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Petition against Couchsurfing.org ignites debate on women’s safety

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Fears about the safety of women using the popular online sofa-surfing travel site Couchsurfing.org have led to calls for the site to “end complicity in the sexual assault of its users” over at Change.org.

Couchsurfing.org aims to help international travellers keep budgets low and to meet locals in the country they are visiting, by linking up travellers with potential hosts.

As a recent convert to international back-packing myself, I can really see the attraction here.

Some of the best times we had travelling South East Asia last year were with local people who took us to their villages, towns and homes, allowing us a unique insight into what life is really like in the countries we were visiting, as well as the chance to make new friends in different countries.

Unfortunately, and as many readers will probably predict, there is also a real danger in linking strangers with strangers across continents and nations.

How a site like Couchsurfing.org manages its membership and contact policies is vital to minimising this risk, particularly for lone travellers.

This was a lesson that digital artist Melissa Ulto found out for herself when she was subjected to a horrifying experience of sexual harassment and assault while staying with hosts she had found on Couchsurfing.org.

Her story, and the resulting petition for Couchsurfing.org to increase its regulation of users can be found at the Change.org link above.

Nor is Melissa’s story apparently the first. Last year, Bitch magazine reported the story of a 29 year old woman from Hong Kong who was repeatedly raped by Abdelali Nachet, a Moroccan man living in Leeds.

He was subsequently jailed for 10 years, as the judge observed that he had “intentionally used the Couchsurfing.org website to attract women to your home,” according to reports in the Yorkshire Evening Post.

Mandy van Deven started the petition and has commented elsewhere on the danger of the Couchsurfing.org site.

As one woman who looked into couch-surfing and decided against it comments on a web forum about Couchsurfing.org, “there’s no oversight and no one is ultimately responsible.”

In the petition she calls for the website to take more responsibility for the safety of its users and demands the introduction of a range of measures to improve safety for users.

These include introducing a compulsory fee for all users that would allow the verification of their real world identities and addresses.

At present the site places all responsibility on the end users to ensure their own safety. Although various user recommendation, verification and ‘vouching’ systems are used on the site, they are entirely voluntary.

If users have complaints, they are required to publicly register them on the site – an approach that most would recognise is not conducive to those who have suffered from sexual harassment, assault or rape. When Melissa Ulto did exactly this, her attacker merely abused her publicly on the site as a ‘psycho’.

The website team at Couchsurfing.org did not respond to Melissa’s complaints until she threatened legal action – a response that demonstrates either sheer incompetence or disturbing indifference to their users.

As a traveller, I think that any system encouraging and facilitating connections between people has to be a good thing. But the responsibility cannot rest solely on the end-user any more than it can solely rest on the system itself.

Safeguards must be built into the system that are effective, and that prohibit the exploitation of the system by those who would misuse it.

Increased verification and regulation measures within Couchsurfing.org, such as those called for by Mandy Van Deren would certainly be a start.

End-users also need to exercise care and caution. In researching this story, I found many women Couchsurfing.org users who only surf with other women, for example.

However, by failing to acknowledge openly on its site that there are potential dangers to users, Couchsurfing.org is, I believe, failing to meet its own responsibilities.

It is possible to promote the inherent goodness of couch-surfing as an alternative to staying in hotels and hostels, without misrepresenting the fact that it also involves risk.

I would urge Couchsurfing.org to acknowledge these risks more openly than it currently does, and in so doing to improve and promote the reputation of international couch-surfing on behalf of hundreds and thousands of happy couch-surfers all over the world.

  1. As someone who has frequently used couch surfing in America – and actually always ended up staying with girls because the guys I’ve emailed never get back to me (probably because I’m not a girl…!) – I think what you say is a good point, but less of the scare-mongering please Miss Cheverton.

    It’s very nasty that some women have experienced sexual assault, but this is indeed VERY rare. If you read the joining instructions on couch surfing I do believe they do acknowledge the safety issues involved so I’m afraid you’re incorrect on this part above.

    I see the site – as I think they do – as a conduit and a tool for travellers and it is the travellers who have to take sole responsibilty for their actions. I think you’re asking WAY too much of the couch surfing people to vet and track all its members in case they are sexual deviants. Individual’s need to use their commonsense and read between the lines of what some people say on their profiles. And, even, meet the people you have arranged to stay with for a coffee before you go to their place and the moment you feel uncomfortable just get out of there.

    Couch surfing is a fantastic, reciprocal adventure that I have enjoyed and would never have seen some of the places I did without doing it. I know many men – and women – use couch surfing as a way to meet potential sexual partners, but so what? As long as everyone consents, then that’s cool. If they dont – as you describe above – then that’s wrong. However, more regulation and fees on this site would be a bad thing as it would immediately detract from its “free” appeal to poor travellers.

    So, I say no to regulation, but yes to people taking responsibility for their own actions/vigilance and being as cautious as they would be in life generally. Intuition is a marvellous gift, use it.

    • Sarah Cheverton says:

      Thanks Anthony, I really appreciate your perspective as a friend, as someone who has used the site in question, and as a world traveller!

      As I said in the article, I agree that individual travellers hold ultimate responsibility for their own safety. As a woman who has travelled alone, I have never expected anybody else to take responsibility for me. And, as a female traveller, speaking just for me, I would never use couchsurfing because I’m all too aware of the risk involved – albeit small in comparison to the number of people who use the site without incident – and I weigh that risk against my safety and stay in hostels or guest houses. I save for longer to do it and I pay more. It’s not a choice I’m really very comfortable with, but the fact is I am terrified of rape and sexual assault, so it’s the choice I make.

      Where I disagree with you is when you say that the site shouldn’t take any more responsibility than it currently does. The risk of sexual assault, violence or rape- as happened to the young woman from Hong Kong and to Melissa Ulta and to many others – is not a insignificant because it doesn’t happen ‘too often’. If it happens once, it’s a problem. If it happens more than once, and it has, it’s a massive problem.

      Because women need to be able to travel freely, in exactly the way you describe, the risks when a site is more or less unregulated in the way that couchsurfing.com is, should be represented on the site. I have spent time on the site today researching the story and I know they mention safety, but this is done in very general terms and I think there is a specific danger for women, particularly those travelling alone and I think it would enhance the site if they acknowledged that and offered practical tips specifically to women about how to address those issues of safety.

      It’s also worth noting that couchsurfer.org does ask women who have had problems to report it to them in the first instance and that Melissa got no response when she did this except when she threatened legal action. This is something that the site needs to acknowledge too.

      I’m not saying the site should CRB check every member, but a $1 verification fee would be easy to institute and would allow for people’s identities to be transparent and more easily checked. Given what you’re saving on accommodation fees, who would object to thata? It’s simple, it’s easy and it could reduce the risk for thousands of women who would love to travel like you do.

      So I say yes to regulation AND yes to responsibility. Sharing responsibility makes for a beautiful, more equal world, so why shouldn’t everyone play a part in that?

  2. I think the allegations of the petition writers are a bit extreme. Of course there have been a few very well-publicised stories about people who have abused the trust couchsurfing tries to establish amongst its members, but there are so many great stories too. Although we should encourage safety, we musn’t allow the odd bad experience to overshadow what an amazing tool couchsurfing is for meeting people and making friends around the world. CS sends out safety warnings and information periodically – it’s not like it’s trying to hide the fact that people can abuse the system.

    I met a number of people through couchsurfing when I was travelling alone in Japan last year, and many more couchsurfing members by chance when I was staying in hostels. They were all lovely people and a really interesting bunch. I was wary about staying in people’s houses because I hadn’t used the site before so just met people for coffee or to go out, but I’d love to get more involved in CS after so many good experiences. My brother and a friend couchsurfed around Europe and would say the same. I have a male friend whose male host didn’t quite have the right idea about what CS was for – don’t forget that men can be sexually harrassed too – he just made his apologies and went and found a hostel elsewhere. It’s not always as easy as this, but being aware of people’s behaviour can avert an awful lot of potentially dangerous situations – as Anthony says above.

    Saying that, I’d be less likely to stay at a man’s house or have a man to stay at mine unless they had really good recommendations from real profiles or from my real-life friends. I feel disappointed that I have to be prejudiced against the vast majority of men on CS because of the actions of a few, but those are my personal boundaries. CS is great, providing you exercise reasonable caution and only do things you’re comfortable with.

    “These include introducing a compulsory fee for all users that would allow the verification of their real world identities and addresses.” – I think the recommendations system is excellent, but I’d be happy to give more information to prove my real identity if I thought it would make the site safer and encourage people to join. I’d rather not pay to use the site – IMO it would take away from the site’s altruistic appeal.

    There are a lot of people who would like to see CS dismantled because they can’t understand why someone would help a stranger for honest motives – those are also the people running the right wing newspapers which endlessly repeat the couple of CS horror stories out of millions of happy ones. Most people aren’t going to rape or kill you. Most just want to do a good deed now and again, like putting up a stranger up on a sofa or showing them fun stuff to do in their city. We should stop being so terrified of other people.

    • jane Osmond says:

      In an ideal world couchsurfing would be brilliant: however we are not in an ideal world and ‘the odd experience’ and the ‘couple of CS horror stories’ are the experiences of real women who have been raped and assaulted – one to the extent of the perpetrator being jailed. Anthony and Hannah – are you seriously arguing that the assault of the ‘odd’ or ‘couple’ of women is acceptable, almost collateral damage? Anthony – what if the woman had been your sister, mother, daughter; or Hannah your best friend? Is that acceptable?

      • Hi Jane, I appreciate the reply but I think you’ve misinterpreted my comment a little bit. I’m fully aware of the extent to which rape and assault can damage lives, and I wouldn’t be reading a feminist website if I thought it was acceptable for anyone to ever take advantage of the weaknesses of another person, be that person male or female. That even one person might have been harmed through CS is a cause for great sadness and concern.

        What I was trying to say is that although we should take these experiences very seriously and do all we can to minimise risk (that is, CS – which should be constantly reviewing its safety policies – as well as surfers and hosts) we shouldn’t allow some people who’ve abused CS spoil it for the rest of us. We are so terrified of strangers in our society and there are a lot of people (media, government, business…) who encourage this climate of fear and mistrust because it divides us, and so gives them power. Whatever your level of participation in CS – you don’t have to do anything more than go for a cup of coffee with a lonely traveller – just engaging with it at all allows you to reach out to your fellow human beings and say ‘hi! we’re not so different after all’. I think that’s pretty subversive and cool.

  3. I see your point, Sarah, but I agree more with Hannah and I also think you’re basing much of your article and the response you wrote to my comment on the “unknown fear” of rape or assault. This is perhaps clouding your judgment and I totally understand that. But, in essence, you’re surrendering your belief in the POSSIBLE dangers of couchsurfing/travel as a woman – and these beliefs are being hampered by – and an irrational fear of something that MAY or most probably MAY NOT happen.

    I have been sexually assaulted by a woman, but I’ve never told anyone about it and never will, but something out of my control definitely happened. However, I have absolutely no intention of making my past incidents (as I don’t know about yours and whether you’ve had a bad experience or it’s just because you’re actively involved in this arena that it heightens your senses to the subject) shape my trust and belief in people because virtually EVERY SINGLE person I have met in my travels in the past year – and I have met a lot of people – have been good, honest, kind and generous.

    The media dont want this to be the case as fear controls people. And controlling people means providing them with a constant fear of the unknown so their opnions and lives can be manipulated around this.

    There is nothing to fear but fear itself.

    And that, of course, means there’s nothing to be afraid of until you actually come across a situation that you have to get away from, i.e. if a freaky pervert on couch surfing locks the door as soon as you enter their place. Kick them in the groin, smack them in the breastbone so they cant breathe and run.

  4. vicki wharton says:

    I disagree that we have nothing to fear but fear itself – with 8 out of 10 men openly admit to using on line porn – and virtually all on line porn sites aimed at men offering real rape, incest, bestiality and paedophilia due to customer demand – I think we have a very real problem happening right world wide in men’s perception and treatment of women – what the UN calls a pandemic of violence against women and children. I would not expect a website that encourages children to swop homes to have no security checks or advice and to be indifferent to real cases of abuse of their service – and nor should women have to wade through this quagmire of indifference and denial about some very real changes in men’s attitudes to them. The Havens survey highlights that 60% of men would continue sex with a women or girl that was crying, 48% would continue sex with a female that wanted to stop, and 24% of men would have sex with a woman too drunk to say no or stand up … pornography is having a real effect on how men see and treat women worldwide and we need to be helping women to wise up to this new reality …

  5. Sarah Cheverton says:

    Wow, what great comments and what an interesting debate.

    I find myself nodding to all of the comments here at different points, thanks everyone for taking the time to share your views.

    For me, the fact that there have been, undisputedly, cases of abuse of the couchsurfing.org website is what makes me sign the petition asking the site to improve its own safety controls and validation of members’ identities. I also discovered one user who admitted he had secured a high level of recommendations on the site by asking people he knew to sign up and vouch for him – I think that’s a system that potentially could be problematic in ensuring that people who have actually stayed with someone before are vouching for users.

    But regardless of this, it’s ultimately entirely up to others to make their own decision on that – if you don’t agree with the petition, don’t sign it, of course. I don’t see that the site will be under any obligation to implement the requests outlined in the petition, no matter how many people sign it, but I hope it opens the debate amongst users a little more and in so doing achieves the aim of raising awareness amongst both male and female users of how to keep themselves safe. In my background research I also found an account of a male user who had been stalked by a female couchsurfer after staying with him, so I agree with Anthony that there are dangers on both sides. It’s not a gender neutral issue, but it does potentially affect both sexes.

    I fully understand the points made by Anthony and Hannah and really appreciate your feedback on your positive experiences of couchsurfing.org. In line with your experiences, I do think it’s important to remember that the majority of experiences of the site are almost definitely positive. I agree with Anthony’s world view that the majority of people are open and friendly and not sexual predators (thank God!), whilst noting with interest that Hannah herself points out that she has never used the site for somewhere to stay, just to meet people in other countries, in the first instance (whilst also noting that she would like to get more involved). I would take this approach myself, for the same reasons.

    Anthony, I understand what you’re saying about creating fear amongst women, and I would certainly agree with that to a point. It has been documented in other places that the media presentation of the danger of rape and sexual assault are frequently used to control the movement of women, directly and indirectly, for example by suggesting women do not go out at night when a serial rapist is on the loose, instead of placing a curfew on all men!

    However, the fact that fear is used for control does not mean there is nothing to fear. I agree with Anthony that we need to be careful how we balance this fear with the knowledge and experience that most people mean us no harm. I think one of the interesting points raised in the Bitch article from last year is that in some countries, police will not necessarily be sympathetic if a woman is sexually assaulted whilst sofa surfing, due to cultural differences that have a very gendered base; so it might be that different approaches to couchsurfing are prudent in different nations. Again, more openess on the website about the specific dangers would be really useful in making all users of the site safer – it doesn’t have to be a bad thing to acknowledge a small danger.

    Again, ultimately how each individual chooses to balance that small danger against the fact that most people mean us no harm is an individual matter, and I think perhaps the real differences in the debate so far here might centre on our own individual sense of that balance.

    Thanks again everyone for your comments and please keep reading WVON and sharing your views. As we’re all volunteers, I am happy to tell you that it means so much to all of us to get feedback – even when you’re not agreeing with our view!!

  6. Hi Sarah, thanks for replying and for the article. I think we’re probably all on the same page here, broadly. I would definitely encourage you to get more involved with CS because it can give you such great experiences and stories, as well as a nice hippyish feeling of warmth towards your fellow man or woman (not to mention that you get all of this for free!) Just make sure that you’re aware of your boundaries before getting involved and don’t do anything you’re uncomfortable with – from my experience, you can get a lot out of CS without actually staying at someone’s house.

    I think the problem you mention about people who get their friends to recommend them might be unavoidable, but you can minimise your own risks by looking at the background of the recommenders – for example, if they’re all from different countries they’re likely to be actual CSers rather than someone’s mates. A lot of this is common sense, but perhaps CS ought to make this information more available and send safety reports out more frequently. I think I will sign the petition even if I don’t necessarily agree with all of the proposals, just because it’s important for CS to keep reviewing and updating its safety policy.

    When I was in Japan and met people only for days out I was testing the waters more than anything, but since doing that I’d feel much more comfortable with staying at someone’s house or having someone to stay. In fact, I can’t wait until I move out of my parents’ again so I can welcome CSers!

  7. Join the protest against couchsurfing and defend women’s rights: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bad-experiences-with-Couchsurfing-the-dark-side/177077198987812

  8. There are many cases of agressions using CS and the corporation don’t communicate about them; for example in marseille: http://secretfatty.net/An_engineer_from_Marseilles_found_his_prey_using_the_Couchsurfing_website

  9. I was recently the victim of a sociopath I met using Couchsurfing. It was a very traumatic ordeal, but I am sharing my story in hopes of helping others who could potentially be victimized. dangersofcouchsurfing.blogspot.com

    • vicki wharton says:

      I have also been the victim of a variety of men that I have met using the internet, and as a trained counsellor, what I find interesting is reading back over the papertrail that is left after the man has disappeared is the evidence of a web of lies, half truths and manipulations that many men have absolutely no shame in using to rip women off or open in one way or another. Simply saying that women need to read between the lines makes us responsible for spotting male deceit and guarding against it rather than make men responsible for being honest in their dealings with women and children. I think the latter is the only way forward if we are not to end up living with 25 million psychopaths who think of women and children as objects for their use.

  10. Also, can you please provide a direct link to the petition? I can’t seem to find it. Thank you!

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