As a solo woman in and out of the traveling world, I’m taught to be afraid.  Do not walk alone at night.  Avoid darkened alleys or an empty parking garage. Honestly, this makes me angry, deeply conflicted.  Mixed signals abound when on one hand I’m encouraged to be forceful, yet fearful in the same breath.

I’ve stayed in hostels, with friends, guesthouses – where doom could lurk in any corner.  Yet, I sense a general reluctance from fellow women travelers to use CouchSurfing.

Assault is a Four Letter Word on CouchSurfing (CS)

A 2009 Bitch piece by Mandy Van Deven strongly suggests there are flaws, this article was written after a 29 year old Hong Kong woman was repeatedly raped by ex-couchsurfing member, Abdelali Nachet, a resident of Leeds at the time.

Van Deven was quick to accuse CouchSurfing management of delayed reaction until a major news outlet broke the story.  Furthermore, how paper thin their safety measurements are for women.  What’s compelling are the comments.

Posted by kfon:

“I have used CouchSurfing with a partner in the past. It worked out incredibly well for us, but it’s not something I would ever use on my own.”

Or this one, by A Duh (!) Moment:

“Can’t fathom anyone thinking CS is a particularly great idea in today’s world. Heck, in any world. When would it ever be a great idea for a woman to stay over night in a stranger’s home? Is this something we’d do with anyone even right in our own cities and towns? I’d have no desire to put myself in a strange situation halfway around the world either. I kinda just don’t get it. Vulnerability is high on my list of red flag items. I simply don’t expose myself to ‘potential’ danger. It’s worked thus far.”

It appears overall CS is a fatal idea, and look what happened to her.

If you delve further some of the commenters sway towards personal responsibility.  Use the groups and forums of CS to better protect yourself from harm.  The conversation then hones in on racial/cultural differences – how dumb of her to spend the night alone in a Muslim’s man’s apartment.

That line of argument loudly implies safety is solely on the victim.

This leaves me wondering, is CouchSurfing a detriment to the solo woman traveler or a benefit?  I say, both.

TravelCouchsurfing

My Take

CS is a user generated website for travelers to provide/share accommodation or meet for a coffee or drink, even sightseeing.  It isn’t freeloading, but a platform for travelers to connect culturally, and in a larger context, share our love of travel.

I view it as a microcosm, a word within a world, where a mix of single men and women, couples, and diverse personalities join.  And this world is not without glitches.

A newly formed friend recently said, “I bet guys use this site to get laid.”  Given my friend is a man, it was easy to bounce the comment back at him.  “Oh whatever, that’s what you would do.”

He had a point though.  CS has faced controversies in the past with voyeur webcam guys or perceived inappropriate behavior by Ambassadors.  Why, just two weeks ago a Montreal girl’s laptop was stolen by a surfer.  She left him alone in her apartment all day, which apparently is not recommended.

The Leeds assault is an elevated animal. It was revealed Nachet did not have a fully completed profile or references, nor was he vouched for.

Misbehaving, cultural misunderstandings, all of these could be construed that CS is more of a headache than not, full of murky boundaries and a barrel of rotten apples.

On the other hand, Leigh Shulman has couch surfed for over 4 years and swears by it.  In The Art of Solo Travel, author Stephanie Lee fully implemented CS during a year long sojourn.

Adventures of a Couch Surfer relays with glee the myriad of experiences the writer lived, most of them positive, grateful for a window into an exchange outside the standard hostel/hotel scenario.

If CS is truly parroting the world, negative and positive can’t exist without the other.  As a whole, CS is a unique online community, and as it flourishes, goes through growing pains, changes are not only possible, but viable.  However, change doesn’t happen without hiccups or horrible mistakes.

Since the high profile assault case members formed a For Safer CouchSurfing group lobbying for changes to the CS system.  A list of those new policies can be found in the thread.  Similar to interactions in the real world, the humans who use CS might have different agendas than you.  This doesn’t make it automatically dangerous, but varied, rich, even rewarding.  Even through mishaps we can grasp what to do next time.  We have the capacity to learn, so flex those muscles.

Lianne Readying for Her Travels

Arm the Missile

The fact is no one system will ever be perfect.  When travel became a beacon in my life, I chose to turn fear into knowledge.  Travelers research trip ideas and destinations to some degree, the same applies to CouchSurfing.  Address CS with logic, how you might choose a friend, a boyfriend/girlfriend, a trusted colleague.

It’s unfair to cast all men on CS as villains.  Abhorrent behaviour is not exclusive to men, but to all human beings.

If you are considering CS, consider this:

  • Utilize the groups.  Independent Women and Tips for Solo Women are immensely detailed.  Here’s a great discussion about safety: CS not always safe?
  • Media outlets report on “persons of interest” by gathering information from news wires or police radios. That accounts for about 10% of the sexual assaults actually reported to the police.  Why?  A high percentage is domestic based.
  • Sexual assaults often occur in contexts in which the abuser is in a position of trust or relation to the person assaulted, such as a husband, father, other relative, doctor, coach, religious advisor, teacher, friend, employer, or date.
  • Determine what kind of traveler you are – CS might not be your cup of tea.
  • An alternative website is Tripping, similar to CS, but they are developing a specific safety program.

There is no doubt CS requires effort, a palatable excuse to label it treacherous.  Any adventure seeker will give this advice: travel is about risks, sometimes with astounding, psyche-altering results.  CS is where you can meet life-long friends, or learn idiosyncrasies about a culture.

a backpacking travel to europe R015-036

I’ve Used It

My very first CouchSurfing experience occurred 2 weeks ago.  My host was a single man who lived in a loft apartment.  I knew beforehand we would be sleeping in a shared space, but not the same bed.

I approached the experience confident in my knowledge, but open.  CS is grounded on trust and sharing, I wasn’t about to cast suspicion on the situation unless he gave me cause.  He didn’t, nor did I.  The result was a stunningly positive experience.  Will that happen again?  I honestly don’t know.  My mandate is to carry knowledge with me, and treat each CS experience individually.

I’m no expert, but having volunteered at a rape shelter taught me something valuable, intuition can guide you, while information can empower you.

Photos: Duncanrileyroxx and kokorowashinjin