While most couchsurfing hosts are thoughtful people who open their homes for all the right reasons, I’d be lying if I said there aren’t a few bad apples out there who must have confused Couchsurfing with Tinder. Couchsurfing’s built-in safeguards are quite good at purging such people, but some of them do manage to slip through the cracks. Whether you’re a guy or a girl or neither, you may realize that your gracious host is actually a desperate horndog fishing for more than a wholesome cross-cultural friendship. Luckily, this situation is quite easy to avoid if you know what signs to look for when choosing a host.
Cracks in the Reference System
Hosts and surfers rely on references when deciding who to trust, and the system is impressively effective at regulating the quality of people allowed to participate in the community. One negative reference can ruin a person’s ability to host or get hosted. You ought to take bad references very seriously.
But there are two flaws in the reference system. First, everyone starts with zero references, and you have to get your first reference somehow. Hosting or staying with someone with no references is risky, and you should avoid it, especially if you are female.
Secondly, even people with plenty of positive references may indulge in some questionable behavior, such as being overly flirtatious or making unwelcome advances. These hosts may have managed to survive on the platform without racking up negative references because their departing guests felt too grateful or indebted to spurn someone who has otherwise been so kind.
Who Counts as a Creeper?
Dating was never the purpose of our community, and as much as we may wish to purge our platform of misuse, we must also admit that incidental romance will always be a sideshow of couchsurfing. Instinctively people are more likely to host or surf with others they are attracted to or share common ground with. Whether that leads to a one-night stand, a wedding, or nothing at all, the chemistry between users cannot be regulated by any rules of decorum.
The problem is that this prospect motivates some users into participating in couchsurfing; no user should expect anything more than friendship from another user (if even that). Surfers are in a vulnerable position that hosts must never take advantage of. Likewise, the surfer should never acquiesce to a host’s unwelcome advances because (s)he feels indebted.
Enough about should. The reality is that some do. The minute you realize your host is a lecherous fiend, you should clarify your boundaries and/or threaten to leave. Usually they will apologize and promise reparations. Give them a second chance or just leave – whatever feels right to you. Better yet, don’t agree to stay with him in the first place. But wait, how would you discern a prospective host’s intentions beforehand?
The Red Flag
The number one way to spot a “sexsurfer” is to find a gender preference on their profile. Some hosts explicitly specify which gender they would prefer to host. There is no logical reason for male hosts to specify “female only” or “male only” unless they are looking to score. Even if a host does not explicitly specify a gender preference, you can infer it from their references. If someone has 34 references and all of them are from young attractive women, that’s an obvious a red flag.
Women of Couchsurfing
Most women would never consider using couchsurfing, but most couchsurfers are actually women. If you’re a woman holding back from trying the platform out of safety concerns, you would be well-advised to host or surf with other female users or gay men or couples. Female hosts may not be easy to come by, but urban legends aside, women are less prone to push the boundaries and tend to be more interested in using Couchsurfing exactly as it was intended. Another approach is to couchsurf together with a travel partner.
Heed the Vibes
If someone looks warm and sincere in their photos, they usually are such in person as well. If someone looks like they don’t know to present themselves online or has no photos smiling, you’re better off finding a different host. Listen to the voice in the back of your head that says, this doesn’t seem like a person I would want to stay with. Humans are instinctively better at interpreting facial expression and body language than words. I find my intuition knows best when it comes to selecting hosts / surfers. Don’t try to override your intuition.
If a host seems clingy or over-enthusiastic before you even meet, he probably wants more than friendship. You will know what I mean when you encounter it. Perhaps he checks on you frequently on WhatsApp or Facebook weeks before your arrival, or maybe he was overly persistent about you staying with him over others. Either way, don’t give him the benefit of the doubt. Politely decline, find a different host, and block him if needed.
Different regions require different levels of scrutiny and caution. You are much more likely to run into creepers in regions where sexual expression is stigmatized and suppressed (i.e. conservative countries). Stereotypes abound that Western women are “easy” and promiscuous and, equally, that western men are broadly bisexual. In such places (we can all imagine which), locals may turn to Couchsurfing to relieve such frustrations they do not have the liberty to fulfill within their own culture. When in doubt, clarify with your host that you are only looking for platonic friendship before you arrive.
Another risk factor involves passionate cultures. People from passionate cultures (yes, that one) are less likely to let Couchsurfing decorum constrain their desires and may even use couchsurfing as a discrete avenue for cheating on their significant other. An emphatic “no” should suffice.
Finally, in certain regions you may be up against foreigner fetishization and exoticism. Global beauty standards are heavily skewed toward caucasian features, and in certain non-western societies, you might be someone’s only shot at getting laid with a tall blonde white girl (or boy for that matter). Locals may go to desperate lengths to fulfill such ethno-exotic fantasies that may never normally have the option to pursue in real life. These will often manifest as the attached hosts described above, and you can usually find clear patterns in their references as a warning.
The Bottom Line
Couchsurfing is a platform of miracles in the way it brings people together from all walks of life to create novel and unlikely connections. I can’t imagine going back to traveling without it. The platform has many skeptics, and sadly there are some doubtful individuals on the platform working to confirm their prejudices. These people are few and far in between, and you can easily spot them before you’re in their home.
If a host behaves in a way that a surfer finds inappropriate or uncomfortable, (s)he has a moral duty to mention it in a reference and/or report him. It might not feel good, but this is how users protect each other and keep hosts accountable. The couchsurfing community is a collective project that we all create together, and in a world where everything is about money, we’d be losing a lot if we let couchsurfing become about sex.