A few months ago, I came home to find my roommate shaking at our kitchen table. While I’d been gone, two repairmen had come into the apartment at the behest of our landlord, and proceeded to make strange, sexual comments as she followed their orders to “get down and look beneath the oven.”
The other week, on my way to Chicago, a TSA agent pulled me aside on my way through security. I thought, nervously: Something must be wrong. He leaned in extremely close to me. “I just gotta say,” he started, touching my arm. “You are extremely beautiful. And I hope to see you around again sometime.”
Today, another friend called me to describe the surreal experience of getting into an Uber to go home, only to have the driver repeatedly turn and tell her “how beautiful” she was and “what a nurturing woman” she must be. He then asked her if “they were going home together.” (Presumably, asking if where he was taking her was “home,” but allowing the innuendo to hang heavy.)
These three experiences are distinct, but they share something troubling in common: strange men taking advantage of transactional exchanges, and the implicit power dynamics contained therein, to violate a women’s sense of safety and privacy.
I don’t have connections to the TSA or National Grid, but I do know people who know people who work at Uber. When I wrote to express my concerns, they leveled this back at me: “Our thinking right now (or mine at least) is that the behavior you’re describing is as clearly wrong as running a red light, and we’re not explicitly telling drivers not to do that, but I do understand your larger point.”
“Sexual harassment is wrong” only works as an implicit policy (like “not running red lights”) if everybody has the exact same understanding of what sexual harassment is — and they do not. An Uber driver who repeatedly calls a woman “beautiful” may honestly think he is complimenting her. On the other side of that interaction, the woman may be uncomfortable and extremely fearful. And her feelings define that experience as sexual harassment.
I understand that the above example makes creating pro-active policies extremely complicated. Uber may end up punishing drivers for not having highly developed gender politics of a Euro-Western-leaning variety, which can be unfair and difficult. What Uber can do, though, is pro-actively validate the right of women to feel uncomfortable in that situation — which is something hugely hugely lacking from our current array of peer-to-peer platforms (and, honestly, the world in general).
It’s also something hugely hugely important to do.
The (many) friends I’ve spoken to who have had negative encounters with Uber drivers are shocked and feel violated, but they also routinely second guess the validity of their reaction. It’s a terrible feeling — to experience that kind of horror and fear, but then to blame yourself for getting upset. That’s rape culture.
The problem I’m trying to solve lies there. How do we help women’s first reaction to be: “Hey, this person made me uncomfortable. And those feelings are legitimate.”
Honestly? It’s not that hard. Women start to feel validated when companies like Uber — huge companies with tons of public presence and influence — create transparent, public-facing policies around sexual harassment and speak up about it: “If a driver makes you uncomfortable for any reason, we care and we want to know. We are on your side.”
It’s hard to press this point enough: the issue I am trying to address, right now, is not that sexual harassment happens, but that the people who experience it don’t feel like it’s OK to be upset*.
I do think Uber cares about this, at a company level. I have seen published exchanges with Uber reps who seem to be working hard to do a good job at being considerate and empathetic.
But it’s not enough.
I want Uber to publicly address this issue. You should, too. Not just for what it means for the next time you get in a car to go home — but for the implications that type of conversation, lead by a company in their position, would carry for the most absolutely fundamental rights of people like you/me/her/anybody, as a whole.
*”upset” being the most mild emotional descriptive here. “traumatized” is often more accurate.