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Safety or Sexism?

Project Saferide claims to protect women from assault, but others argue it discriminates against men. Who's right and who's wrong may depend on which facts you think are relevant to the case.

By Andrew Adams

Saferide, the campus ride service which serves only women, found itself the subject of a grievance filed by student activist Aaron Weck near the end of January. Weck called into question the exclusiveness of Saferide's service at this university, which under state and federal law must offer equal services to everyone regardless of gender, race, age or religion.

Weck decided not to pursue his grievance, and eventually dropped it a month later. His decision to drop his grievance came after another campus ride service, the Designated Driver Shuttle (DDS), went ahead and made changes to its bylaws expanding its service to include those who felt they needed a secure ride, but did not qualify for one from Saferide because of their gender.

The grievance illustrates the debate which surrounds a service like Saferide. According to Sid Moore, Human Rights Investigator for the Office of Affirmative Action, the department at the university which investigates charges of discrimination, two other grievances have been filed against Saferide in the past, one in the late 80s and the other in the early 90s. Moore could not discuss the past grievances due to confidentiality laws. [See sidebar on opposite page - Ed.]

However, the arguments of both sides surrounding Saferide have been well defined by the long standing nature of the debate. Proponents for the exclusive service feel that not allowing men to ride along in a Saferide van is not sexist, but just common sense. They argue that as the service's original purpose is to give women a safe and secure 'out' from a situation where they feel threatened by strange men, allowing men to use the service would totally defeat that purpose.

Those against the exclusiveness of the service are dismayed by what they view as blatant discrimination. They do not understand how their student fees can fund an organization that refuses to grant them the same service it does other students simply because of their gender. It also does not make sense to them how Saferide can exclude men from volunteering as drivers for the service.

Even though Weck filed the grievance with these complaints against Saferide in mind, he could not stress enough that his relationship with the organization is not contentious. The one-time student government official realized how someone could take a more vigorous and mean-spirited approach against Saferide to attack the service and have its funding revoked. He said he filed the grievance hoping that some agreement could be worked out where Saferide could still provide its service, but not have to worry about being the victim of lawsuits because of its exclusiveness. "I brought [the grievance] forth to discuss it, I wanted to bring Saferide under compliance to head off any defunding grievance. I decided to take the blame, and try to save Saferide," he said. Under Title IX of the of the education amendments to the U.S. Civil Code equal services must be made available to every student regardless of the gender. If someone could successfully argue that Saferide violated Title IX it could be subject to losing its funding.

Instead of having several different and separate ride services on campus, Weck would prefer to see them organized under some sort of council. Doing so would allow Saferide to serve only women, but as the larger organization would be providing rides for the entire campus body it would be immune to legal attacks.

Explaining this ideal situation Weck said: "I would be in favor of [the ride services] working together where Saferide would be comfortable with vehicles being loaned out wherever there was a need and vice versa. There should be expanded service so everyone could be safe and not have to ride with drunks."

As the situation stands now the only options for men who are stranded in a situation where they feel unsafe are the Tandem Taxi, a bicycle powered rickshaw which is designed for people with special needs (like a broken leg); OPS, which gives rides only to on- campus locations; and DDS which is notorious for its delays in peak hours because of the high demand from the high number of drunks in this college town.

In an environment with a high demand for rides, but with a paucity of available rides, Weck would like to see some changes made in Saferide before more men begin to actively campaign for the service to expand its service to include both genders.

"I like the directors of Saferide; they're cool people, and I agree with their mission statement, but they should be proactive in safeguarding their service," he said.

However, Sarah Cohn, one of Saferide's directors, does not see making any changes to how Saferide operates as imperative to protecting its exclusive service. When asked about combining with the other ride services to form a larger organization Cohn thought some sort of partnership was all right, but she was skeptical about an actual working relationship.

"A collaboration would be a great idea, but an actual sharing of vehicles would not be a good idea," she said.

Cohn's reasoning stems from her strongly held belief that DDS and Saferide offer completely different services. In her opinion, to expect one of her organization's vans to pick up drunks, and one of DDS's vans to pick up a frightened woman would be completely unreasonable.

"I don't see a point in conjoining; DDS has different needs, and so do we," she said. When asked if having a ride service that operated only for women perpetuated the myth that women were weaker than men and needed more protection Cohn could not agree. Instead of perpetuating the stereotype she viewed Saferide as an "empowering" organization for women.

But not only an empowering service Cohn also added that Saferide was "feminism in action," meaning that it represented all that women's movement stood for.

Despite agreeing with Weck that Saferide and his relations were not combative, Cohn would not say that her organization was interested in anything more than just sharing information. Direct cooperation in shuttling students was too big of a step for Saferide, and unnecessary she felt. It was unnecessary in Cohn's opinion because even though she could see why some people would make claims of sexism against Saferide, she could not see any merit to these arguments. For Cohn there were several reasons why Saferide was justified in not not only allowing men to ride along, but not drive vans either. Cohn said she had heard that on other college campuses with similar ride services there had been problems with men drivers harassing women. And even though these rumors were unsubstantiated the thought of a women being harassed in an environment she believed would be safe is sickening in itself. The other reason Cohn felt men could be excluded from the service is that the position of driver is voluntary, and it was Cohn's understanding that this meant non-discrimination laws did not apply to it.

This argument could be contested by however one interprets the law. Oregon Administrative Rules, which govern the Oregon State System of Higher Education, do outlaw prohibited discrimination. This prohibited discrimination is defined as "any act that either in form or operation and wither intended or unintended unreasonably discriminates among individuals on the basis of age, disability, national origin, race, marital status, religion, gender or sexual orientation." Whether or not Saferide is acting discriminatory is all based on how one would interpret "unreasonably." If one is a supporter of Saferide to call its exclusiveness unreasonable would be outrageous, yet for others it is this very exclusiveness which makes Saferide unreasonable.

UO's Women's Center has been a long supporter of Saferide. Jennie Breslow, public relations coordinator for the Women's Center brought up the same points Cohn had in defense of the exclusiveness of Saferide, but she brought up one other point as well. Breslow mentioned that Saferide originally began through the efforts of both men and women, so men were some of the very first proponents of the ride service's exclusiveness. This exclusiveness was brought about by violence towards women, Breslow said, and not because women wanted a private taxi service."Women have a right to feel safe, Saferide gives them that safety or perceived safety. I don't see this as a privilege, safety is not a privilege it is a right," she said.

However, she added, if Saferide were ever found to be in violation of Title IX another service should be added as long as it did not interfere with Saferide. "Rather than mess with a service that works, create a different service for those men who don't feel safe," she said.

No one can argue that violence against women is at any time acceptable. It is one of the most disgusting types of criminal behavior our society must deal with, and this campus is no different from the rest of society. In the past five years there have been twenty-three sexual assaults on campus, according to statistics compiled by OPS. These included both forced sexual assault, and non-forced assault. Non-forced assault includes taking advantage of a women when she is unconscious or using drugs to induce a loss of memory to take advantage of a woman. Some men may complain about the exclusiveness of Saferide and call it sexist, yet one wonders how their opinion would change if their girlfriend, sister or mother were to be sexual assaulted while walking home.

Yet under a strict interpretation of the law, Saferide could run into some problems. It does accept student funding to run a service, but then does not offer that service to the very students who pay to support it. And while most men joke about being assaulted sexually, they can also probably tell you about times when they have been jumped and beat up. So, while women may bear the brunt of sexual assault, men can and do fear assault just as much.

Both sides of the issue need to see the merits of each other's arguments to ensure that women do not lose a valuable tool in defending themselves, and men do not feel as if they are being discriminated against.

Andrew Adams, a sophomore majoring in Journalism is Managing Editor for the Oregon Commentator