Perhaps the recent incident where a 29-year-old woman from Hong Kong was repeatedly raped by 34-year-old Abdelali Nachet in his flat in Leeds, UK isn’t your typical CouchSurfing experience, but it’s exactly the kind of experience I could not shake from my mind as I filled out my profile on the site six months ago. It was this kind of experience that prompted me to fill out the profile with my partner’s and my information, instead of just my own. It was this kind of experience that caused me to exclude single men from the list of travelers welcome in my own flat in Kolkata. You see, in a world where the constant threat of rape is a reality for women, I don’t f*ck around when it comes to my safety.
CouchSurfing does have some safety measures in place: References from people who have “surfed” with a member; Verification that confirms one’s name and geographic location, though this is not required; Friends whose profiles are linked to the member’s profile; and Vouching, which is just what it sounds like: members vouch for one another’s character. But when it is all said and done, it is left up to the judgment of the “surfer” to decide whether they’re willing to take the risk.
CouchSurfing disavows all responsibility for the actions of its members, and while that may be understandable, it is responsible for its own. The debate about CouchSurfing’s failure to enact policies and procedures that increase women’s safety is a hot and somewhat explosive topic among the site’s community on- and offline. Unreported incidents of gender-based misconduct abound; one hears about them through other members in the CS Groups, but not from CS leadership (CS did not announce the Leeds case until after it was all over the media) or through the site’s institutionalized safety measures.
It’s hard to take these safety measures seriously when some of the men who are accused of attempted or completed sexual assault are actually well-known in CS community and have hundreds of positive references and when they require a woman to go public with information that is humiliating and traumatizing. It gets harder still when the only way CS will take an accusation seriously is if the woman making the accusation produces a police report, which makes many false, Western, ethnocentric assumptions including that the rule of law in every country is applied equally regardless of sex, nationality, sexual orientation, ethnicity, class, etc.; the behavior is classified as a crime in every country and the victim would not be deemed guilty (e.g., homosexual encounters or drug-related incidents); the police are reliable and a written report can be obtained in a timely manner without excessive effort or expense; and one is culturally and linguistically competent and knowledgeable of a country’s crime reporting procedures or can easily find out what they are. Obviously CS cares more about protecting the accused than it does about the ones who are victimized.
CouchSurfing happily boasts that “members have reported 3.2 million positive experiences, which is an incredible 99.6 percent of all CS experiences,” and for a site that is fully member supported, it needs people to think it is a safe method of connecting travelers to friendly cultural liaisons. If it didn’t, they’d lose their funding and be forced to shut down the site. This is an obvious conflict to prioritizing reporting methods that truly keep women fully informed and out of harm’s way.
As CouchSurfing grows, so does the potential for incidents like what happened in Leeds. If the site hopes to prevent its site being misused by sexual predators, it must change it’s policies and procedures to prioritize safety over monetary gain. It must create a system that requires identity/location verification and a fully filled-out profile for all members, as well as regular and thorough profile and CS Group screening for red flags of misconduct. It should allow for confidential negative public references that give victims the opportunity to speak without fear of retaliation or public disgrace; the identity of the referral writer would be known to CS administrators, but not the referral viewers. CS should require internal notification of and reporting on experiences set up on the site, including an unpublished questionnaire sent to CS administrators with questions about the host’s behavior that are analyzed for persistent bad behavior.
Clearly there are steps CS could be taking to ensure women travelers are just as safe on their journeys as men are, and perhaps the media attention it is getting over this unfortunate event will prompt it to take action. Let’s hope it does.