Public transportation in Boston is infinitely better than in Providence, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, or that getting from Point A to B doesn’t sometimes take 1 hour when it could take 10 minutes by independent car. Fortunately, there are private-driver services to fill in the gap (for those who can afford it), especially if you don’t own a car or, like me, don’t even have a license. In short, you download one of the apps and request a ride, then someone comes to nab you and you can track their trajectory on your phone. Easy peasy. No cash needs to be exchanged because you enter your Paypal or card information into your phone.
I started out by trying Lyft in Providence and was charmed with their super friendly service. Now I regularly use services like Lyft or Uber to cut my transportation time or get me places public transportation doesn’t easily access. But this post isn’t about the wonders of getting to and from places. This post is about sexually predatory behavior, customer service that didn’t suck, and how victimized people often have an urge to minimize the actions taken toward them.
(So trigger-warning for descriptions of sexual harassment)
Update 7/8/15: TO BE CLEAR, I’m not trying to say Uber is a great company here. Their RESPONSE to me was really stellar, but there is a LOT wrong with Uber as a business. They have a bad track record of ignoring activists and denying sexual assault allegations, they have some senior executives that spout tons of sexist statements, and let’s not even get into their business model. As more information about those things has surfaced, I have worked to wean myself off supporting them.
What Went Down
The other day, I called an Uber to my place so I could get to a seminar. Feeling better after spending almost 24 hours in bed with some bug, calling an Uber felt like the perfect fit: quick ride where I wouldn’t have to talk too much, sitting in the back (to minimize germ-sharing ), simple. The person who picked me up arrived on time, and we cheerfully said hello to each other when I got in the vehicle.
That’s when stuff started to go downhill.
Soon after the ride began and we started talking, things got uncomfortable. To summarize, this driver spent the entire drive hitting on me, and the behavior only escalated (making comments that, on their own, might seem harmless, way predatory in their context). Here are some examples:
- Talking about my looks and asking where I was going that I looked so good, if I was going to work (and I can’t exactly recall this part of the conversation, because it was near the beginning, but I think I just mentioned I was going to a seminar, and that I’d been ill so makeup helped downplay that or something?)
- Asking if I had (or needed?) a bodyguard (to which I played dumb—I knew he was talking about a boyfriend—and talked about how I don’t have a bodyguard, but some people do need them, and went off on a long tangent about going to Brown University, naming a bunch of famous people who went there, and talking about Emma Watson on campus and how she needed bodyguards at our graduation)
- Calling my bluff, and being more specific about if I had a boyfriend, but still invoking the bodyguard idea (to which I replied with how I don’t consider partners bodyguards, and how I believe in relationships where people treat each other with respect and are equals or something)
- Asking me if I knew how to dance (because I mentioned I was Puerto Rican) and if I would teach him sometime (to which I responded by saying I didn’t really know traditional dances, but that there were many schools in Boston, and began talking about the popularity on contra-dance among many people I know)
- Asking me if I lived here with my family or if I lived with friends at an apartment (to which I went off on a tangent describing how I had a lot of family in Puerto Rico, but had a lot of family in Miami too because of the mass migrations from Cuba)
- Asking if the address where he picked me up was where I lived (to which I kind of ignored his question and talked about how I’d just been at a friend’s house because they were initially planning to come to the seminar with me, but didn’t know how effective I was—at this point, I was scared that he would try to come by again and my story got muddled)
My methods for staying safe were to avoid his questions and try to divert every conversation to more neutral territory, especially because many of the questions raised HUGE red flags. I’m a pretty good gabber, and when talking means survival, I channel Scheherazade. Unfortunately, no matter how far we strayed, this guy kept going back to hitting on me. And for those of you who say this behavior was “leading him on”—no. There’s a difference between flirting and creepy behavior, between flirting and harassment. The idea that “it was just a simple miscommunication” often just hides predatory behavior and masks it with “well, you didn’t overtly say this person’s advances weren’t welcome.” (For a good breakdown of that, check Kieran’s post on “The Miscommunication Myth.”)
Eventually, near the end of the ride, I began talking about death in hopes of perhaps making him uncomfortable or spooking him. I talked about Death Salon, how I loved learning about death, how dead bodies were so fascinating, and so on. Alas, at the end of the ride, he mentioned how he hoped he could give me a ride again (which is not SUPER unusual, but in this CONTEXT was a problem). I curtly bid him a good day and, unsettled, exited the vehicle.
The Urge To Minimize It All
Even when I was actively attempting to make him uncomfortable by talking about death, I was still nervous and minimizing the explicit details about death to not make him TOO uncomfortable (or perhaps preserve my image and not seem totally like a Loony Tune? Not sure). I still smiled at the appropriate places. In my head, it would’ve been amazing to talk in explicit, gory detail about dead bodies and dissections and all the ways humans can die from poisoning and how I know a lot about that because I’ve read up on it. I could talk about my baby doll arm earrings and my colleague/boss/friend Megan’s teeth collection. But I didn’t. I kept it fairly PG.
Beyond minimizing death, though, and more importantly, the urge to be polite and to minimize the feelings of bullies, abusers, and predators even when CALLING THEM OUT is drilled into women’s heads every day. There is a lot of social conditioning telling us to be nice, to be aware of others’ feelings, to not make a scene. This also intersects with race, ethnicity, class, and culture because “causing a scene” is considered something low-class, and/or something people of color “do more” somehow. If you’re a woman, if you feel unsafe, if you’re trying to assimilate, if you’re trying to survive, if you’re trying to pass, or if you’re struggling in any way to live in a capitalist, white-centric world, you are probably going to try to avoid making a scene. So I did.
Do I feel guilty that I didn’t unleash all hell on this man? Yes, part of me feels that. In an ideal world, I could’ve called him on his predatory behavior point-blank. In an ideal world, I would have carefully delineated his behavior and how inappropriate it was, and then contacted Uber immediately in front of him so he would know this was not OK. Maybe I would’ve gotten out of the car in the middle of traffic, dramatically exiting the car and telling him off.
But this isn’t that world, and I didn’t do any of those things. In THIS world, I was afraid of retaliation, like him coming back to my neighborhood and trying to find me. I wasn’t sure if he had my full name. I wanted to get to my seminar on time. I wanted to make this situation go away. In this world, I left a negative, detailed review when it came time to rate my ride…and the urge to minimize the entire thing crept into that as well. I cited enough examples of his inappropriate behavior, but I still censored part of it, like the moment where he gave my chest a long, hard look and smiled while he thought I wasn’t paying attention. I worried Uber might not believe me, or not respond. I read my review again before submitting the “first draft” and had an urge to to give less detail, or to note some of the positive aspects of the ride (I ended up adding he was on time, as a positive).
I’d read an article by someone who was harassed by an Uber driver and who got that person fired (and other articles about Uber deactivating drivers without much warning), so part of me worried about this man’s job. As a light-skinned Latina and U.S. citizen in a financially stable position, part of me worried about this man’s livelihood (he was an immigrant of color). As someone who is informed about structural oppression, that lens is something I can’t take off, and is something through which I see every daily interaction. I’m aware of gendered speech patterns in groups, of the seating arrangements at work in relation to skin color, of heteronormative slants in advertising…so in this case, I couldn’t help but thinking about the repercussions of my actions.
But I didn’t revise the message further, I left the review at 1 star (the lowest possible score), and sent it in. Just because someone is oppressed on certain axes doesn’t mean this behavior is okay.
Less than 24 hours later, I received a response from the folks at Uber:
Thanks for your email and I’m so sorry to hear about this. This seems like a serious issue that needs to be addressed immediately. I have passed this information along to our Operations Manager to ensure it is handled appropriately. Thanks for your patience as we work to resolve this matter for you.
Then, just a little bit later:
Bernie here, Community Operations Manager at Uber. Thank you very much for bringing this matter to our attention. Our primary goal is getting you to your destination safely and smoothly. I sincerely apologize that it wasn’t the case on this trip. We want you to feel confident that when you request a ride through Uber, your driver will get you to your destination in a safe, efficient and reliable manner.
Our driver operations team will be following up with [name redacted] regarding this situation. Uber has a strict policy regarding driver partners who are inappropriate.
I went ahead and refunded this ride. You will receive a refund to your credit card within 1-2 business days. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you have anymore questions or concerns.
I thanked them for their response and asked what the follow-up with the driver was going to look like, to which they responded:
I would be happy to provide some more information regarding our process. Uber does not hire drivers or own vehicles, rather we partner with local businesses and independent contractors. In order for a driver to maintain a partnership with Uber they must meet Uber standards of conduct, and in this case the driver acted inappropriately.
It is imperative that riders feel comfortable when using Uber. Through our rating and feedback system it is very easy to identify partners who do not meet Uber standards. In order to protect [name redacted]’s privacy, as we protect the privacy of riders, I am not able to provide specific details regarding how we will act in this situation. I can assure you that we will be taking sift [sic] and appropriate action.
If you have any questions or concerns feel free to reach out.
Knowing what I know about these cases, I’m going to reach out again and ask them more details, including if this person has access to more information about me (I know he knows my first name at the very least). In the meantime, though, I wanted to bring this up for a few reasons, including:
- I want to be transparent about this process and show others how it can be done.
- I want to highlight how appropriate this response from Uber was—they believed (and thanked) me, they were prompt, they were personable, and they expressed they were sorry this happened. Furthermore, they gave me a refund. This is how you do customer service (even if only because they want to keep my business and don’t have a broader social justice agenda). Is it perfect? No. Is it fully accountable? No. Is it better than a lot of other responses I’ve seen? Yes.
This isn’t the first time something uncomfortable happens to people during a private car ride, though, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. There have even been reports of criminal behavior (in this article, kidnapping and assault) by people who drive Ubers, and concerns regarding what kind of background checks services like Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar do. It’s important we talk about it as these services become more mainstreamed.
…But This Isn’t New; This Is A Pattern
Sexual harassment, predatory behavior, and all this—this isn’t new. People, and particularly women and queer folks, have been experiencing this for ages. Personally, I’ve been experiencing it for years. I can recall being 10 or 11 in an outdoor market in Río Piedras, not wearing a bra because I didn’t really need one yet, and seeing a bunch of older men staring lecherously at the way my sundress fit across my chest and some of the bare skin through the arm-holes. This kind of stuff starts early…but I know I’m preaching to the choir here. If you’re reading my blog, you probably already know that.
So it’s probably not news to you either that every time this happens, many people who are victimized (if not the overwhelming majority) feel guilt, shame, and a sense of powerlessness. There’s a lot of “I should have” and “I could have’ and “what if I had only” chatter in our brains (TW for the link), especially for those of us who do professional work around these issues, for those of us who are loud feminist activists that fight against predatory behavior on the daily. Even if we are aware of this (and always, on some level, “alert”), it can still come as a shock, especially when we’ve let our guard down for some reason (and even the fact that we HAVE to be on guard is messed up in and of itself). This situation was no different, but thankfully, I’ve started to be gentler with myself, and to not re-victimize myself after an incident (read: not shooting myself with “the second arrow” described in Buddhism).
A few years ago, after a man groped me on public transit and I wasn’t able to do more than give him a shocked, angry stare, I felt guilty, powerless, and hypocritical. I was really shaken up, and doubly so when I saw him on another bus later that same day. After a man cornered me in front of a 7-11 (pinning me to the wall without touching me, all while my hands were full of grocery bags) and kept forcefully asking for my number, I felt guilty, powerless, and hypocritical. At this point, I don’t even remember what I said to that one. Maybe I mumbled something about having a boyfriend or not being interested? I was really shaken and angry, and was pretty hard on myself immediately thereafter for not having kicked the crap out of both of them.
This is not my first time at the rodeo, and I’ve developed more coping skills, but each time is still painful. It’s a problem that people who are victimized are expected to keep dealing with it or be the sole folks in charge of bringing about solutions when what we need is a community-wide response.
So How Do We Stay Safe?
This post doesn’t come with a neatly wrapped bow at the end. This post is just a way to bring attention to the issue and hopefully spark some conversations, as well as promote transparency when dealing with these issues as private car services become more popular. However, I do want to wrap up with a list of safety measures I’m taking (or have taken in the past) when dealing with Uber and Lyft.
NOTE: this is not meant to say “if you don’t do these you’re responsible for your own assault/violence.” This is meant to be a list for risk-reduction, so that people feel they have more control over a situation and their own safety when taking a private car. We live in an unsafe world and need to change the structures of that world AND stop blaming those who are victimized, but simultaneously, we need some helpful tips to let us survive long enough to see that change. Not all of these tips will be equally useful or applicable, but are just some ideas to consider!
- Generally, if you want a chatty/friendly service, go for Lyft—their company culture is way more about building friendly relations between the drivers and passengers, and you’re supposed to sit in the front seat with the other person. If you want a service where there’s more distance between you and the driver, or prefer to drive in silence, Uber’s probably your better bet. (Again, this is in general, not 100%.)
- When requesting a pick-up from home, don’t actually use your personal home address. Use an intersection or a neighbor’s house. If the person asks if they’re picking you up from your house, ask why they need to know, deflect the question, or lie.
- When requesting a pick-up, don’t immediately put your destination address in the app. Wait until you’re actually in the car and can assess the person. If you feel unsafe, you can always reject the ride or put in a different destination (and either walk/wheel to the space you need to go to or request another ride through a different service).
- If you feel uncomfortable, you can text a friend (or set of friends) the name and license plate for your driver, or send them a screenshot of that information when it appears in the app. Tell them your ETA and location, and have them check in with you. You can get fancier and use an app like Kitestring, too.
- If someone is going in a creepy direction with their conversation, you can be direct and question their motives, but that can be scary and too intense, especially for people who are already shy or quiet. You can try my above approach (of diverting the conversation and/or making THEM uncomfortable somehow). You can also excuse yourself and make a phone call for the duration of the ride so they can’t get a word in edgewise.
- If your ride was uncomfortable or predatory in any way, but your neighborhood is also unsafe and you need to be dropped of at your house or very close to it, stand on the sidewalk and rifle through your bag/pockets or make a call to give time for the driver to leave and not see what door you’re going into. You could possibly also go to a neighbor’s house and stand on their lawn or porch (or whatever your neighborhood configuration allows).
- If something does happen, no matter how small, know it is NOT your fault. Rate your ride through the app and/or contact customer service. Submit an incident report through Who’s Driving You?. You can also turn to organizations like Hollaback! for more resources or for ideas on how to fight back against these issues and let others know.