How Couchsurfing is Putting Women* in Danger
I’m no veteran couchsurfer, but up until last week my worst Couchsurfing experience had only involved receiving a creepy text after forgetting my best wool underwear drying in a man’s spare room. Of course, I’ve always been aware of the worst case scenarios in staying in a stranger’s home, but I pride myself on my good instincts and knowing my limits for discomfort, and I try to always be as thorough as possible when choosing hosts. For those who are unfamiliar, Couchsurfing is a platform in which people can offer up their couch or spare room to travelers for free, in the interest of fostering international community and cultural exchange. You can have friends much like other social media platforms, and there is a reviewing system which supposedly provides a form of accountability.
In choosing Giovanni, a 45 year old man, to host me, a 26 year old female*, near Naples, I checked to make sure he had reviews from other female* travelers (he did) and that they were all positive (they were), and I chatted with him semi-regularly for the weeks leading up to my visit to ensure that I didn’t feel any bad vibes. However, he did not speak English so we had been communicating in Spanish. Since my Spanish is good but not great, the likelihood that I was unable to properly assess the situation beforehand is pretty high, considering the events that followed.
(Content warning for the following six paragraphs: sexual harassment, non-consensual contact)
I showed up at Giovanni’s home in Portici, Italy last Friday expecting to stay for two nights, and left after only one and a half hours. He seemed kind at first, much like I was expecting him to be, as he showed me around his apartment. We communicated using Google Translate’s conversation tool. But when we went up to the rooftop with a bottle of wine, things changed. He brought me over to a side railing to show me the view of Vesuvius (that I could see perfectly well from where I had been sitting before) and he trapped me between him and the rail with his arms around me, his body pressed against my back.
I tensed up but didn’t protest because I had heard that southern Italians especially are known for being more touch-oriented. I thought I could just position myself away from any further contact and my discomfort would subside. When we sat back down facing the sea, I realized I would be unable to do this efficiently because he was now actively becoming more physical with me—sitting right up against me, putting his arm around me, holding my hand, and stroking my face, all while laying on the compliments, calling me beautiful and saying how much he liked looking at me. I decided to cut this short, and I told him I was more interested in women* than men. At this he pulled his arm away, moved away from me, and rolled his eyes, but after a brief pause started asking questions that were clearly designed to determine if he still had a chance. I wasn’t prepared for these questions and was honest, telling him euphemistically that I’ve had bad experiences with men and don’t trust men so easily, and that I don’t sleep with men unless I know them well. He seemed content with this answer and maintained a bit of distance between us, and soon after we went back inside.
When we sat down on the living room couch, he sat in the center and I sat on the couch’s arm, purposefully choosing to keep about two feet of space between us. He clearly had other plans, however, and pulled me down. I toppled into him because my feet hadn’t been firmly on the floor. He put his arm around me and pulled out his phone to start taking photos of us together. I told him I didn’t like photos, so he deleted them, visibly annoyed. But after a minute he became softer and he once again put his arm around me, this time pulling me close to him with some force, leaving no chance for me to inch away.
His face was very close to mine and he was angled toward me like all I had to do was look at him and he would try to kiss me, and he would have succeeded as I had no room to move away. I strictly avoided eye contact. His hand of the arm that held my neck hostage was laid against my breast and I was unable to shift away from it, he was holding me so tight. His feet were wrapped around my feet, as his other hand grabbed my hands. When I’d move my hands away, he would grab them again. He told me “cold hands, warm heart” with a smile, and said he would try to warm me up. Finally he received a phone call and got up to take it outside on the balcony. As he walked away, from behind me, he did something halfway between caressing my face and grabbing my chin with his whole hand. I flinched, hard.
When he returned, I told him firmly that I wasn’t interested but didn’t want to upset him by continuing to tell him no. He scoffed and said “cold hands, cold heart”. I asked him if he wanted me to go, and he told me that he simply had “instincts” as any man would around a beautiful woman and that he could try to control them. As I explained that I was just looking out for myself, he grew upset. In his words, I was “making him out to be a bad person and he’s not a bad person.” At this point I had made my intentions clear. I told him I was uncomfortable, and he made it about himself by telling me I was making him feel “brutto” (bad, ugly, undesirable). Impatient and annoyed, I stood up to leave. He started apologizing and pulled me in for a hug which lasted too long, and he kissed my head before I pushed him off me and left. I burst into tears as soon as I got to the street. It was so obvious to me that these were his primary intentions in using Couchsurfing, that I imagined a scene for his entry to the site beginning with a friend telling him he could use it to get laid.
These were the messages we shared later that evening:
I left Giovanni a review on Couchsurfing detailing what had transpired in the one and a half hours I was in his apartment as a warning for other women*. Couchsurfing allows users to respond to their reviews publicly, and Giovanni replied to mine stating that he sincerely believes I have mental problems due to my past experiences with men. I had shared with him that bit of my history in hopes that he would understand my unwillingness to be in that situation with him, and he turned around and used it against me.
(End content warning)
In this “new age”, I should not have to assert that I was very careful not to lead him on, and that yes I am sure. I should not have to validate my decision to choose him as a host by the fact that he had multiple reviews from other women*, all positive, and that I had no discernable reason to distrust him. I should not have to explain that the reason I didn’t go to the police was because I was in a foreign country, because I was in shock and just wanted to enjoy my last few days of vacation, and because I’ve been quite literally laughed at by police officers for reporting far more serious sexual offenses. I wish that it was innately understood that I didn’t storm off the first time he touched me because I’ve been conditioned as a woman* to spare men’s feelings often at the expense of my own, and I am still in the process of unlearning. I wish I wouldn’t be applauded for leaving at the expense of women* who can’t, or couldn’t. I hope it’s understood that even if you don’t personally consider this encounter to be assault, it so easily could’ve been.
The response from the Couchsurfing “Trust and Safety” team was a mess of gaslighting and condescension which betrayed many of my above wishes. Amelia responded to my complaint and request for his profile to be removed with:
I did not ‘perceive’ this man touching me without my consent, it is the reality I had to experience. And to say that his behavior is his culture, and that I was unable to comprehend it, is a glaring insult both to me and to every one of the kind, respectful Italians that fill that beautiful country to the brim.
Unsatisfied with Amelia’s response, I emailed the CEO to express my dismay and anger at the way the situation had been handled, demanding four things: to have this man’s profile removed, a refund of my verification fee (a $60 fee that allows you to send unlimited messages to other users instead of the allotted 10 per week, and adds a green checkmark to your profile), advocacy training for Couchsurfing support employees, and a donation to Planned Parenthood, which has undoubtedly played a role in cleaning up the mess caused by Couchsurfing’s poor policies. I received only my refund without even a response, because in the end Couchsurfing is a corporation like any other; money is the only thing that matters. Its users, and more specifically, its female* users, are commodities. The cost of believing the reports of female* couchsurfers, taking them seriously, and taking action to foster safety, would be losing the male hosts who use the service to take advantage of women*.
Upon returning home, I shared my experience with a closed Facebook group of 95,000 worldwide women* who have the common experience of traveling solo. The response I received was primarily love and support, aside from the minority who left the common victim-blaming tropes (“But you should’ve gone to the police!”, “You shouldn’t be Couchsurfing to begin with!”, etc.) To hear women* trying to convince me that this person’s horrendous actions were in any way my fault invoked painful emotional memories from the aftermaths of my previous assaults, but it was infinitely more heartbreaking to read the stories these women* shared about their own traumatic Couchsurfing experiences. These stories ranged from bad vibes that led them to flee in the middle of the night, to rape, and probably accounted for about 50% of the 300+ comments my post received. In the course of a few hours we transformed this small corner of the internet into our own support group for survivors of predatory men who took advantage, and continue to take advantage, of this platform that is supposed to be based on trust between travelers.
In fact, I had expected the negative responses to be more abundant. As a survivor of more and much worse, I am acutely aware that the naysayers are always the loudest as well as the most painful to hear. It was despite this expectation that I shared my story anyway, not fishing for ‘likes’ or support, but to warn these women*, the most women* that I could find in one place, that the Couchsurfing team was entirely and appallingly unsupportive in my reporting process and that if they choose to continue using the site they will likely be on their own in case something goes awry. Anyone who has experienced trauma knows that bad support is nearly worse than no support, and I hoped to protect others from that outcome.
In failing to delete this man’s profile, Couchsurfing is not only allowing him to continue as a predator in their community, they are sending a message to female* users that our safety and comfort are of lesser value than their male users’ reputations. Instead of believing one person and saving others from the same fate, Couchsurfing is choosing to require that multiple women* be preyed on by a man, and then feel comfortable reporting him, before they will remove him from the position of power which hosting grants him. They are effectively aiding in the assault of other women*. But if women* aren’t believed in the first place, how will they ever feel comfortable reporting at all? How could anyone ever be expected to report abuse with the argument ‘they don’t believe me, but hopefully they’ll believe you’? Why isn’t one instance of assault or abuse enough?
My goal in sharing this all-too-common story is not only for it to serve as a warning to other women*, but also to put immense pressure on Couchsurfing to take these reports and my demands seriously. As a platform that aids men in exercising their power over women* in abusive and terrifying ways, Couchsurfing needs to take action.
I was able to have conversations with two of the women who had left Giovanni positive reviews. One admitted to exchanging a positive review for “peace in his home”, and the other shared that she was able to avoid him by going to bed early and staying out all day but did feel uncomfortable around him and knew immediately that my story was true. After hearing my story, they revealed that he had made similar passes at them and they, too, promptly reported him. It’s been nearly three weeks, and his profile remains active. So, how many women* does it take? I demand that this man’s profile be removed so he, specifically, is no longer a threat, but I also demand proof that women* won’t continue to be unsupported in their Couchsurfing endeavors. I demand that the platform no longer facilitate harassment and abuse from men by failing to enforce strict consequences for their behavior. Couchsurfing as it stands today creates a safe place for predators at the expense of the safety of women*, and we deserve so much better.
I’d be remiss if I failed to devote time to the analysis of all the forms my privilege takes in the living and telling of this story. I live simply but comfortably, and am privileged to be earning a master’s degree in Switzerland. The fact that I live here, that I was even able to move here, and that I am able to save small amounts of money means I’m afforded many more opportunities to travel than most people get in their lifetime. This is in large part due to my being white and middle class. The fact that this story is even being shared to such a wide audience is a privilege I’m certain my race and class also afford me, and I ask of you not to forget that there are certainly people of color (especially women* of color), indigenous women*, lower class women*, trans and nonbinary folks, fat women*, young women*, women* of non-christian religions, disabled women*, and women* of every intersection out there who have had similar to worse experiences using this platform and have been silenced. I want this to be for all of us. We all deserve to be safe.
CALL TO ACTION: On April 30th we're calling for sexual harassment victims of men on Couchsurfing to share their experiences using the hashtags #MeToo #TimesUp #Couchsurfing in a bid to get the company to take down predatory hosts profiles and to take our safety more seriously through our listed demands. Please share your story on April 30th if you're a victim and feel comfortable doing so, or support us by retweeting and sharing this story to make the cause more widely known. Thank you!
* This symbol accompanies 'women' and 'female' and is meant to be inclusive of all who are not cis-male as this affects all of us, though of course some (trans people, WOC) more than others (white women)