Locals offering free housing and good company in a beautiful location? Sounds like a backpacker’s dream! Is it still so, though?
By Iris Pase / 9.9.2017
Famous all over the world, Couchsurfing is a hospitality service and social networking website which counts more than 14 million members, whose number grows daily. As its name suggests, the platform gives its members the chance to host or be a guest in someone’s home – probably on someone’s couch, and interact directly with locals. Moreover, for those who might not feel ready yet to share accommodation with a stranger, it’s possible to just meet people or join events organised by the local CS community.
The underlying philosophy of the project promotes cultural exchange by making the most out of the oldest truth of them all: ”Man is by nature a social animal.” In fact, there’s no better way to explore and get to know a new place than by meeting its locals, by feeling comfortable in sharing experiences and ideas in a new environment, and thus creating a bond between individuals trying to understand different mindsets.
But how was Couchsurfing born?
Back in 1999, a young computer programmer, Casey Fenton, aged 25, booked a cheap flight to Iceland, but had no place to stay. Refusing to rely on ordinary accommodation, he tried his fortune and emailed over 1500 Icelandic students in Reykjavik asking them if they would host him on one of their couches. Lucky man, he got many answers and, to his delight, those students were not just offering him a couch, but the chance to be shown around and see their Reykjavik. Fenton’s stay was so amazing, that he chose “couchsurfing” as his own new way of travelling.
A few years later he managed to transpose his experience both into a non-profit organisation and a website, thus creating one of the most famous examples of the sharing economy. However, CS’ non-profit status prevented the platform from having the resources to keep up with the flood of new users, which resulted in several technical problems.
Unable to sustain itself without donations, Couchsurfing accepted $7.6 million from venture capitalist Benchmark Capital and Omidyar Network, and became – as said by Fenton himself – a B Corporation, that is an enterprise which uses the power of business to create public benefit. One year later, the company received an additional $15 million in funding which allowed the now for-profit organisation to innovate and add new services; however even if financial problems were resolved, new issues were about to arise.
Couchsurfing or… Sexsurfing? Is this the end of “innocent couchsurfers”?
“We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?”
― William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Since its transformation into a for-profit organization, the constant enlargement of the community has apparently signaled the end of Couchsurfing’s innocence: several new users don’t comply with its philosophy of sharing, they rather follow a “do ut des” attitude, often expecting sex in return for accommodation.
Just try typing “couchsurfing” on Google or reading a few travel blog posts about it and you’ll notice how the platform has been evolving into a dating website. I’m not talking about casual sex between a guest and their host, I’m far from criticising what would be a consensual act between two grown adults. The issue I’m addressing is the fact that, as put by travel blogger Agnes Walewinder, “people use this portal to hunt girls for free sex and vice versa”. Couchsurfing was meant to be a safe port for alternative travellers but it’s switching to Sexsurfing, making travellers, especially female backpackers, afraid to use it for fear of being sexually harassed, raped or even murdered.
If this wasn’t enough, the place is now populated with so-called pick-up artists, people (typically men but not exclusively) practised at attracting or habitually pursuing sexual partners: and what better way of perpetuating women’s objectification and belittlement?
Take, for instance, John Maverick’s articles “How to seduce naughty Couchsurfing girls” and “8 signs of a naughty Couchsurfing girl.” The author maintains to have joined CS to “bang chicks” and shares his “expertise” to help men who struggle to get laid. Obviously, rather than suggesting a healthy and respectful approach to the other sex, Maverick bases his techniques on submission and deception, making women look like prey to be chased by taking advantage of their apparent promiscuity and frivolousness. Both articles represent the epitome of sociopathy, male chauvinism, and misogyny, not to mention a sort of bland racism, I quote: ”While some nationalities are easier than others, there was something about these countries (i.e. France, Finland and Poland) manufacturing girls that are almost always guaranteed lays.”
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case: Business Insider defined CS as “the greatest hook-up app ever devised,” while hook-up guides are being posted ever more frequently, along with the foundation of websites like Couchbangs, a repertoire of sex encounters compiled by CS hosts who managed to get their guest – be it male or female, into bed.
Is this the end of Couchsurfing?
Is it possible to use it safely or should we abandon it for an alternative platform like HospitalityClub, Trustroots, or Be Welcome?
CS has certainly become more dangerous than before, but its community is still populated by plenty of good and genuine people who love travelling; therefore, I would never advise you to abandon the community. In addition, if all the respectable members leave, the transition into a dating website will be complete and we cannot allow it to happen. Couchsurfing has been a dream come true for thousands of travellers and it still can be, if we encourage people to use it for its original purpose.
It is therefore crucial for us to understand beforehand if a host can be trusted. We must inform ourselves both about our destination and possible second options for accommodation; at the same time, it might be useful to keep in mind which characteristics are common among pick-up artists and possible sexual attackers. To give you a little insight on the matter, today we’re talking with Hannah, an experienced couchsurfer passionate about seeking out adventure, who will share her good and bad experiences and give us a few tips to stay safe.
Meeting Halfway: Hi Hannah, welcome, and thank you for your time. Let’s start from the very beginning. How did you discover Couchsurfing?
Hannah: Hey there! Well, I’ve been traveling abroad on my own since I was 18, and I quickly learned the importance of budgeting when backpacking. I also learned how special a place becomes when you see it with a local. I can’t remember who exactly told me about Couchsurfing, but I really wanted to go to India and stay with a local, so I signed up and the rest was history!
MH: So cool! You’ve been very brave travelling on your own to a place like India, mainly because it is generally perceived as a dangerous country for solo female travellers. Speaking of which, in your CS experience did you face any difficulties because of your gender, maybe creepy situations or individuals?
H: I had a couple instances where I knew the guy expected sex. While traveling in Scotland, one guy really made me feel unsafe. He seemed normal at the coffee shop we met at, then he took me to his apartment in the middle of nowhere and was being very strange. First I noticed his giant shrine of Margaret Thatcher. He said he would cook me pasta and he literally just put raw uncooked spaghetti in the microwave with tomato sauce on it. He told me he was a ghost and asked if I wanted to be a ghost. He told me many couchsurfers end up hooking up, when I said I wasn’t interested he tried to make me feel dumb for accusing him of hitting on me. He asked me if I wanted tea and he shut the kitchen door while he made it, so I didn’t drink any. I didn’t sleep at all and left as soon as the sun came up and all he said was “write me a good review.”
MH: It’s absolutely crazy, and the fear you must have felt! The majority of abused or threatened women do not report their host in order to avoid getting a bad review on CS. What did you do? Did you report him or write a bad review?
H: I hadn’t written him a review in 2 days (busy hitchhiking and exploring, hadn’t had a moment to sit down and do it) and he wrote a fake, vicious review about how I used HIM. I reported him to CS and told them what he did and I think his page got deleted? Or maybe he deleted it because it was gone. Months later I get a message from a guy on CS with the same last name as me (!!) – but no photos or reviews – calling me a spoiled ugly bitch. I told him to get a life and blocked him, never heard from him again.
MH: Unfortunately you’re not the only one who’s gotten a bad review by her own “sexual attacker.” You’ve been brave to report it, so let’s hope he won’t harass other people. Which criteria do you use to choose your hosts now, especially after those unfortunate encounters?
H: I’m pretty picky. They’ve got to have a lot of reviews. Like, 30+. And I read them all. And if they are all reviews from girls that is a red flag and I don’t message them. Read their profile fully because I can smell a bullshitter easily with that. Message them with more than just a “can you host me?” and I always meet them in a busy public place first. Maybe spend a night in a hostel first and if you trust them on your meeting, you can crash with them the next night or just make a new friend!
MH: A lot of girls prefer staying with girls only, do you agree? Or do you think this would mean wasting the true CS experience?
H: Personally no. I’ve stayed with a few girls and it was awesome but I’m glad I took the risk with guys cause I made some amazing, platonic friendships. I’ve never hooked up with a host or felt like I had to (the Scottish guy creeped me out but I honestly felt that if he touched me or said anything threatening I could easily escape. It was my choice to wait until the morning). However I cannot dictate someone else’s comfort level, so if a girl feels better only couchsurfing with other girls I don’t think the experience will be ruined or wasted at all.
MH: You do seem to love CS and the chances it offers, why, in your opinion, should anyone couchsurf at least once in their lives?
H: For me, the best part about couchsurfing is seeing a place through the eyes of a local. They’ll tell you stories about growing up in the certain city/country, they can give you a history lesson, or just tell you the truth of what it’s like to live in the place you are visiting. And knowing the secret tips for the best places to eat or go out is a plus as well! Also, for me, a solo female traveler, I actually feel safer couchsurfing than staying at a hostel because you are being guided by someone who knows the streets, the customs, and the people. Sometimes if you’re bumbling around like a lost tourist you can be targeted by pickpockets or feel confused and helpless, especially if there’s a language barrier. Couchsurfing can make a foreign place feel like home.
MH: After all the former creepy situations we’ve finally come to the bright side of CS, so why don’t we end our conversation with your best CS experience so far?
H: It’s hard to pick the best, I’ve had so many great ones but there are two really memorable ones. The first was in Sarajevo, while the second was in Gozo with a 50-something year old gay man. He lived by himself in this amazing, bungalow-style house that was eclectic with various knick knacks, a giant library, recycled water, ivy growing inside and outside, and a rooftop balcony. When I stayed with him he was hosting six people total, with bunk beds and pull out couches. This guy is incredible really, he cooks three enormous, warm, homemade meals everyday. For free! He always facilitated deep conversations about history, politics, religion, or life and the conversations we had around the dinner table were inspiring. He never asked for anything in return. Just incredible. I also have to thank him cause I made a life-long friend with another couchsurfer who stayed with him while I did, and we are still in contact to this day.