Uber’s Deep-Seated Denial of Sexual Violence

When news broke earlier last week that Uber senior executive Emil Michael had talked of diggging up dirt on critical journalists, many Uber users were rightly outraged. Somewhat buried in these reports were Michael’s charges that journalist Sarah Lacy—who has accused Uber of a culture of “sexism and misogyny”—should be held “personally responsible” if women who deleted the Uber app were later sexually assaulted while using other forms of transportation. In fact, in many cities, women have come forward with reports of sexual assaults perpetrated by Uber drivers themselves. Michael’s remarks betray a frightening culture of denial associated with sexual violence at Uber—a culture that some community advocates have been going head-to-head with for some time.

Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) in Washington, D.C., and Safe Hub Collective (SHC) in Boston have reached out to their local Uber branches to talk about some of these allegations. Though we contacted them independently and at different times—CASS initially in early 2013 and SHC beginning in May 2014—we were told strikingly similar things about sexual assault in Ubers. Both Uber reps told us that harassment and assault “just doesn’t happen” in Ubers—with the Uber Boston rep going so far as to call it a “non-issue.” What’s more, both Uber reps told us that the few reports they receive of harassment and assault are false or exaggerated. While the Uber D.C. rep euphemistically stated that the incidents “didn’t turn out to be as urgent as they were represented to be,” the Boston rep left it at “[allegations] don’t pan out most of the time.”

Are your ears ringing already? Because there’s more. According to Valleywag, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick once dismissed a physical assault on a woman passenger—and presumably similar assaults that occurred in D.C.—by referring to them as “incidents that aren’t even real in the first place.” There is remarkable consistency between Kalanick and Michael’s dismissals of sexual assault and what we were told by two different Uber reps in two different cities. If minimizing sexual assault is the company line at Uber, it should get top placement on the ever-growing list of ways Uber’s attitude toward women is patriarchal, medieval and dangerous.

Organizations like ours are working hard to make transportation safe for women and LGBTQ folks, and the thing is, we know the statistics. The suggestion that only a handful people out of the millions of individuals who use Uber have been harassed or assaulted during a ride is highly unlikely. That not one of these incidents “panned out” to be harassment or assault after Uber investigated is even less likely to anyone familiar with statistics on false reporting. The most probable scenario is that whatever definitions of harassment and assault Uber is using—and whatever methods they have for finding out whether these incidents are “real”—are all kinds of wrong. Not to mention that abusive and harassing behaviors that don’t rise to the level of criminality can easily feel more threatening when you’re in an enclosed space with no easy exit. Saying—and worse, believing—that sexual assault “isn’t an issue” for Uber reveals a galling level of ignorance, and, yes, arrogance, about the safety of women and LGBTQ folks.

The good news is that we’re not keeping this knowledge to ourselves. Both CASS and SHC have approached our local Uber reps and offered to train staff and drivers, and even to help create resource materials for drivers. (Uber maintains that its drivers are just “contractors” and as such do not receive training.) Yet both our organizations received the runaround from Uber. We were told vague claims that Uber was taking steps toward violence-prevention, yet the company refused to share details or accept our help or expertise.

What’s most baffling about Uber’s reluctance to institute preventive safety measures is that it should be obvious that keeping people safe and comfortable is good for business. Some companies are even making it their business model. Though Uber does not consider itself a transportation company, if it were to put mechanisms in place for riders to report harassment more easily or train its staff and drivers on the dynamics of sexual violence, it would join the ranks of massive, transit agencies in D.C., New York, and London that are taking action. And confronting its “woman problem” would put it in vaunted company with other tech world giants. Women, Action, and the Media (WAM!), recently announced a pilot program with Twitter to help track and regulate abusive users. Last year, Facebook responded to a campaign by the same organization by promising to better regulate creators of hateful misogynist content on its site.

Huge, seemingly immovable institutions trying their hardest to make sexual assault invisible is nothing new. But these days, the people most affected by these oppressive institutions are holding them accountable—and now it’s Uber’s turn. Each time an Uber driver is accused of a misdoing, its flacks can barely muster up the effort to get creative with its canned response that “safety is our #1 priority.” Safety is not a magic wish to be repeated over and over until it comes true; it’s a principle that requires action. If Uber won’t stop playing its cynical games with our safety, let’s hit them where we know it hurts: their wallets.

All contact with Uber Boston was done under the Hollaback! Boston name. Hollaback! Boston is now known as Safe Hub Collective, and all future action and organizing will take place under Safe Hub Collective’s name.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

About and

Zosia Sztykowski is Director of Community Outreach at Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a grassroots organization that empowers the DC metro area to end the public sexual harassment and assault of women and LGBTQ community members. Her work to engage her community in anti-harassment activism has been covered by the Washington Post, Slate and NPR. 
Britni de la Cretaz is a founding member of Safe Hub Collective and served as co-director of Hollaback! Boston from 2011-2014. She is a feminist mama who spends her time squawking about social justice and baseball on Twitter at @britnidlc.