Tech Has a Serious #MeToo Problem

In this exclusive excerpt from ‘Survivor Injustice,’ Kylie Cheung exposes the disingenuousness of Lyft’s anti-sexual violence measures as the ride-sharing company defiantly eschews ways to protect their consumers.

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On August 2, 2023, a New York Appeals Court tossed out a lawsuit against Lyft brought forth by an adolescent in Queens who said her Lyft driver masturbated while she was a passenger in his car. When the incident took place in 2018, she was 14 years old. The girl’s suit argued that Lyft had failed to properly vet its drivers, and should have known her driver was “a danger to passengers”—but the Appeals Court ultimately determined that the company wasn’t liable for the driver’s behaviors. 

This lawsuit is the tip of the iceberg for Lyft’s legal troubles pertaining to sexual abuse: Just a year ago, in September 2022, 17 new lawsuits were brought against the company regarding sexual misconduct allegations against drivers that the company could and should have prevented. In 2019, even Lyft’s own shareholders filed a suit against the company for concealing the sexual assaults by their drivers—the ride-share company settled with them for $25 million. (Of course, the assault survivors, who were not plaintiffs in this particular suit, did not see any of that money.) 

Since the mainstream nascence of the MeToo movement in 2017, when brands and celebrities embraced a consumerist conception of survivor justice, actual progress for survivors’ rights has stalled and given way to a chilling backlash. In the spring of 2022, some high-profile celebrities who’d embraced #MeToo flocked to support Johnny Depp, who lost his libel case against The Sun in the U.K. in 2020 for their article that called him a “wife-beater,” determining that the newspaper had proven their reporting on his history of domestic violence was “substantially true.”  And today, tech companies that once flaunted partnerships with anti-rape nonprofits among other initiatives in support of MeToo—just as Lyft rolled out a partnership with RAINN—seem to have abandoned their gestures toward survivors. Just last month, a teen who had a self-managed abortion to escape an abusive relationship when she was 17 was sentenced to 90 days in jail, thanks in part to Meta sharing her text communications about the abortion with law enforcement.

The solutions to pervasive gender-based violence and survivor injustice don’t exist within social branding and celebrity, within a hyper-capitalist tech industry, within nakedly hypocritical, self-serving partnerships between corporations that enable abuse and nonprofits. Lyft and its endemic crises over the last several years—and, certainly, over the last few months—crushingly encapsulate this. 

In my new book, Survivor Injustice, which hits shelves on Tuesday, August 15, my reporting presents the problems that arise when we tie radical movements for survivor justice to brands, corporations, and celebrity activism. Survivor Injustice makes the case for bolder approaches to challenging pervasive gender-based violence and the institutions that uphold it. Below is an excerpt detailing endemic sexual misconduct claims against Lyft, and a conversation with one of the survivors challenging the company:

The celebrification of MeToo in 2017—or the mass of highly visible celebrities who spoke up about their experiences with sexual misconduct and advocated for victims and survivors—inevitably contributed to its commodification. Companies and brands were compelled to publicly take a stand on the issue to continue to line their pockets. From Reese Witherspoon to Kerry Washington, top women in the entertainment industry were pivotal to the creation of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. But the organization ultimately fell apart by the summer of 2021 when its executive director actively defended former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo amid the numerous sexual misconduct allegations against him.

Lyft, in particular, excelled at feminist corporate spin. In 2019 the company launched a partnership with the national sexual violence advocacy organization RAINN to “create a culture of safety for drivers and riders.” Around the same time, Lyft also very publicly donated $1 million to Planned Parenthood. But like nearly all brands that tried to capitalize on MeToo, the company’s words didn’t exactly match its actions.

When activist Alison Turkos got into her Lyft in 2017, she told me in 2022 that at the time, she had complete trust in the company—it had publicly opposed former President Trump’s Muslim ban and donated to the ACLU, among other strides toward social justice. The events of that evening changed her life. Turkos would be held at gunpoint and kidnapped by her Lyft driver, then taken to a park and gang-raped.

In 2019 Turkos filed a lawsuit against Lyft, joining 13 other women who separately filed claims saying they were also raped or sexually assaulted by their Lyft drivers. All of them say they were ignored or steamrolled by the company for years, all while Lyft continued to outwardly posture as a progressive company. And then, in June 2022, Lyft agreed to a $25 million settlement to resolve claims from its shareholders that the company failed to be transparent about “safety problems,” phrasing that essentially wrote off over a dozen reported sexual assaults as an inconvenient aside. Lyft shareholders claimed that by concealing these issues and incurring these lawsuits, the company’s actions presented an “existential risk” to shareholders’ profits when Lyft went public back in 2019. Around the same time that the lawsuits brought forth by Turkos and other survivors emerged, the company’s value almost immediately plummeted and has never fully recovered.

Lyft shareholders called the 2022 settlement an “excellent” result. In contrast, according to Turkos, neither she nor any of the other survivors harmed by Lyft received a cent from the massive settlement, contrary to what many people who saw the headlines may have erroneously concluded.

Instead, Lyft was paying its ultra-rich shareholders $25 million. The most Turkos says she’s ever heard from Lyft was a statement it shared with The Verge back in 2019, essentially shrugging off sexual assault as inevitable: “The unfortunate fact remains that one in six women will face some form of sexual violence in their lives—behavior that’s unacceptable for our society and on our platform.” But because Turkos’s driver had “passed the New York City TLC’s background check and was permitted to drive,” the company shirked all responsibility.

“Shareholders quite literally profited off of my kidnapping, off of my multiple rapes, off of the violent crime that was committed against me,” Turkos said. As she understands it, the company was “making money until stock prices fell” as a result of the backlash against Lyft in response to the numerous sexual assault lawsuits. Only then did shareholders begin to find the company’s actions problematic—not for its treatment of women like her, but for their loss of money. “With this $25 million settlement, rich people are again getting richer because of what happened to me in 2017,” she said.

Lyft, Turkos said, doesn’t value her or survivors at all—its actions showed it values “people who will give them money and make them money.” Since her experience, Turkos has become dedicated to organizing for survivor justice and working to hold Lyft and other corporations accountable. As much as she loves this work, it’s heavy and retraumatizing, and she still hasn’t been compensated at all. “I don’t get paid to be a public-facing survivor who rips herself open to tell her story. It’s a full-time job, and it feels like I’m being constantly gaslit, slapped in the face by a company that says, ‘Safety is our number one priority.’”

The company’s treatment of survivors isn’t an outlier within an industry that routinely endangers and then silences women. Within the Silicon Valley, the practice of weaponizing NDAs to establish cultures of fear and silence and cover up rampant sexual misconduct is pervasive.

As usual, companies want to appear progressive, to appear supportive of survivors, without doing the work. Corporate statements and policies motivated by a desire to match celebrity activism, to profit off major cultural moments, often conceal darker truths. “You have to name what happened to be able to address it,” Turkos said. But years after her kidnapping and rape, Lyft’s shareholders have continued to use language that dismisses and compounds her trauma as a survivor. They’ll never have to face “the lives lost, the people who had to move because their driver knows where they live,” Turkos told me. “They don’t see that we cannot show up as our full selves in our relationships and our friendships with our families. We can’t sleep through the night.”

Turkos’s story and the persistence of corporate hypocrisy extends from a greater issue: Beyond the glamorous magazine covers of celebrity activists, beyond the surface-level empowerment rhetoric deployed by influencers and millionaire actors, survivor justice movements haven’t actually progressed that far in the mainstream, contrary to narratives that it’s progressed “too far.” 

Excerpted from Survivor Injustice: State-Sanctioned Abuse, Domestic Violence, and the Fight for Bodily Autonomy by Kylie Cheung published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2023. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

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