On August 9, after a night of drinking at The Windjammer, a watering hole near Charleston, South Carolina, a woman got into an Uber with her male friend. Their driver, Patrick Aiello, drove the friend home, but when the woman asked to be taken home next, Aiello began driving around aimlessly. When the woman pleaded to be let out of the vehicle, he pulled off the highway, parked the car, and, she alleges, proceeded to violently rape her.
On Thursday, that woman—along with another woman who accused an Uber driver of sexual assault in Boston—filed a federal lawsuit against the company. The suit claims that "by marketing heavily toward young women who have been drinking while claiming that rider safety is its #1 priority, Uber is instead putting these women at risk."
The suit is the latest in the exhaustive chain of stories about women being assaulted while trying to get home in what they believed to be the safest way: hailing an Uber. Since August, there have also been stories of "imposter Ubers," or men taking advantage of this myth of safety by posing as Uber drivers. In Boston, a man tried to lure a student into his car (she refused after she compared the car's license plate to the one listed on the Uber app); a man in Fort Worth, Texas saw two college students waiting for an Uber and pretended to be their driver. A 19-year-old college student in Tallahassee, Florida got into what she thought was her Uber before the driver proceeded to expose himself to her and demand sexual favors.
Last December, a woman in Boston got into the Toyota Camry that she assumed was the Uber a friend had ordered for her—at which point the driver, Alejandro Done, allegedly beat, strangled, and sexually assaulted her. Done was a registered Uber driver, but may not have been the driver assigned to the woman that night. Instead, reports suggest he decided to pose as her driver when he saw her waiting. (Done's DNA has also been linked to other sexual assaults in the area.)
The response to these events has usually been sympathetic, but cautionary: Women need to be careful. Always cross-check the license plate on the vehicle and the photo of the driver. Text the driver using the number listed in app. Keep your wits about you, and you won't become a victim. Dave Sutton, a spokesperson for Who's Driving You—an initiative from the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, which has lobbied against apps like Uber and Lyft—told me that the recent incidents were "not just a fluke."
"It's a very real trend, and something that young women need to become very aware of," Sutton added.
All of which is to say that despite the trappings of modern technology—and sometimes because of them—the burden is still on women to figure out how to get home without getting raped.
On Motherboard: Uber's Phantom Cabs
"For women, there's this myth of safety," said Jaclyn Friedman, editor of Yes Means Yes, an anthology about sexual consent. That myth goes something like this: If you stay in a group, if you dress modestly, if you don't drink too much, if you don't walk home alone at night, if you check the license plate of your Uber driver, then you won't get raped. And if you do get raped, then you must've missed one of the marks on the checklist.
Uber—which has marketed itself largely on the basis of safety—fits into that narrative. College campuses have even promoted Uber use as a way to foster campus safety. After a sexual assault at the University of Southern California, the school sent out a campus alert warning students to "avoid walking alone" and use Uber instead; they reversed that policy after a USC student was later raped by an Uber driver.
"It's a false sense of security. There's no set of things you can do to make sure you don't get raped," Friedman said, adding, "if this approach was going to work, it would've worked a long time ago."
In reality, women get raped whether they get in real Uber cars or fake ones; whether they're drunk or sober; whether they walk home alone at night or go home with someone they met at the bar. General safety precautions, like background checks for drivers or traveling in groups, are useful but not foolproof. What this results in is a pervasive sense of fear, but also a sense that rape is just an occupational hazard in the business of being a woman who chooses to leave her house.
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, an urban planning professor at UCLA, has extensively studied the relationship between women's fear and transportation. "Every study shows that women are much more fearful of being in public than men," she explained. "It is mostly the fear of victimization, fear of being assaulted, fear of being raped."
Loukaitou-Sideris hasn't conducted research on women's fears as they relate to Uber specifically, but she has surveyed transit agencies across the United States and found that only 3 percent of them offer any type of program designed to make transportation safer for women. In her research, she notes that "few researchers, transit agencies, or policymakers have directly asked women riders about their safety needs or sought to identify women's proposals and preferences regarding safe and secure travel."
So what would a female-driven solution to the transportation problem look like? Loukaitou-Sideris says one idea is to choose companies with female drivers, like She Taxis, which emerged out of Uber's rape scandals earlier this year. Sutton suggests taking rides only from companies with easily identifiable cars and verifiable background checks on their drivers. Friedman was reticent to suggest measures women should take, saying it would be "just another onerous thing women have to do [to stay safe]," but suggested self-defense classes for women "who feel like there are literally no safe ways to go out."
Uber has not made clear whether or not it will make companywide changes in light of the recent lawsuit. In a statement provided to VICE Thursday, a spokesperson for the company said: "Our thoughts remain with the victims of these two terrible incidents. We proactively worked with law enforcement in Massachusetts and South Carolina at the time to share information and aid their investigations. Both drivers have been permanently removed from the platform."
The new lawsuit hopes to, at the least, undermine Uber's claim that they are the "safest rides on the road." Which makes it hard not to conclude that for women, there are no safe options.
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