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Seeking for solutions in order to overcome risks and challenges of couchsurfing for female solo travellers

Seeking for solutions in order to overcome risks and challenges of couchsurfing for female solo travellers
Author: Jana Bebek
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This study focuses on challenges that female travellers experience when using the online platform “Couchsurfing” and seeks for solutions and ideas in order to overcome these challenges and provide a safer space for women during and after their travels. The analysis of possible risks and challenges is carried out on an individual,- organisational- and policy level and identifies the poor verification system, the reputation of couchsurfing as a dating platform and the lack of accountability as the main issues of couchsurfing that often results in harassment towards women.

Key words:
Couchsurfing, Female solo traveller, Sexual harassment, Safety

Intercultural challenges in the field of solo travelling are particularly faced by women. This has a number of reasons and includes factors such as culture, religion, educational background but also further external influences such as politics or the media. The latter often portrays solo travelling as negative and dangerous for women, with the effect that the majority of women abstain from travelling alone because of reports about dangers of dealing with men and headlines about incidents (Wilson et al., 2015). Even though the society is changing, there is still a clear distinction between men and women when it comes to travelling. Not only the media, but also family members and friends have a big emotional impact on the female travellers in saying that it is too dangerous to travel solo. The high pressure on female travellers and the greater physical risk are among the reasons why the solo-travelling scene is still mostly dominated by male travellers (Khoo-Lattimore et al., 2017).

Couchsurfing is an online platform that allows travellers to spend the night on the couch of locals anywhere in the world for free. The concept of the platform is more popular among young travellers between the ages of eighteen and thirty because they are more reliant on social media. The focus of couchsurfing lies on cultural exchange and making new friends. Travellers can get the free version for limited access and offer their accommodation for couchsurfing. However, the lack of verification leads to increased risk, as travellers do not know in advance what kind of person they are interacting with. The unawareness about the host has been mentioned by female travellers as a big challenge. Various female travellers stated that the hosts seemed nice in the beginning, but then turned out to be someone with bad intentions that in a few cases led to sexual harassment. This risk could be reduced through a required verification for every member. In order to be verified, users will be obligated to pay a fee. A requirement for user authentication would make it more difficult to create fake accounts or conceal somebody's real identity.

Challenges at an individual level are often the effects of a different level. If the platform does not seriously address complaints on an organisational level, offenders may think as a result that they are not punished for their behaviour and therefore do it again. This poses a great risk, as inexperienced travellers often continue to fall victim to this danger and experience harassment on an individual level. The couchsurfing staff must take complaints regarding the behaviour of hosts or guests seriously, not just for the sake of the company's image, but also for the safety of the travellers. If female travellers feel neglected, they will either make the situation public or leave the platform owing to negative experiences. Both solutions would be detrimental to the organisation because they would lose more members and earn a poor reputation.

Travellers partly compare couchsurfing with the online application “Tinder” due to a similar concept and the organisation’s reputation of being more of a dating,- than a travel platform often leads to the belief that the platform is too unsafe for female travellers because they are dependent on the host due to the fact that they stay in his accommodation overnight (James et al., 2019). Therefore, the host does not necessarily have to harass the female guest, even actions such as inappropriate comments or flirting can make the couchsurfer feel uncomfortable. When male members convert their intentions of utilising a dating app to the concept of couchsurfing, they can become dissatisfied or even hostile once the female travellers do not share the same intentions. The platform’s website states that sexual harassment will be punished in the form of a warning up to a profile deactivation. To follow their policies, the couchsurfing team needs to be more proactive and carry out stricter controls.

In conclusion, the study has shown that couchsurfing as an organisation needs to enhance various elements in order to improve traveller safety. If this is not the situation, the reputation will degrade further, and female travellers will seek alternate options. It is therefore necessary to improve the situation at all levels in order to reduce the risks and ensure greater reliability and security.

James, D., Condie, J., & Lean, G. (2019) Travel, Tinder and Gender in Digitally Mediated Tourism Encounters. The Geographies of Digital Sexuality. Singapore. Available from https://www.academia.edu/39350344/Travel_Tinder_and_Gender_in_Digitally_Mediated_T ourism_Encounters [accessed 12 June 2022].
Khoo-Lattimore, C., Arcodia, C. and Ling Yiang, E.C. (2017) Constructing Space and Self through Risk Taking: A Case of Asian Solo Female Travelers. Journal of travel research, 57(2). Available from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0047287517692447 [accessed 11 May 2022].
Wilson, E., Witsel, M. and Holdsworth, L. (2015) Gutsy Women? Conflicting Discourses in Women's Travel Guidebooks. Tourism Recreation Research, 34(1). Available from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/37359076_Gutsy_Women_Conflicting_Discourse s_in_Women's_Travel_Guidebooks [accessed 12 June 2022].

Understanding risk from a cultural perspective, with some additional suggestions that may work
Author: Mu-En Chen
This article describes the challenges that single female travellers may face, and some are so severe that many women give up travelling alone. The author also briefly introduced the concept of Couchsurfing and the risks of female use and claimed that the operator of Couchsurfing needs to add more inspection mechanisms to ensure the safety of users.

Some studies have pointed out that the purpose of Couchsurfing users is not only to save money but also to have a deeper understanding of the destination culture and make friends (Chen, 2013). Based on this concept, there are two main risks for female users. The first is cultural differences, which may cause some friendly behaviours to be considered harassment. The second is the lack of explicit awareness of the local culture and the need to pay attention to the social atmosphere of some extreme patriarchal systems. For instance, in a report by Chen (2015), Turkish men consider it sexually suggestive if a woman agrees or chooses to stay in the house with them. Moreover, in some countries, women travelling alone are more likely to be seen as sex workers or as people seeking sexual stimulation. Of course, some hosts may indeed carry malicious intent, but cultural misunderstandings must be avoided as much as possible. As the author mentioned, Couchsurfing operators must pay attention to complaints, conduct serious investigations, and implement punishment mechanisms to improve user safety.

In addition to the suggestions mentioned, the operator can provide more information in terms of culture and knowledge. For example, while there may be concerns about cultural stereotypes, warnings or cautions for travellers based on the host's location or ethnic culture can make travellers more vigilant. Furthermore, the cultural etiquette of travellers can also be sent to the hosts to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings; while protecting travellers, it also allows hosts to receive peace of mind.

Chen, D. J. (2015) Gendered Couchsurfing: women from Western Europe and East-Asia contesting de-sexualised cosmopolitanism. A Journal of Feminist Geography. 24(8), 1090-1106. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/0966369X.2017.1372375?needAccess=true. [accessed 15 June 2022].

Chen, D. J. (2013) Learning to perform the exotic: cosmopolitan imagination, participation and self-transformation among Taiwanese Couchsurfers. In D. Picard and S. Buchberger (eds.) Couchsurfing Cosmopolitanisms: Can Tourism Make a Better World. Germany: Transcript, 107–122.