It’s no secret that Couchsurfing has a reputation of being sketchy. That's because many people have a hard time trusting strangers blindly, and instead listen to their natural mistrust of the unknown (which in this case, is relying on a person’s good-naturedness). The concept is surrounded by a lot of suspicion, given that there is no money involved.
There's a good reason why safety is the number one priority on Couchsurfing.com, and why it’s so extremely important to be careful when searching for a host or accepting a guest. Supposedly, critical situations are fairly rare. But of course, things happen. It may be a relatively small number out of thousands of encounters, but people taking advantage of others on Couchsurfing is a real problem we should not look away from. I think it is important to highlight the good and the bad, and to give those of us who have had to go through unpleasant situations, a voice.
(Luckily) I haven’t personally met any travelers who have been involved in bad situations. As it turns out, it is quite tricky to find people who are willing to talk about their negative experiences. And so I took to Reddit, “the front page of the internet”. You can find the thread here (note that some of the comments may have been deleted by now).
The stories shared with me are not rosy. They are honest and real, and they underline the problems we not only face in Couchsurfing, but in other aspects of life as well. A few of the responses I got were somewhat minor (yet in no way irrelevant) incidents:
Guests not showing up after confirming their stay, unexpected pets accompanying them, forgetting to return a spare key (but sending it back in the mail!), or even simply rude behavior. All of these things can happen and upset a host, rightfully so.
Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the more serious incidents that would likely be reported, because they should. They are from surfers and hosts alike, and showcase some problems both parties face.
1. Being Robbed.
Okay, people who don’t know their boundaries with alcohol and act rowdy in someone else’s space are extremely annoying, and rude. But as this user said, it’s not a huge deal if things don’t get out of control.
Being robbed, however, is a serious offence. This brings us to number one of the many things people fear with letting strangers into their homes. And it seems to happen quite often:
It’s something I’ve asked myself many times while Couchsurfing. I’ve stayed in some beautiful homes, with an array of both expensive and personal items laying around. Aren’t these people worried they might get stolen? Shouldn’t they be hiding or storing them safely? This is a perfect example of having good faith in people, which sadly, can easily be taken advantage of. It’s certainly a reason for people to be put off from hosting, as we can tell from this Reddit user’s story.
2. Unreliable Hosts
Everyone hates unreliable people. But in some situations, you depend on them more than in others.
Couchsurfing is one of those situations. Which is why every safety tip list tells you to always have a backup plan. You hopefully won’t need it, but it’s best to be prepared for an unexpected turn of events. A host might cancel last minute, or your arrival could go something like this:
Now, this may not be reason enough to report someone, but it should result in a negative reference, to say the least…
3. Online Harassment
The offences don’t just happen in person, they can also start online.
This is another thing I have heard about quite a few times. During a research project I conducted for an assignment, I analyzed a bunch of random tweets about Couchsurfing to see what people were talking about. This is one of the tweets I came across:
She attached a screenshot of her inbox, showing a number of messages from predominantly men, offering to host her. This may seem harmless, even friendly, at first, but here’s the thing: Why are they approaching her? Without knowing any details beyond this tweet, she must have made her trip public on the website. Meaning, people can see when and where she is traveling to. I can only assume that her tweet—which speaks for itself, along with the picture she posted—is a testament of her feeling uncomfortable upon receiving those messages. If it were me getting those same messages, I’d be a little creeped out, and would question the eagerness of those men to host me, despite the fact that I did not send them a request. It may not be a form of harassment per se, but it does go to show how these actions can make women feel, even online.
However, the types of messages the above-mentioned Reddit user received, were, in fact, harassing. Again, a message telling someone they are beautiful might seem harmless at first. But even this can result in being banned from the website, as Florian told me. Inappropriate behavior of any kind will be reprimanded, so he says. The sole fact that the men did not take “no” for an answer, makes it even more frustrating. No one, no matter what gender, should have to deal with this sort of behavior on a platform that is meant for cultural exchange and travel.
4. Sexual Assault
This is a tough topic, and possibly among the biggest concerns when it comes to Couchsurfing. Being alone (or even in company, as these stories show) with a stranger whose intentions you don’t know, can get you into dangerous situations. It is something that happens more often than we’d like to think. Some victims choose not to tell their stories.
Sexual assault does not always have to mean rape—it begins with even seemingly “small” incidents, and should never be taken lightly, no matter how it happened or who it happened to.
These stories tell us a few different things. Number one: Reviews are a good way to get an impression of someone, but even the friendliest seeming person can have a change of heart and snap. Number two: Based on the first comment alone, this happens way more often than what we see or hear of in the media. And this is just speaking of incidents within Couchsurfing.
It is also worth noting that the majority of users say that Couchsurfing.com responded to their complaints quickly and efficiently. This is good news, although there are also plenty of stories that state the opposite.
There is a certain connotation that arises when hearing the word Couchsurfing. The concept is often thought of as an undercover dating app. There is also the phenomenon of nudists and naturalists who primarily accept guests that are comfortable being naked around them. These practices, apparently, are meant to be non-sexual, in most cases at least. But they do give reason to doubt the platonic purpose of the platform. Stories like the ones above only reinforce this uncertainty.
And it’s not only male-on-female assault, as many tend to believe. Sexual assault can happen to male Couchsurfers, too.
This surfer seemed rather forgiving of an action that can certainly be filed under unwanted sexual advances. It is important to realize that we are looking at the same level of offence, even if some may laugh it off as “a joke”, or when it happens to a man instead of a woman.
I recently talked to a very experienced male Couchsurfer who has stayed with more than 50 hosts worldwide. Let’s call him John.
John spoke with me about an incident that happened in Laos a few years ago. “Homosexuality is still frowned upon in many parts of South East Asia”, he said, “So it is not a rarity to find men looking for sexual encounters with other men within travel communities.”
One night, John woke up to his male host assaulting him. He didn’t tell me much about how he handled the situation in the moment. He reported the incident immediately, and said that the Couchsurfing Safety Team got back to him within a day and banned the host as a member.
But what can you do to prevent these things from happening? “You can’t scan a person’s mind before meeting them. There’s not much you can do to stay safe, besides looking at a member’s reviews. But even those don’t always give away their motives.” The support John received from Couchsurfing.com, however, was top-notch, he said. He has learned from this experience, and tries to assess a host’s personality as best as he can before meeting them. He is still an active user of the platform.
What do we learn from these stories? They are all small pieces of a puzzle that is the bigger picture: We will continue to encounter horrible people who use a system based on generosity and trust, to betray and violate others. Arguably, this is something we will never be able to change in humans—there will always be villains among us.
The important thing is how we deal with them. What can we do to make Couchsurfing a safer place for community members?
We know that preparation is key. Being aware of potential dangers and having a backup plan can save you from bad situations. You can use tracking apps to share your location with friends and family. Another tip, one that parents like to instill into their teenage sons and daughters for good reason, is to watch your drink at all times. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, what your age is, or if you think you’d be able to defend yourself physically. Spiking substances is still a very popular method used to immobilize victims, due to the fact that the drug is not easily detectable, and the one affected might not even remember what happened to them. Sadly, Couchsurfers have fallen victim to this in the past.
If a situation does get out of hand or leaves you feeling unsafe, the first thing you need to do is report it. Report it to the Couchsurfing Safety Team if you are using the website, or call the police.
The actions of the official Couchsurfing Safety Team are a heavily discussed matter, though. Some say they received immediate support, others state that their complaint was simply brushed off. An article from 2018 discusses this very topic.
So, at this point it is worth repeating that if you Couchsurf, you are doing it at your own risk. Which doesn’t mean that it can’t be a great experience, if you know what you are getting yourself into. Just remember: Be smart and stay safe!