Driving An Uber Down A Slippery Slope

Between 2017 and 2018, there were almost 6,000 “sexual assault” “incidents.” Sexual assault?Incidents? How horrifying and exhausting it must have been for Uber drivers to suffer such incidents. But maybe you wonder what the hell are these “incidents”?

The results on sexual assault are disturbing: nearly 6,000 incidents in 2017 and 2018 combined, ranging from “nonconsensual touching” to rape.

The basis for this claim is unclear, as the Uber safety report doesn’t quite say this, not that anyone is supposed to actually look at the report rather than just take Alexandrea J. Ravenelle’s word for it. After all, shouldn’t we believe the women?

But the language, and the peripheral ideas surrounding it, gets increasingly squishy and meaningless as it goes on.

Though most of the reported rape victims were riders, Uber drivers were victims of other types of sexual assaults at roughly equal rates as riders. And Uber has finally acknowledged the risks its drivers face, saying in its report that they “have a right to have their experiences told, and we have a responsibility to stand with them so that we can create the safest possible environment for drivers and their passengers.”

Except the linked article doesn’t quite say that about drivers, but it does provide the fractional number of incidents.

The number of incidents represented a fraction — just 0.0002 percent — of Uber’s 1.3 billion rides in the United States last year, the company said.

And that still covers the fuzzy category of rapes through whatever they mean by sexual assault and harassment.

The assaults on drivers highlight what can happen when a workplace is highly fluid and work occurs in a private vehicle, where worker and client don’t know each other’s full names. In my research I’ve heard countless tales of sexual assault, harassment and uncomfortable experiences in the gig economy. After interviewing nearly 80 on-demand workers for a book, I can vouch that the statistics in the Uber report don’t tell the whole story of what drivers face in their jobs. Sexual misconduct is likely underreported at Uber — and in the rest of the sharing economy.

Dr. Ravenelle’s “vouching” aside, is this a huge and serious problem, that gig economy workers (not employees, because that’s uncool) are being subjected to sexual assault at alarming (0.0002%) rates. It’s hard to believe that the tales of “sexual assault, harassment and uncomfortable experiences” are “countless.” Granted, interviewing 80 gig workers is a lot, but wouldn’t a sociology Ph.D. be able to count high enough that the number wasn’t really “countless”? Well, maybe when she includes “uncomfortable experience,” but still.

Ravenelle provides examples of the horrors gig workers experience. No doubt she (I am assuming her pronoun as she neglects to state which ones she prefers) cherry picked the worst, as would be expected, to make her case.

A messenger for Postmates and Uber Eats told me about an errand to pick up sex toys that ended in an invitation to try out the new acquisitions. Chefs on Kitchensurfing, a chef-booking platform that is now defunct, discussed working swingers parties, being asked to take part in threesomes and cooking for clients who had loud sex in the next room. TaskRabbits related stories about being hit on (both during and after a task); invited to participate in revenge sex; and yes, being assaulted by clients.

These don’t sound like the most pleasant of professional working conditions, but do they constitute rape, harassment or sexual assault? If these experiences are too uncomfortable, can’t they walk out? If they are, in fact, assaulted, do they not have cellphones with the capacity to call 911? But frankly, cooking for clients who had loud sex in the next room sounds mostly weird, the story you tell your friends at the bar the next night when you say, “You’re not going to believe what happened at this gig,” and everybody has a great laugh.

But these are the worst tales of woe, parsed from countless of them like someone making a joke about a sex toy or “invited” to take part in a threesome, traumatizing workers into what Ravenelle calls “defeat.”

In my interviews with gig workers I was stunned not only by the sheer prevalence of the stories but also by the way workers described such experiences. Workers consistently described their experiences as “weird,” “uncomfortable” or “Bizarro land” — but rarely as sexual harassment or assault. They recognized that something was wrong in their work situation. But after repeatedly being told that they weren’t employees, and that they were engaged in egalitarian peer-to-peer activities, they stopped seeing the personal as political. Describing their experiences as “weirdness” is a manifestation of defeat. It suggests that workers are resigned to this treatment, or feel powerless to stop it.

Every interaction that involves any sort of sexual connotation, no matter what, how distance, how benign, isn’t rape, harassment or sexual assault, all conclusory words which have been stripped of meaning by people like Ravenelle using them to cover anything that causes anyone a hint of discomfort. She fails to consider that the reason people describe these “incidents” as “weird” rather than sexual harassment or assault is because they’re just weird and not sexual harassment and assault.

This isn’t a “manifestation of defeat,” but a manifestation that some people haven’t lost touch with reality, don’t grossly exaggerate every uncomfortable experience into some version of rape and demand that someone, some unrelated party, be held liable for their every transitory discomfort.

Gig economy companies should be held responsible for the abuse that workers experience. Platforms such as Uber should teach their workers about the risks of sexual assault or harassment in their jobs. And workers should be able to report problems and obtain instant support when they find themselves in uncomfortable situations.

Does Uber forbid workers from reporting problems? But what would Ravenelle have Uber do to provide “instant support” if a driver feels “uncomfortable”? A driver can terminate a ride if they feel unsafe, tell the passenger to get out and drive on. Then again, the passenger may well complain about being stranded in the middle of nowhere should that happen, at which time Ravenelle can write about how drivers discriminate against women, because women are Uber passengers too, by abandoning them.

Or perhaps there is no different problem with the gig workers or customer than existed with medallion cabs, or private chefs, or workers in any job or industry that deals with the public, because the public (who are, one should remember, pretty much the same species as the gig economy workers) can be weird. And when it’s a crime, there’s still 911. But loud sex in the next room has yet to be criminalized, so you’re just going to have to choose between discomfort and walking out, since there’s no Uber sex police to provide “instant support.”

13 thoughts on “Driving An Uber Down A Slippery Slope

  1. WFG

    Table 12-5 on page 59 of the Uber report breaks it down by category of sexual assault.

    I think giving the percentages in situations like this is less than helpful. The table gives both the percentages and the raw numbers. For example, in 2018, there were 280 incident reports of attempted non-consensual sexual penetration out of 1.3 billion rides, or 0.00002%.

    In 2018, Uber provided essentially one ride for every six people on earth. Without getting too Stalinesque, the raw data reported for sexual assualt in 2018–3045 incidents of sexual assault of whatever category in 1.3 billion rides–is so low as to be essentially zero when you convert it to a percentage.

    If someone driving for Uber has an experience like one in the article, or one bordering on any category of sexual assault, he can quit driving for Uber immediately and delete the app. Uber won’t care, he won’t be affected any further, and everyone can go on his way without any further issues. That’s the whole point of the gig economy.

    Ravenelle sounds like she doesn’t particularly like this very much and would prefer that it be replaced by something more like a traditional employer/employee relationship. That wouldn’t be very helpful for her area of specialization as a professor of gig economy studies, but these things happen, I guess.

    1. SHG Post author

      Is this where a properly empathetic person would say, “isn’t one rape one too many? Something must be done!!!”

    2. Rick Smith

      Raw numbers without context are meaningless. 280 incidents out of 500 is much different than 280 out of 1.3 billion. Giving the percentages is very helpful. It lets us know that these situations are vanishingly rare. Yes, Uber needs to do what it can to provide a safe environment, but it is impossible for them to guarantee safety in every situation. If incidents are as uncommon as the percentages indicate, that is a very good thing. In fact, the articles should be talking about how safe Uber is, not trying to imply it is unsafe.

  2. JAJ

    “These don’t sound like the most pleasant of professional working conditions”

    Well, the blackjack and blow are still missing so yeah I guess not the MOST pleasant…

    I’ll see myself out.

  3. Jake

    “…and cooking for clients who had loud sex in the next room”

    I had a couple roommates in my younger years. I wouldn’t consider what was going on in their bedroom as ‘weirdness’ unless there was a farm animal involved.

  4. Sgt. Schultz

    Where’s the old man from Nebraska? Where’s the skink from the swamp. What did you do to chase them away and make them hate you? WHAT DID YOU DO?!?

      1. Skink

        Sadly, I must remain deep in the Swamp now-and-then to have the means to buy groceries. This is one of them times.

        I’m not positive, but Rich might be busy reorganizing his collection of hats.

          1. losingtrader

            He’s busy looking at (with pictures!!) my 1,000 texts about my cloned puppies and the one text with the blonde woman at the resort pool.

            He’ll be along shortly.
            Stop staring , Rich.

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