The Underlying "Sexpectations" of Couchsurfing
Recently, I met a girl at a hostel who was 19-years-old; she was one of my roommates and was also traveling solo. We started talking about Couchsurfing and I asked if she's ever tried using the site. Couchsurfing prides itself on connecting "travelers with a global network of people willing to share in profound and meaningful ways, making travel a truly social experience." You request to stay with people for free and can host people as a cultural exchange and get to see different places through the eyes of a local.
As far as the website and app go, it's similar to other social media review and rating sites - you can see people's profiles and read ratings and reviews from people who have previously stayed with them. I don't always trust reviews because sometimes they are planted (think about Yelp or Amazon's fake reviews).
My young friend told me it's harder to stay with other women who are less likely to want to host you, especially if you don't have many (or any) reviews to begin with; you're more likely to have luck asking a male host if you are a female traveler. My friend sent a request to stay with a guy in Dublin for a night. When she arrived, he told her that he didn't have an extra bed, but that she could sleep beside him in his bed 'if she was okay with that.' For her, it was an uncomfortable situation, but she felt as though there wasn't much of a choice.
That night, she said she was tired and wanted to stay in, but her male host insisted that they go out to a pub just for one drink. She said she didn't want to be rude and went with him. They started drinking and kept drinking. Eventually, they went back to his place and had sex. She said she wasn't attracted to him and she didn't want to have sex but felt like she had to. If she had said "no" she was afraid she'd get kicked out and then she wouldn't have had a place to stay overnight.
"It's all part of the experience, I guess," she said to me. I couldn't believe it. I felt so bad for this girl and the fact that she felt obligated to sleep with a stranger just so she wouldn't get kicked out. Whoever this guy was, he was clearly and wrongfully taking advantage of a girl in a vulnerable situation.
After hearing my friend tell me her experience, I honestly had no desire to use the site. Interestingly enough, I had a short assignment from Couchsurfing itself - they asked me to create a video about my experience of meeting people on Couchsurfing as they were looking for long-term travelers to document their experiences with the app and site for their Facebook page. For that, I went to a CS meet up in Galway where I met some really great individuals. This was a one-time event and I was still staying at a hostel at the time. I thought it was a good way of meeting people, and this group of individuals in particular was very open and friendly, yet this was an entirely different scenario from what my friend experienced as a guest.
Making your trips public
In addition to attending meetups or hanging out with other travelers in the place you're in, you can create "public trips" that show people using the app when and where you'll be in a certain place. I created a public trip for the week or so that I'm in London, but I think after hearing my friend's story, the messages I got freaked me out. A few men who I never spoke to or saw previously offered to host me and/or meet up. Part of me thinks that's nice of them to offer. But I mostly just see it as creepy and desperate. Basically, if I don't request to stay with you, don't offer. When you do that, it feels like there is an ulterior motive and almost feels predatory.
I am not saying that all men are bad or evil or are all trying to sleep with you. I am not saying that you shouldn't travel alone. I am not saying that you shouldn't try Couchsurfing. But with any app, where you're essentially meeting a stranger, use your judgment.
Furthermore, I am not saying that women don't take advantage of men, but more often than not, it's the other way around. Avoid putting yourself into situations where you have no way out, or feel like you don't.
If there are other women out there that ever feel pressured to do something that they don't want to do by someone else of the opposite sex or otherwise, report it and/or speak up. Don't just accept this as "part of the experience" if it's something you are uncomfortable with or are doing against your will. There are ways of finding accommodation, and above all, staying safe without having to sleep with a stranger in exchange.