Libresco: Out of the driver’s seat

When I got an internship in Washington D.C. for the summer, my parents made it absolutely clear that I had an unlimited budget for late night cab rides. “We don’t want you walking home in the dark,” my parents said. “If you’re going to be walking alone late at night, even if you know the neighborhood, it’s better just to take a cab. Don’t take risks.”

So when I walked out of the metro station in the dark one Friday night, I went straight to the taxi stand. I slid into the backseat, and the driver glanced back at me in the rearview mirror as we pulled away from the curb. “You going out to a party?”

“No,” I said. “Just back home.”

“But next weekend, then, you go party?”

“No,” I said. “I’m very boring.”

“Pretty girl, you should be going out. I like to go to parties, maybe you come out with me some night.”

It was the second time in a month that this had happened to me. I slouched in the backseat and tried to be as quiet and disengaged as possible. “I don’t really like parties,” I said. “And I’m only here for the summer.”

“Where you from?”

“New York.”

“I sometimes go to New York. Why don’t you give me your number, if I call you?”

I knew what I was supposed to do, of course. I should have gotten his medallion number and phoned in a complaint to his dispatcher. I ought to have told him, firmly, using ‘I’ statements: “I feel uncomfortable when you talk to me this way. I would prefer that you stop.” But, instead, I just pressed my head against the window, watching the empty streets flash by and wondered if I should get out a block early, so the cab driver wouldn’t know where I lived.

The whole situation felt horribly unfair. Yes, I was getting a cab after 11 p.m., but I was sober; I was wearing pants, not a short skirt and my hair was in a ponytail, for heaven’s sake. Hadn’t he seen that I had a math book by Martin Gardner under my arm? I glanced down at my top, trying to work out if a polo shirt rather than a T-shirt qualified as showing too much cleavage.

It wasn’t after I got out of the cab that I realized that, for the entirety of the ride, I had been operating under the assumption that something in my own behavior must have provoked the driver. I had been imagining that I had earned the right not to be harassed because I wasn’t wearing make-up — instead of remembering I deserved to be respected because I was a person. A miniskirt wouldn’t have been an open invitation to harassment.

For the entirety of the cab ride, I had kept thinking that the cab driver’s behavior was somehow my fault. For all that I think of myself as a good feminist, I had immediately slipped into the habit of thinking that holds that women are the guardians of men’s virtue, that women have to censor themselves because men are too excitable to be responsible. It didn’t matter whether men of different cultures considered leaving my hair down or wearing a tube top provocative; it ought to be their problem, not mine.

I’m used to the idea that I can opt out of sexist treatment. Whether I’m paying for a taxi, so that I don’t have to walk a dark street by myself or out-butching the boys showing off my latest project from the metalworking shop, I expect that I can bypass of the uncomfortable parts of being a woman without consequence. I forget that my day-to-day existence as a person of equal worth to a man depends upon a majority (or a strong plurality) of the people in my culture consenting to this idea and conforming their actions to this standard.

As a politically minded woman, it’s not hard for me to neglect this side of the feminist struggle. It’s a lot easier for me to focus on lobbying, protesting, campaigning. Political work allows me the possibility of major changes that make life better for women nationwide. And, aside from the practical concerns, it’s a lot more comfortable for me to focus on the political sphere. When I’m doing political work, as long as I knock on enough doors, raise enough money, spin the press well enough, equality is mine for the taking. No wonder I was sent reeling by my feelings of powerlessness when confronted with even mild sexual harassment.

My summer in D.C. turned out to include an education in the limits of the political, important as it is. For years, I have subscribed to the feminist maxim, “The personal is political,” but my summer reminded me that its converse is also relevant. In the fight against sexism, I’m weakened if I only play to my strengths.


  • Hieronymus’ Bosh

    A good article. Really. However…

    It *does* rather fit into a certain “‘**go along to get along**’ followed by **regret**” stereotype (1 in 4…). Coulda shoulda woulda, now let’s talk it out–instead of a pithier “So I snapped at the mofo, “Shut up, a-hole!” readers are now treated to an angst-filled meandering about the unfairness of Life.

    “No wonder I was sent reeling by my feelings of powerlessness when confronted with even mild sexual harassment.” “Reeling?” Really? And outright “powerlessness” too?! Good G-d, woman: snap out of it!

    (Shoulda called yer dad, given him a SitRep, then handed the cabbie the phone… O’course, that only perpetuates the oppressive patriarchial hegemony, but it woulda been funny!)

    NO: you were NOT at fault for the cabbie’s boorishness; however, you ARE at fault for not doing exactly as you are “lobbying, protesting, campaigning” others to do.

    As an aside: DC cabbies really *are* the *worst*.

  • FailBoat

    This is what passes for feminism now? Complaining about an socially awkward suitor asking for your number? Not only was he a cab driver (ugh – doesn’t even wear a suit to work!) but he was probably also an immigrant too! Didn’t he notice I was interested in math – something he could clearly never understand? He’d probably never even heard of Martin Gardner! Didn’t he notice that I had my hair in a ponytail, a hairstyle only worn by recluses and nuns?

    The horror of it all.

    By the way, if a woman at Yale ever complains about why men “don’t ever just ask me out on a date” – this is the reason: because asking for a girl’s number without advance notice is tantamount to harassment in the minds of Yale’s excuse for feminists.

    (That, and because Yale men are generally huge dorks who wouldn’t know how to ask a girl out if they had a teleprompter, a five-man mariachi band, and a bouquet of organic locally-grown roses )

  • penny_lane

    FailBoat: I was asked out on plenty of dates while I was at Yale (and I graduated last year, so no, it’s not because I lived in a more civilized time or anything) in perfectly appropriate settings: at parties, in the dining hall, via email (yep, huge dorks). I accepted some and turned down others, but never complained. (In fact, if others are complaining, I guess I should even count myself lucky?)

    However, I am right there with Leah when she calls what the cab driver did harassment. Their interaction was a BUSINESS interaction in that she was paying him for a service, not a social interaction, making his comments about her appearance and his request for her number completely inappropriate. I know it seems harmless, but then you have to consider that she was opting for a cab in order to avoid a dangerous situation (being a solitary woman walking home at night), and finds herself in a situation where the cab driver crosses a line with her. Since she is vulnerable (again, solitary woman, late at night), it’s perfectly reasonable for her to wonder what other lines he might be willing to cross.

  • FailBoat

    I agree that the driver was socially inept and that it probably would have been more professional to not ask Ms. Libresco for her number. But not all unwanted or unprofessional interactions constitute harassment. This does not. It was a man asking for Ms. Libresco’s phone number, and her politely declining.

  • Hieronymus’ Bosh

    I do not often disagree with FailBoat, but this one is pretty grey.

    Harassment? Probably not from a *legal* standpoint, which usually has at least a couple of hurdles: the harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome (*check*!) and the harasser should be *informed* that the conduct is unwelcome (this step–or its omission–being the crux of the author’s angst).

    Most policies add something–and it’s an important something–along the lines of:
    “The harasser may not be aware that the behavior is offensive, that is why it is important to speak with the offender before further action. **Of course, if the harasser is too strong or overpowering and/or the victim is afraid to confront the harasser, then involving appropriate authorities is completely justified.**”

    So… boorish? Yep. Outta line? Way. Actionable? Well, a report could be filed, I *suppose,* but there does seem to be an expectation–and the author herself recognizes this–of taking some measure of responsibility for one’s plight (rather than passively accepting a situation imposed by an outside actor).

    **Counterpoint**: The target was, to some degree, under the offender’s care (as a legally defined “common carrier,” subject to his employer’s sexual harassment policy, which IN MOST STATES forbids actions such as his–DC? Who know!) as well as his control (i.e., in a moving taxicab). In other words: she was physically vulnerable. Indeed, she expresses fear when she wrote “[I] wondered if I should get out a block early, *so the cab driver wouldn’t know where I lived*.”

    Would a judge apportion less than 100% responsibility to the perp (or more than 0% negligence to the target)? Mebbe. Mebbe not. Like I said, it’s grey.

  • Harbinger904

    Good Article Leah. I’d have to say that legally or not, there is a gendered power relation at work that you work towards in your piece. This dynamic can very much amount to harrassment, IMHO, and is certainly the dynamic from which said power relation springs. The point you made about the “limits of the political” was good too. I hope the experience bolsters you and other women to stick up for themselves in such situations, to recognize them for what they are, and hopefully, to learn how to fight them.

    Again, good job.

  • Hieronymus’ Bosh

    Harbinger wrote: “there is a gendered power relation at work.”

    Need not be “gendered” as you suggest. Switch roles: female taxi driver coming onto shy college boy… Not good neither, no? Male on male? Same same. There is a *situational* “power relation,” but it need not be gendered.

  • FailBoat

    I’m a firm believer that action cannot be classified according to how it (unknowably) makes a person “feel”. If I’m a paranoid agoraphobe, then any verbal communication could be considered harassment. If I think men/women/cab drivers/Muslims are evil, then any verbal communication from *them* could be considered harassment.

    Is it unfortunate that Ms. Libresco felt uncomfortable? Undoubtedly. Both she and he would have been happier had she not been uncomfortable by his ill-advised actions. Is it an offense for which he could pay a price at his job? Probably. But is this a feminist issue – an example of sexual harassment? Almost certainly not.

    No definition of harassment (either sexual or non) that I’ve seen covers Ms. Libresco’s situation. Typically, harassment needs to meet standards like intent, aggression, overt sexual inappropriateness, or persistence. This interaction didn’t really meet any of these criteria. Ms. Libresco was creeped out. That’s too bad, but I get creeped out by plenty of people at Yale – doesn’t mean they’re harassing me.

    And as far as “gendered power relations” go, it’s pretty weak fare. It’s not his fault that she’s more intimidated by men than women.

  • Leah

    I agree with the commenters that the taxi driver may not have understood that I felt he’d crossed a line, especially if I didn’t speak up and say something. On the other hand, I think some standards of polite interaction and professionalism should have kept him in line. He did nothing that legally constitutes harassment, but he did merit a reprimand from his employer.

    I didn’t include this in the article, but when I got out, and was signing my receipt, he asked for my number again. Then he passed back the receipt and insisted I write it down. I made one up and hurried out. I should have looked at his medallion number and called in a complaint, but I was worried I would run into him again.

  • FailBoat

    > I didn’t include this in the article, but when I got out, and was signing my receipt, he asked for my number again. Then he passed back the receipt and insisted I write it down.

    This is relevant information.

  • sigh

    You rewarded his behavior! Go random reinforcement!!!

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