by Mandy Van Deven
When I began to understand the immensity of the world, I felt a visceral inclination to discover all that it possessed – or at least as much of it as I could. There was, however, the problem that I grew up poor in rural Georgia, and travel was prohibitively expensive. Even now, after class jumping to the American middle, it is all I can do to pay the price of visiting family living only a few states away.
In recent years the global expansion of the Internet has allowed people to make connections across geographic borders and cultural boundaries. It has expanded our ability to go beyond old models of foreign exchange and create new ways of interacting as global citizens. One website facilitating these interpersonal interactions is CouchSurfing.
I discovered CouchSurfing while living in Kolkata, India. My partner and I had moved there so he could do research for his doctoral dissertation. I was having a difficult time establishing my own community outside of the people we met through his work and I wanted to meet people with similar interests to my own, such as writing and grassroots organizing.
An American woman working at a non-governmental organization (NGO) introduced me to CouchSurfing. She said she used it to meet other expats in the city and Bengalis who worked at other local NGOs. So I signed up with the intention of doing the same but was not sure where to begin. I quickly provided lodging and travel tips to a young Australian woman who was on holiday and passing through the city. Although the experience was perfectly pleasant, it was not what I was looking for.
Soon I received an invitation to a meet-up of CouchSurfers in Kolkata and happily replied that I would attend. My excitement quickly faded when I arrived at the meeting place, a posh bar with Lady Gaga on heavy rotation. The meet-up was mainly attended by Indian men and Western women who had varying expectations of what might result from the evening. Some came for sex. Others wanted to meet friends from other countries. The whole thing felt like a mess of confusion.
As I made my way home that evening, I considered questions that had been nagging at me from the moment I signed up for CouchSurfing: Are the safety mechanisms the social network has in place sufficient for all of its users? What safety issues do CouchSurfers frequently face and how does CouchSurfing respond when incidents occur? What responsibility does CouchSurfing have for keeping its users safe?
When digital video artist Melissa Ulto went to Greece as a part of a European tour, she followed a friend's advice on how to keep costs to a minimum by staying with people she met through CouchSurfing. Initially excited at the prospect of making new friends from other cultures and traveling on the cheap, Ulto quickly discovered that CouchSurfing’s promise of life-changing experiences can have a disturbing downside.
On her second night in Athens, Ulto endured her host’s sexual overtures, homophobic slurs, attempts to grope and kiss her, and demands for sex before she was able to leave the situation and spend the night in a hotel. Shocked by what had happened and unsure of what to do in a foreign city, Ulto contacted CouchSurfing to report her host's misconduct. She left feedback on his profile, warning other women to stay away. The host retaliated by posting offensive comments to Ulto's profile, including calling her a "psycho."
CouchSurfing remained silent. So Ulto contacted them again. They still did not respond. On the third try Ulto threatened to take legal action, which got CouchSurfing’s attention. Unfortunately, according to CouchSurfing’s policies, reporting that a user has attempted sexual assault is not enough to ban him or her from the community.
"Because we are not there to witness events, we rely on members to talk about their experience with one another through references,” Safety Team Coordinator Rachel diCerbo eventually responded to Ulto. “We certainly empathize and will help people use the system in order to allow others to make informed decisions, but we simply must maintain as much neutrality as possible."
Imagine you are in a city where you do not speak the language, where you are unfamiliar with the laws and legal processes, where the legal system is onerous or complicated to navigate, or where technology is limited and corruption holds sway. Imagine you are not in town long enough to report a crime and see that report through. Imagine the complaint you want to make is not acted upon by local authorities or that you would have to admit to having violated social or cultural norms, or maybe even laws, particularly if you are a woman or LGBT. In a diverse and global community, a one-size-fits-all approach can be ineffective when applying universal guidelines for safety.
Despite a high-profile incident in 2009 where a host in the United Kingdom raped a young woman traveler from Hong Kong who connected with him through CouchSurfing, the company continues to rely on its profile-based system of references, verification, and vouching as its primary safety mechanism. The onus for ensuring safety is placed squarely on the shoulders of its users. They are told to vet potential hosts in order to make informed decisions and then provide feedback after their stay.
“I think we have an incredibly low crime rate for a community of our size,” says CouchSurfing spokesperson Heather O’Brien. “Still, whenever strangers meet, there's that element of the unknown.”
While O’Brien is right that safety measures are not infallible, CouchSurfing’s stance invokes the well-trod argument of personal responsibility versus institutional due diligence. Whether CouchSurfing should do more to protect its users’ safety, particularly the ones who are most vulnerable to harassment and assault, depends on which side of the argument you favor.
“Speaking from my own experience as a female traveler, and from stories that I've heard from our members, I would say that women generally need to do a little bit more due diligence,” says O’Brien.
CouchSurfing’s emphasis on personal responsibility is not unlike the broader discussions in our society on sexual violence against women. To this point, the focus has been primarily on risk reduction, not prevention or justice.
Ulto has a very different opinion on responsibility for traveler safety. "CouchSurfing should be shut down," she declares. "It's a menace to women, and allowing sexual predators to continue to prey on them is irresponsible."
The solution is no doubt somewhere in between these two profoundly contrasting perspectives. For me, I choose to fully fund my excursions or find free lodging the old fashioned way - through personal connections who have a higher level of accountability and a deeper concern for my well-being.
About the author:
Mandy Van Deven (www.mandyvandeven.com) is a writer, advocate, and online media strategist. Her work exploring contemporary feminisms, global activism, and sexuality has been published in Salon, The Guardian, AlterNet, GlobalPost, RH Reality Check, and Marie Claire.