn't my intention to show men in a negative light or give the impression that I'm angry at all men. But that's what it turns into, especially because of the comments people post underneath my pictures. People say the catcallers in the photos are rapists or even wish [death upon them]. I don't think those guys are bad, but their behavior is annoying. It's actually quite funny: My project is about respect and how to interact with one another, and I end up getting responses that put: "Just treat each other with respect. This asshole needs to die!" together in the same sentence.

What about the positive responses you've received?
A lot of women recognize themselves in my story and want to thank me. For instance, one mom told me she used my project as a starting point to talk to her young sons about harassment. I also get a lot of messages from men who say they've never really thought about [catcalling] this way. Or they say, "I'm ashamed of my gender." It's pretty impressive how much stuff comes up around this.

"I was already happy when my Instagram account had 300 followers. [...] But now I'm at 280,000, which is crazy."

Did you expect to get this much global attention when you started your project?
I was hoping for it, but I was already happy when my Instagram account had 300 followers. I was expecting some media attention, because [catcalling] is a popular topic. But now I'm at 280,000 followers, which is crazy. It shows how important it is that we talk about [this topic].

How did you come up with the idea for @dearcatcallers?
It grew slowly. Ever since I started getting catcalled, I'd been feeling very uneasy about it. None of my female friends knew how to handle it, and my male friends didn't even really know it happened. You can get confrontational, but that often leads to fights. One time I said something back when four men made a remark, and they all closed in on me. Just walking away without saying anything is also not an option, because that implies you give them consent to say whatever they want.

I was on a train once and two guys were filming me and yelling all kinds of things in my direction. I felt so weird, and them filming everything made me feel extra strange. Then I thought: I can use my camera as a weapon to fight in the same way. So I had the idea for quite a while, but at first I was scared to actually take the pictures.

"Passing the account along to women in other countries shows that this is a global problem and not just something that happens to me."

Were you afraid of how the men might respond?
Yes, I thought: They know they're doing something wrong, so maybe they'll be suspicious when I take a picture. But as soon as I started, I noticed that all of those catcallers loved posing for pictures with me; they weren't suspicious at all. This shows that they don't view their own behavior as unwanted, or maybe even think they're complimenting [me].

I don't tell the men I photograph about my project. The idea is that I don't have to get into a conversation every time. Usually I just walk away and try to shake them off that way. One time a guy asked what the picture was for, and I said it was for a feminist Instagram account. He just said, "OK."

Do you get messages from women who've started doing what you do?
Sometimes, but not very often. It's a pretty scary thing to do; I still get nervous about it myself.

Were all the pictures taken in the Netherlands?
I lived in Barcelona for six months and I still have a lot of friends there who I visit regularly. Half of the photos was taken there, the other half in Amsterdam.

Why did the project only last a month?
I could keep going for two or three more months, but I've made my point by now. I really view it as a finished art project. The good thing about ending a project is the opportunity to take a next step, to follow up. I'm in touch with a girl from Rome at the moment; she'll be posting selfies with catcallers on the account for a month. Passing the account along to women in other countries shows that this is a global problem and not just something that happens to me.

In an interview you did with Red Pers, you mentioned that you sometimes erase photos when you're not sure if a guy was intentionally being sexist. What makes you doubt that?
All kinds of catcalling are inherently sexist because it shows that men are dominant and can say whatever they want about a woman. Even the smallest remark shows that the sidewalk is essentially a meat market. But I want to be very careful with this project and paint an honest picture. It's not like men aren't allowed to say anything to me. There's a difference between a friendly "hello" and a not-so-subtle "hellooooo" while your whole body is getting checked out. I can still interact with someone on the street—that should be possible.

Starting next year, people will get fined in Amsterdam for verbal street harassment. Do you think that will help the situation?
No, but I do think it's a clear message that states this behavior won't be tolerated.

Do you think people will be less likely to catcall women because of your project?
I can't predict that. It could be something that never ends, but maybe we'll look back in 50 years and say: Wow, people still did that then. Of course I hope for the latter.