Silence ain’t golden – CouchSurfing as a solo traveling woman

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CouchSurfing references are a tricky matter. They should be your compass in the quest for the right host. My only negative CS experience happened despite 80 splendid references on the host’s profile. Moreover, it took me 13 months to write him a review. It made me wonder if we can rely on the references at all. How often are things left unsaid? Why is leaving an honest reference so difficult? What can we – solo traveling women – do to be safe (and protect others) while CouchSurfing?

CouchSurfing takes trust. All in all, it means staying with a total stranger. At the start of my solo travels, I would stay with female hosts only. After gaining some experience in CS and in traveling in general, I felt confident enough to know how to find a safe male host. I stuck to the safety rules, always checking the profiles and references carefully and listening to my gut. It resulted in meeting many amazing individuals (some of them quite eccentric, I have to admit, but all very kind and caring about creating a safe space for their guests).

H. was CS ambassador1 in his country and had about 80 positive references (not a single one negative), both from male and female surfers. When he offered to host me, I went through all of them, looking for red flags, those small hints that would unveil any creepy habits or shady peculiarities. Nothing about his profile was saying „trouble”. We exchanged some messages and he seemed to be open, easy-going, and polite. 

The first impression was good. He helped me carry my bike up to his apartment, made coffee, and offered me food, all of which made me feel more at ease. We had a great afternoon and evening, full of discussions about culture, geopolitics, religion, and so one. Like any other Couchsurfing evening. Then, when we were about to go to sleep, H. used a goodnight hug as an excuse to grope my butt. After I protested, he mumbled an apology but still found it appropriate to ask if he can sleep with me.

„Hell no!”, I answered. H. humbly went to his room, leaving me confused and insecure.

Early in the morning, I left, although I initially planned to stay for two nights.

„How was your stay with H.? Leave a review” – popped up on my phone screen two days later.

Good question, CS, good question.

It should be easy. I felt unsafe and uncomfortable, even if only for a moment. H. broke CS basic rules and took advantage of the fact that as his guest I was vulnerable. I should have left a negative review. I tried. With every word I was about to write, I heard a vicious voice in the back of my head.

„Maybe it was my fault? Maybe I was unintentionally giving him some signals? I should have said no immediately when he asked if he can hug me.”

„I had a few beers, so it was my fault.”

„He had a few beers, he didn’t mean to make me uncomfortable.”

„Eventually, he respected that I said no and didn’t actually hurt me. He just groped my butt. No big deal.”

„He was nice most of the time, so maybe he doesn’t deserve a negative.”

„All the other surfers had a positive experience with him. So maybe there was something wrong with me, not with him?”

In the end, I didn’t write a review. For a few months, I almost forgot about the whole situation. We girls are kind of used to such little incidents, to all the catcalling, little groping, lewd comments. 

H.’s profile still looked flawless and the only comments you could read there were saying what a nice and kind guy he is. Nothing pointed out that his apartment with a lovely balcony view might be not the best place for solo female travelers. 

I felt stupid and powerless about leaving it that way. It ate at me. I always thought myself a strong, independent woman, aware of her rights, not a naive bimbo or parochial girl. But for some reason, I wasn’t able to speak up, write my reference, and stay true to my beliefs. Eventually, I found out that I am not alone in this. I asked about that on a Facebook group for bike-touring women. Astonishingly many people have the same problem writing a few words about their negative CS experience.

I’ve hosted a lot of guests, more than 100. I’ve talked about this with quite a few of my guests, mostly women. Many have said they didn’t leave a bad review when they felt uncomfortable with a male host. Because it can be so hard to put your finger on what exactly went wrong. It can be difficult to draw a line and confront the host in person (especially if you are tired and have no alternative accommodation) and you weren’t actually assaulted. I’ve always advised to just write a factual review but maybe include a hint to warn the women who come after you. Something like ‚this would be a suitable place to stay for a couple or a solo male cyclist’.

-Vera, oufti.nl2

I had an awful experience while touring in Scotland. He was messaging me throughout the night saying really graphic sexual things while I was on the couch. I literally ran away to the train station in the morning. When he realized I was gone, he asked me why. I told him what he had done was unacceptable and I would report him. He then denied it all and said I couldn’t do anything about it. The CS team were amazing, they made sure I was in a safe place before shutting his profile down. But… before it was shut down I left a detailed bad review, then I received a bunch of private messages from women saying he had done the same thing to them. But none of them had left him a bad review. He had about 30 great reviews, no bad ones. That’s why I stayed with him, I thought he was safe.

-Kate

Social validation is a powerful thing, isn’t it?

Nobody wants to be the first negative among 30 positives, nobody wants to shout out „the emperor is naked”! We instinctively lower our heads, but as soon as someone takes the lead, suddenly everyone else decides to speak out.

There are plenty of reasons we don’t report cases like that. We are afraid of retaliation. All in all, in most cases we don’t have enough evidence and it is your word against the perpetrator’s. We are afraid to be judged for putting ourselves in this situation. We don’t know how to describe it. We are not quite sure about the perpetrator’s intent or don’t think it was serious enough to even take it up. We don’t trust that someone will believe and help us.

But the thing is if we don’t report the „little”, „insignificant” incidents, we compromise the trust that is the base of CouchSurfing. CS needs honest reviews. It needs to set clear lines. Any situation you felt uncomfortable with, any violation of CS policy that won’t be reported, can lead to serious abuse, to someone getting really hurt.

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say. Not leaving any clue, if something was suss, is irresponsible as it makes other women more likely to have an unpleasant (or worse) experience.

-Fiona

After 13 months, I finally opened the CS website and wrote an exact description of my stay at H. I also sent his profile details to one of the other ambassadors. 

I wanted to take another look at his references for the purpose of this article. His profile is not active anymore.

HOW TO WRITE A CS REFERENCE

1.    Stay true to your experience.

2.    Express every doubt.

3. It is sometimes difficult to put your experience into words. Here is a piece of advice from CS veteran Matt who hosted almost 200 and stayed with more than 70 people: If you don’t know how to start, start with: „during my stay there, I had a doubt such as… / connected to… / about…” As soon as you write those first words, the rest will become much easier.

No need to make „big accusations”. Just go with Matt’s suggestion: describe your doubts, your impressions. You feel like a negative reference is too big but you didn’t feel completely comfortable and safe? Leave a subtle hint for the other girls („he’s a flirter”, „he gets a bit touchy-feely”, „it’s a good place to stay for male surfers”). If you for some reason don’t want to write a reference (you are afraid that you’ll be judged, you are scared, you don’t want people to know), just reach out to the CS Trust & Safety Team or the local ambassador. Anything is better than no reaction at all.

I wish I wouldn’t have to keep the distance, set the rules, and be mistrustful when I’m Couchsurfing. In the end, I still believe most people are good and have good intentions. But there are a few who are abusing this platform and using it as a hookup app (and, if you browse a bit (f.ex. here or here), you might be surprised by the scale of that phenomenon. Usually, you can spot them before you cross their threshold (of course, you can never be 100 % sure, but you can at least reduce the risk). Here is how:

Safe CouchSurfing – tips for solo female travelers (and everybody else)3 / WRITTEN WITH THE INVALUABLE HELP OF CS GURU KELLY JULIAN

1. You need to know what you are getting yourself into. CouchSurfing isn’t just to start a profile, write a request, and go surfing. DO YOUR DILIGENCE. Start with going to CS meetings in your city or CS events to get the vibe of it. Ask some active members for advice. Learn what to avoid. Especially if you don’t have experience in traveling in general. Develop a radar for potentially dangerous situations. Don’t be paranoid, but be aware that shit happens.

2. Do the profile search with filters: verified, referenced. Yeah, I know, we all had a profile with 0 references once, but if you are a solo traveling girl, you don’t have to be the one who gives a chance to get his first one to a guy, even if he looks super nice.

3. Read the profile description thoroughly. A more detailed profile means more transparency and more time invested in CS, so that’s most likely someone who is engaged in this community and treats it seriously. Look for ambiguity or vagueness or any uncomfortable hallmarks (once I almost stayed with a Croatian „open-minded” couple that wanted to offer me  „not only a couch”. Luckily, they mentioned that in our conversation before my arrival, so I paid for a campsite instead, like a narrow-minded traveler).

4. Read the couch description. Check if there is a couch photo. If you have doubts about something (eg. it is unclear for you if you’re going to share the room etc.), just ask. Once again, know what you are getting yourself into.

5. Read the references, looking for red flags:

– negative references

– no references from women

– references only from women (especially if they are all young and pretty party girls)

6. Contact some of the users who left a reference (especially those with strong profiles) and ask them „woman to woman” if there is something you should be aware of. That is a point that my research before staying with H. was missing. Had I contacted some girls who were hosted by him before, I would’ve probably found out that he was „touchy-feely”.

7. Establish a connection with the host before you arrive. Chat for a bit. Get to know him/her before you end up in his/her doorstep.

8. Do the research about the country you’re traveling to. Know what is common and uncommon, how the culture sees women, what are the rules for physical contact (is shaking hands ok? Is a solo traveling woman perceived promiscuous and looking for adventure?). Yes, I wish the macho culture was dead, but it is still doing great in some countries. I hope we will one day live in a world, where, as a woman, you don’t have to overthink every smile and everything you say, because some guy might find it „inviting”, but for now we don’t. So, keep some distance when surfing in certain countries. Just in case.

9. Join local groups, you might find relevant info, eg. about potentially dangerous hosts there.

10. Trust your gut. If something is telling you not to go or stay, then don’t.

11. Even if you did everything right, there is still a 1 % chance something can go wrong. In that case…

… if you find yourself in an uncomfortable/unsafe situation:

1.    Express your doubts to the host.

2.    Leave the place. Get somewhere safe.

3.    Contact CS Ambassador in the city you’re visiting.

4. Contact the CS Trust and Safety team.

5.    If necessary, report to the police.

6. If somebody hurt you, remember: it is not your fault.

1.  “The CS Ambassador program is a group of Couchsurfers who exemplify our Core Values in the way they live and share their lives. (…) They are extremely active in their communities, hosting surfers, planning events, and attending meet-ups. They understand and respect the community guidelines and terms of use, are committed to keeping the local Couchsurfing community active, safe, and welcoming to all, and they love sharing their culture with locals and travelers alike.” 

2. The quotes come from members of Bicycle Traveling Women Facebook group and are used with permission of their authors.

3. I used the world „women” in this article, but of course it is not only women’s issue. Sexual abuse happens to men and non-binary people too, and I believe in their case it is even more difficult to report it.

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