“Sit back and shut the f*ck up”: On taxis, gender, and power

Ed. note: This is a guest post by Jeanann Verlee. Jeanann is an author, performance poet, editor, and former punk rocker based in New York City.


A few years ago, sharing a cab with a male friend of mine, I asked the driver to make two stops. The driver dropped my friend first and scarcely made it to the end of the block before he pulled over and told me to get out, refusing to go to the second stop. I asked why he waited until after dropping my friend to refuse a second stop and he declined to answer, simply continued demanding I leave. (It was obvious to me that he didn’t want to argue with a man, but had no qualms the moment I was alone.) I explained that I know my rights as a passenger and demanded he take me to the second stop. He did so begrudgingly—amid curses, shouting, and erratic driving—but only after I refused to leave the cab and threatened to report him.

Not long after that incident, in another taxi, I announced my destination, offering to help direct if needed, and the driver (presumably upset over going to an outer borough) began shouting at me and gunned the engine, tearing violently off into traffic. I asked him why he was angry and shouting, and he yelled, “Sit back and shut the fuck up!” I was stunned and did so almost reflexively, my mind suddenly racing between possible scenarios: Would he take me to my destination or did this just become an abduction? Would he continue driving wildly and cause an accident? Should I jump out at the next stoplight? If I did, would he chase me? Should I call 911? If I did, would he hurt or kill me just for doing so? If I continued to my destination, would he follow me? If not that, would he note the location and return later or begin stalking me?

From the famously routine practice of ignoring, refusing, or even kicking out people of color for myriad racialized prejudices to price hijacking and meter tampering to sexual or physical assault, there’s always risk in taking a cab. However, after the most recent news report of sexual assault in a cab, I want to focus on the nature of power and possession over women by many male taxi drivers.

Since its inception, Uber alone has seen a litany of criminal claims, most of a sexual nature. A couple weeks ago, a Florida Uber driver, Ramy Botros, was arrested for “aggressively” groping a female passenger’s breasts and in the wake of online media coverage—as if the assault and the driver’s claim that “she was asking for it” by going braless were not enough—some commenters have questioned why the woman remained in the cab and continued to her destination (rather than, I don’t know—leap from the vehicle?).

Most women I know avoid giving a cab driver their actual destination, particularly when going home. This is a quickly learned lesson in personal security. A sad lesson. Typically we are asked to believe that taking a cab is the smartest alternative to public transportation when out late, alone, or drinking. Yet most of us know we are at equal risk in the backseat of a taxi as we are on a barren 3AM subway platform. In the backseat of this raging driver’s cab, I simply couldn’t discern how much danger I was truly in, or if perhaps I was overreacting. I keyed 911 on my phone but did not hit ‘send.’ I stayed silent, cautiously watching his every swerve, lane change, and turn, convinced at times I was about to disappear—both panicked and seething.

When we finally arrived at my requested destination, a few blocks from my apartment, I paid and opened the door before making an admittedly risky comment. In my terror-fury, I warned that his vicious behavior and fitful driving were inexcusable and that if he continues to speak to women passengers in that way, someday someone will hurt him for it. I promptly rushed into a crowded restaurant and waited out the night, wholly unnerved.

I have had countless experiences with abusive taxi drivers. Some were incidents of ordinary gender-based disrespect, dismissiveness, or aggression. Others were heated arguments—some so startlingly aggressive I ended up silenced and afraid, hopeful I’d even make it to my destination (yes, more than once). Still others involving my husband or other male companions who, upon witnessing such aggression or dismissiveness, felt compelled to engage the driver about it. Again, I am not alone. I could fill books with stories like these from women all over New York City, and clearly, the nation.

And before we haul out the #notallmalecabdrivers hashtag, I’m not saying it’s all and yes, a majority of my rides have gone without a hitch, but even so, I’ve had enough dangerous experiences that I no longer take cabs alone. It’s too risky. I also understand that taxi drivers experience a lot of terrible passengers. Some people exert disturbingly privileged and cruel language and behavior. Some people are dangerous and threatening. Even murderous. It is a hazardous job. I have tried to do my part in being respectful, kind, and appreciative. Alas, it’s rarely reciprocated.

I remain appalled by the way so many male taxi drivers (and the vast majority of drivers are men, notably because of the inherent dangers of such work) view and treat women, particularly when we are alone. The behavior is an extension of the perceived possession of women by men. Botros grabbed the passenger’s breasts not because he believed “she was asking for it” but because he believed he possesses a right to her body. To any woman’s body. To every woman’s body. Likewise, the driver who believed that by instilling fear he could control me—that he is entitled to such—fully believed he possesses a right to my person, my autonomy, my body, me.

When we circle back to question why the woman Botros groped–or I for that matter–remained in the cab after the abuse, we are asserting a similar possession. Her police report indicates she was fearful of what he might do next. I’d imagine her mind was scrolling through a long terrifying list of possible outcomes and pondering solutions. I’m guessing that she, like me, was trying to make the smartest decisions about her safety given he had taken control away from her—in its ultimate sense: control of her own body.

Whatever she did, she did it right. She escaped without further violation. She escaped alive. How can we judge her tactics? That she later reported the incident is brave. That he admitted to it is surprising. That the incident is being prosecuted is a small triumph. Still, he did it. So how do we prevent that? How do we halt these continual abuses? How do we uproot the perilous belief in possession of women’s bodies? When do we stop searching for new ways to blame victims?

Let’s start by placing the blame on Botros. Full stop. Let’s stop teaching children that the rules are different for each gender through clever and antiquated witticisms about boys just being boys and girls acting like ladies (whatever those even mean anymore). Let’s eradicate the deeply held belief so many men have in the right to any other person’s person. Let’s respect victim’s stories, stop questioning, criticizing, and devaluing their choices/behaviors/clothing/everything. Let’s unlearn the gross sense of entitlement we (all) culturally maintain over women’s bodies—be it through law, scornful judgment, possessive or commanding language, harassment, or outright physical or sexual assault.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

Read more about Syreeta

Join the Conversation