Over the last few months I’ve been seeing more and more horror stories about Couchsurfing, and it’s been throwing up questions about whether it is safe for women to use. The stories are similar: girl stays in guy’s place, guy starts off friendly and helpful, come night time he makes a pass on her. Some of the stories end here, but a lot of them don’t…
Guy is persistent, guy doesn’t take no for an answer. Girl feels threatened and unsafe. Guy makes unsolicited passes, girl is sexually harassed.
A Tinder for travellers
You just have to set up an account to see how Couchsurfing has become some kind of travelling sex/dating site. My friend, who backpacked through South-East Asia this year, has been offered threesomes, “sensual massages”, and more.
Many of the other messages she received could well have been innocent. One guy said he could get her exclusive access to a sky bar – seems pretty cool. Equally, it sounds like a setup for date rape. It’s hard to know where to draw the line between open-mindedness and self-preservation when making judgements about this type of thing.
Who do you avoid?
Then there’s another problem; even with a bio and reviews, it’s not always easy to tell who the harassers are or might be. Last week I read a girl’s story on a travel group that highlighted this. She’d had a bad experience even though the man had only received positive reviews from other women. In fact, the girl herself only left him a ‘neutral’ review despite what had happened to her; the man had got into her bed in the middle of the night after she’d turned him down a number of times already.
I do understand her motivations for leaving a neutral review – she was worried she’d get a bad review in return (which she did), and she did leave some subtle references that the more discerning reader would probably notice. Perhaps in attempt to be less terrified of the situation and its future implications, she did some damage-control, downplayed what happened, and successfully convinced herself that his actions were no big deal – a form of “locker room talk”. I’ve seen that happen a lot and I’m also guilty of doing this. But ultimately this will not stop him from re-offending. Ladies, we need to be honest to ourselves and each other if we are to trust Couchsurfing again.
Now take a look at this – it’s the bio of the guy who asked my friend for a threesome:
I am a local Chinese, born and bred in Singapore with a good mix of international exposure from my overseas studies and love for travelling to learn about different cultures, to know different people and generally to understand what the world has to offer.
With an open mind and open heart, I embrace diversity in humanity. We are alike, yet different. Fascinating.
Last but not least, I am an easy going and fun loving guy. I would think that you will enjoy my company, as much as I will enjoy yours.
Would your alarm bells be ringing at that? The last sentence seems a little creepy to me, but it’s not glaringly awful. Add in the language barrier between hosts and guests alike then things get harder to figure out. He’s got one positive review.
What other women say
Am I being too cynical? As with all news, am I letting the horror stories from the few taint my outlook of the whole? I asked that same friend if, of all the 30 messages she’d received, any had been from women. The answer was no.
To get a broader perspective I set up a poll on one of the female travel groups I’m in. I asked if they would use Couchsurfing again. Of the 154 that answered, 84 said yes. That’s about 53%. 30 responded with a flat out no (19%), 13 were undecided (8%) and 27 said they were too wary to try it now. 54% isn’t a particularly large majority, but at the same time only 20% were a definite no. At the least there’s a lot of fear surrounding the app now, with 36% having been put off by either their own experiences or the types of stories I’ve mentioned.
It’s well-known that the site is full of sexsurfers, but the problem does seem to be growing. Men, in particular, are pushing boundaries too far with little consequence. Then it seems harder to make an accurate judgement – to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad.
The general feeling from the women in my poll was that most would stay with other women and host other travellers. A fair few women have never had any problems whilst Couchsurfing and love the app. A fair amount also said they’d had very bad experiences but also had very good ones. Just like the countries we travel to, there are always risks and dangers even in the most amazing of places – some travellers will never see them, and some will. Does that stop you from going there? That’s a question only you can answer.
Final thoughts: should women use Couchsurfing?
As for me, I love the idea of Couchsurfing and I know there are a lot of good honest people on there from both genders. It’d be a real shame to let the sexsurfers ruin it for us.
I was troubled at the amount of people who have been harassed, though. This isn’t a site to jump into with both feet; the risk is high compared to most other types of accommodation, but with research and caution you can reduce it significantly. Read profiles and reviews carefully and critically. Follow your gut, and if you have the slightest doubt or reservations look elsewhere.
I will still continue to use and recommend it but I will think very hard before staying with a single man. It’s a bias I’m sad to have as it goes against so much of what we learn as travellers – i.e. to be open-minded seekers of new experiences and adventures – but for the sake of my safety and peace of mind I’d choose a woman or a hostel near enough every time.
And finally – don’t be scared to leave a bad review, it’s the only real tool we can use to stop this trend. Your bravery will help others in the future and will help clean up those dark corners of Couchsurfing.
Now over to you – what are your experiences using Couchsurfing? Would you use it?