How was your first hitchhiking experience

Youth, Society and Culture

Couchsurfing is a world famous accommodation brokerage website and social network with more than 14 million members, a number that is increasing every day. As the name suggests, the site gives its members the opportunity to host or stay overnight in another member's house as a guest - perhaps on their couch - and thus come into direct contact with locals. You can also just meet new people or attend events organized by the local couch surfing community if you don't want to share your accommodation with a stranger right away. The philosophy behind the project promotes cultural exchange by making the most of the oldest of all wisdoms: “Man is by nature a social animal”. There is really no better way to explore and get to know a new place than to meet its locals, to share experiences and ideas in a cozy atmosphere and new surroundings and thus to create a connection between people with different attitudes towards life want to understand.

But how did couch surfing actually come about?

In 1999, the young programmer Casey Fenton, then 25, had booked a cheap flight to Iceland; however, he still needed a place to stay. He didn't want to fall back on the usual overnight accommodations and so he tried his luck and emailed over 1500 Icelandic students with the question of whether someone would let him sleep on the couch with them. Fenton was lucky and received many responses, and was pleased to find that the students offered him not only a couch but also a tour of their Reykjavík. His stay was so fantastic that he made ur couch surfing ’his new standard way of traveling.

A few years later, he managed to turn his experience into a non-profit organization and website, creating one of the most famous examples of the sharing economy. However, due to the charitable status of Couchsurfing, not enough resources could be generated to deal with the flood of new users, which led to numerous technical problems.

Since Couchsurfing couldn't sustain itself without donations, the site accepted $ 7.6 million from venture capitalists Benchmark Capital and Omidyar Network and, as Fenton put it, became a B Corporation, a company that uses business funds to to achieve charitable goals. A year later, the company received another $ 15 million donation, which enabled it to innovate and offer new services; even when the financial problems were resolved, new difficulties loomed.

Couchsurfing or ... sex surfing? Is this the end of “innocent couch surfers”?

“We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?" - William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Since transforming into a for-profit organization, the steady expansion of the community has apparently heralded the end of Couchsurfing's innocence: many new users do not adhere to the philosophy of sharing and rather have a “do-ut-des attitude”, often having sex in return for the provision of accommodation.

With a simple Google search for the term “Couchsurfing” or reading a few travel blog posts on the subject, you will quickly see how the platform has developed into a dating website. I am not talking about casual sex between a guest and their host, and I would never criticize a consensual act between two adult people. The problem I want to address is the fact that "people are using this portal to hunt for women for free sex and vice versa," to use the words of travel blogger Agnes Walewinder. Couchsurfing should be a safe haven for alternative travelers, but it is increasingly turning into sex surfing, which discourages travelers, especially female backpackers, from using it for fear of being sexually molested, raped or even murdered.

As if that weren't enough, the site is now teeming with so-called pick-up artists, people (usually men, but not exclusively) who specialize in attracting or habitually stalking sexual partners: what better way to objectify and solidify degradation of women?

Take, for example, John Maverick's articles “How to seduce naughty Couchsurfing girls” and “8 signs of a naughty Couchsurfing girl.”. The author claims to have joined Couchsurfing to “fuck girls” and he shares his “expertise” to help other men struggling to get women laid. Rather than approaching the opposite sex in a healthy and respectful way, Maverick's techniques are apparently based on submission and deception, which makes women appear like prey that is best hunted by exploiting their apparent promiscuity and frivolity . Both articles represent the epitome of sociopathy, male chauvinism, and misogyny, not to mention racism of the bluntest sort. I quote, "While some nationalities are easier to get around than others, there is something about these countries (e.g. France, Finland, and Poland) that makes women who are almost always guaranteed fuck."

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident: Business Insider described Couchsurfung as "the greatest rip-open app ever developed", while rip-off guides are being posted with increasing frequency and at the same time sites like 'Couchbangs' are popping up, a collection of sexual encounters by couch surfing hosts who got their guests - be they male or female - to bed.

Is that the end of couch surfing?

Is it still possible to use the site securely or should we look for another platform such as HospitalityClub, Trustroots or Be Welcome? Couchsurfing is certainly more dangerous than it was before, but its community is still made up of many good and sincere people who love to travel; therefore I would not advise anyone to leave the community. Also, if all respectable members leave, the transition to a dating site would be complete and we must not allow that to happen. Couchsurfing has made it possible for many travelers to achieve their dreams and it still can if we encourage people to use it as originally intended.

It is therefore essential for us to understand in advance whether a host can be trusted. We need to find out about our travel destination and possible alternative accommodation; In addition, it can be useful to visualize characteristics that are often found in pick-up artists and possible sexual attackers. To shed some light on this matter, today we're going to speak to Hannah, a seasoned, adventurous couch surfer who will share her good and bad experiences with us and give us some tips on how to stay on the safe side.

Meeting halfway: Hi Hannah, welcome and thank you for taking your time with us. Let's start at the very beginning. How did you discover couch surfing?

Hannah: Hello! Well, I've been traveling the world on my own since I was 18 and I quickly learned the importance of being on a budget when backpacking. I also learned how extraordinary a place can be when you tour it with a local. I don't remember exactly who told me about couch surfing, but I really wanted to go to India and stay with a local and that's why I signed up and the rest is history.

MH: How cool! You were very brave when you traveled alone to a country like India, mainly because it is generally considered a dangerous country for women traveling alone. Speaking of which, did you experience any difficulties during your couchsurfing time because of your gender, maybe scary situations or people?

H: There were a couple of times I knew the guy was expecting sex. Once when I was traveling around Scotland there was this guy who made me feel very insecure. He looked normal in the cafe where we met; then he took me to his apartment in the middle of nowhere and acted very strangely. The first thing I noticed was his Margaret Thatcher shrine. He said he would cook pasta for me and literally put uncooked spaghetti with tomato sauce on top in the microwave. He told me he was a ghost and asked if I wanted to become a ghost. He said a lot of couch surfers had sex and when I said I wasn't interested, he tried to convince me that I was stupid because I accused him of turning on me. He asked me if I wanted tea and closed the kitchen door while he was making it, so I didn't drink any of it. I didn't sleep for a second that night and ran off as soon as the sun came up. The only thing he said was that I should "write him a good review".

MH: Completely crazy, and the fear you must have been there! The majority of abused or threatened women do not report their host so as not to get a bad review on couch surfing. What did you do? Did you report it or write a bad review?

H: I hadn't written him a review in two days (because I was busy hitchhiking and exploring, didn't have a moment to sit down and do that) and he wrote a fake, malicious review of how I would have taken advantage of HIM. I reported him to Couchsurfing and told them what he had done and I believe his page has been deleted. Or maybe he deleted it himself, because it was definitely no longer there. Months later I got a message from a guy on couch surfing with the same last name as me (!!) - no photos or reviews - calling me a spoiled ugly slut. I wrote to him to take care of his business and blocked him; never heard from him again.

MH: Unfortunately, you're not the only one who got a bad review from your own "sexual assailant". You were brave when you reported him, so let's hope he doesn't bother anyone else. What criteria do you use to choose your hosts now, especially after these unfortunate encounters?

H: I am very picky. You must have a lot of reviews. At least 30. And I read through them all. And if it's just reviews from women, that's a big warning sign and I'm not writing to them. Read their entire profile through completely, because this way you can easily see if someone is telling bullshit. Text them more than just "Can I stay with you?" and I always meet them first in a public, well-visited place. Maybe spend the first night in a hostel and if you find the person trustworthy during the meeting, you can still stay with them the next night or you just made a new friendship.

MH: Many women prefer to stay with women only; do you like it? Or do you find that a large part of the couch surfing experience falls by the wayside?

H: I personally don't do it that way. I've stayed with a couple of women and it was great, but I'm glad I took the risk of staying with men because it made me some great platonic friendships. I've never made out with a host or felt compelled to do so (the Scotsman scared me, but to be honest, if he touched me or said anything threatening, I always felt it was easy to escape. It was my choice to wait until morning). However, I cannot tell someone else when they are comfortable; so if a woman is more comfortable just couch surfing with other women, I wouldn't say the experience would be ruined or wasted.

MH: You seem to really love couch surfing and the opportunities it offers; why do you think you should couch surf at least once in your life?

H: For me, the best thing about couch surfing is that you see a place through the eyes of a local. They can tell about what it is like to grow up in a certain city / region, provide information about the history or simply say what it is really like to live in the place you are visiting. A big plus are of course insider tips for restaurants or nightlife. In addition, as a woman traveling alone, I feel safer while couch surfing than if I were to stay in a hostel, because you will be shown around by someone who knows the streets, the customs and the people. If you stumble around like a stray tourist, you can sometimes be caught by pickpockets or feel confused and helpless, especially if there is a language barrier. Couchsurfing can make a strange place home.

MH: After all the uncomfortable situations above, we have finally arrived at the nice side of couch surfing. Why don't we end the conversation with your best couch surfing experience yet?

H: It's hard to choose the best, I've had so many great ones, but there are two really memorable ones. The first was in Sarajevo, the second in Gozo with a fifty-year-old gay man. He lived alone in this grand, bungalow-like house that was crammed with all sorts of knick-knacks, a huge library, recycled water, ivy that grew outside and inside, and a roof balcony. When I was there, he had a total of six guests who slept in bunk beds and on couches that were pulled out. The guy is really amazing, he cooks three gigantic, warm, homemade meals every day. For free! He made it easy for you to have deep conversations about history, politics, religion or life and the conversations at the dinner table were inspiring. He never asked for anything in return. Just unbelievable. I also have to thank him for making a lifelong friendship with another couch surfer who stayed with him when I was there and we're still in touch.

This article was first published by our cooperation partner Meetinghalfway.eu. Meetinghalfway.eu is a European online magazine and reports primarily on culture and society.