What Is Couchsurfing

For those of you not already familiar with it, Couchsurfing is an app that allows travelers to match and stay with hosts around the world for free. It is not a free version of AirBnB; instead there is an implicit cultural exchange. Travelers and hosts are expected to spend time with each other: exploring the city, dinners, partying with friends, late-night conversations, shared travel plans. It’s an intimate experience between two strangers, and many people come away as friends and sometimes as lovers.

I have been using Couchsurfing for a number of years now. The number of friends I’ve made is extraordinary. And more: my girlfriend, my lover, and numerous previous lovers and travel romances germinated from that first Couchsurfing message.

It may sound like romance on Couchsurfing is a sure thing, but it’s important to know that there should be no expectation of romance or sex just because someone wants to stay with you, or you them.

Couchsurfing Is Not A Dating App

Let’s be clear: the purpose of Couchsurfing is not to hook up with tourists or locals. Some people certainly do use it for this purpose and hopefully they’re up-front about it (but I have experienced first-hand and heard stories from my friends what happens when a fellow Couchsurfer harbors ulterior motives), but these people are thankfully a minority—that’s what Tinder, Bumble, and OkCupid are for.

The romantic and sexual side of Couchsurfing is a byproduct of the intimacy that results when two people share such a close space and of the ethos around travelers in general (research shows that travelers overall have more sex than non-travelers). And, thus, it’s something that is unintentional (but never entirely unexpected).

The Ethics of Couchsurfing Romance

If a romantic or sexual entanglement is not the purpose of Couchsurfing, then we run into a problem when either the guest or host begins to be attracted the other. If a closer relationship is going to proceed, then those roles of guest/host must be broken down at some point. And if those roles are going to be broken, then guest and host must be extremely careful about how they do this, so that they’re not making the other person uncomfortable.

Think about the following scenario. A female traveler is accepted into a male host’s house. She’s sleeping on his couch or in some cases, sharing his bed. There is no expectation of sexuality—it’s a platonic interaction up to this point. But the host wants the interaction to become sexual, and so he makes a move. Perhaps he says something sexual, or touches his guest in an overtly sexual way. If she isn’t attracted, isn’t ready, or has no expectations of a sexual relationship, then that gesture can make her incredibly uncomfortable. Remember that there’s a huge power imbalance: she’s staying in his home and the only alternative for her right now is on the street, scrambling to find alternate accommodations. She may also feel pressured, like she owes him something for hosting her, or maybe she’s confused about the social expectations of Couchsurfing. Whether she responds in kind or not, there’s a strong possibility that she will be pushed to do something she does not actually want to do, and that is a position that no host should ever put a guest in.

The power imbalance does not only exist between a male host and a female guest, and it is not necessary for there to be a power imbalance for ethical lines to be crossed. All that is required is for one person to trespass across the implicit or explicit boundaries of another.

The solution is this: any time you, as a traveler, guest, or host, want to move an interaction into sexual or romantic territory, you must do so carefully, slowly, and always be looking for signs of enthusiastic consent. I cover the ethics of consent in another blog article, but for now this should mean that you never do anything you think your partner would oppose, and if there’s any confusion then you need to seek approval (explicit or implicit1) before or as you proceed. It’s a delicate process, and you’re likely to fail and have to backtrack in some cases, but it’s not impossible. Thousands of people have performed this dance before you and succeeded.

1.Beware that an uncomfortable experience can, in some people, elicit a “freeze” response. They become still and do not refuse sexual advances. This is not consent. Consent means that they’re actively sexual in return, physically and verbally. A passive response means that you have to take responsibility for the situation—stop, pull back a bit, and verbally confirm with your partner that they want the experience to continue. Note too that an initial positive response does not imply consent for everything you do. At any point your partner may encounter something they’re uncomfortable with; and at any point they may revoke consent. Again, it’s your responsibility to pay attention to them and to re-confirm their enthusiasm. This may be difficult with more passive partners, but it is always necessary if there is any confusion about your partner’s desires.

What Couchsurfers Are Looking For

Couchsurfing isn’t like AirBnB. Travelers and Guests are looking for very specific experiences, and they’re interested in you, so it’s important that you give them something to judge you by.

Your Profile

A major part of the game of Couchsurfing is writing your profile such that people want to connect with you. Too often I see profiles that are little more than:

0 References

About Me
I’m a traveler looking to meet new people and make friends all across the world!2

Interests
cooking, surfing

Why I’m on Couchsurfing
Looking to save money while I travel.

What I Can Offer Hosts
We can share travel stories!

Any host with a good profile and living in a popular city will receive many requests each day. If you’re a traveler looking to be someone’s guest, then you’ll need more meat in your profile. Remember that Couchsurfing is a cultural exchange—hosts want to know that you’re in interesting, inspiring, socially-savvy person before you arrive. “I’m a traveler” just doesn’t do it—on Couchsurfing, everyone is a traveler. You want to be unique.

Find some way to express yourself in an idiosyncratic way. What is your philosophy on life, on travel, on connection? Are you able to be creative with your writing? Then go for it! Couchsurfers, in general, are more interested in unique people. Many of us have been around the world and have met hundreds or thousands of people along the way. Normal is boring. You’ll miss opportunities to connect when requesting couches, offering to host, or requesting to join someone’s hangout—and you’ll never get an explanation why. So don’t be afraid to be different.

2. This is a direct quote from a Couchsurfing profile that I found today.

Hosting

What if you’re a host? Same thing, but your priority is going to be to make guests feel safe. Traveling can be a very uncomfortable experience—you don’t know the place you’re going, you’re planning on staying with someone you don’t know, and you don’t know what’s expected of you when you arrive. So as a host, it’s your responsibility to put your guests at ease.

Fill out your “My Home” section with the rules for your place so that there are no surprises. Especially if you have an unconventional lifestyle or limited sleeping arrangements. There are plenty of nudists on Couchsurfing and it’s always perfectly acceptable—if they indicate the rules in their profile. In some cases, you’ll need to share your bed. Guests will need to know that. And on and on.

References

References are the lifeblood of Couchsurfing. You’ll be incredibly surprised how your response rate skyrockets after you get your first few positive references. Make sure you have positive references from both genders—too many of one and people may get the wrong idea (unless there’s a reason specified in your profile, such as for safety or comfort).

Note that there’s a bit of a code to references, or a way of reading them. Compare the following references:

Ryan’s is a positive guy. Ryan is well spoken and was an interesting person to host. Ryan is highly recommended as a guest and would host him again. Thank you Ryan.

and

What a guy! The first minute we met, it felt like we’ve been friends forever. Ryan is a very easy going and open minded guy, it’s very easy to be in his presence! I’m very glad I hosted Ryan and got to know him! Thank you Ryan for all the interesting thoughts you gave me!

Both references are positive, but there’s a clear difference. The first is stoic, laconic; the second is effusive. It’s that second type of reference that you’re aiming for—these are the ones that grab people’s attention and make them think, “That’s the kind of experience I want to have.

Two more examples to hammer the point home:

Ryan was kind, fun, easy going and ready to help. We had a great time and great conversations. He’s welcome back anytime.

and

A ‘healer’? An ‘angel’? I don’t know how to label this special soul, but I am sure that he will touch your heart and soul if you get to meet him and open up to him. A person that you can talk about anything, he has this trustworthy aura and qualities that made him click with you right away 🙂

These kinds of references don’t manifest out of thin air, but nor should you put on airs to make them happen. Rather it’s important to establish the kind of personality in which these experiences are common for you.

Note, too, that just because your personality is great for one person doesn’t mean you’ll be a match for another. The references quotes above are all adapted from my own profile (subject to editing for clarity and brevity)—even the less-than-effusive ones. The same is true of your Couchsurfing romances. Just because you matched doesn’t mean you’ll have chemistry. And even if you have platonic chemistry it doesn’t mean you’ll have romantic or sexual chemistry. This is why you should never expect a sexual or romantic relationship from Couchsurfing. You shouldn’t expect anything at all beyond the couch that was promised; anything beyond that is a bonus.

Dealing With Unwanted Advances

Not everyone has put the kind of thought into sexual ethics as you are doing now, and so unwanted advances are unfortunately part of the Couchsurfing experience. You might not be entering into the arrangement with any expectations, but your host or your guest might be. Managing these expectations is important.

In one case, I was texting a host as I was riding the bus to his house. We had some witty banter going back and forth, and then I unexpectedly received a message from him that was overtly sexual. I reread our conversation and realized that some of my comments could conceivably be construed as somewhat sexual, but it was obvious there was some miscommunication. So I replied saying something along the lines of, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t intend for this conversation to turn sexual. This is going to be a platonic relationship only. If you have any problems with that, then I’ll find another host, no hard feelings.” We realigned our expectations, continued to joke around, and had a fantastic four days together.

This easy type of realignment isn’t always possible. Sometimes people can be more pushy. I’ve had an experience (and have heard of similar experiences) where my host intended to trick me into sleeping in bed with them, despite having pictures of their couch on the “My Home” section of their profile. I had nowhere else to go at 3 AM, in the middle of winter, in a city high in the northern latitudes. So I slept in bed with my clothes on.

Worse still, a person can be physically pushy. Women, in particular, report that sometimes they go along with this kind of coercion (in general, not specifically on Couchsurfing) because they fear that it might get worse if they refuse. For these types of situations, it is important to enforce boundaries clearly and early—at the first and slightest sign of trouble, well before the situation ever degrades to that point—and to read references to know what kind of a person they’re becoming involved with. You must learn to have the social awareness to know when a situation is turning and the confidence to put your foot down without feeling ashamed. It’s better to misread a situation and set your barriers too high than to be timid and allow your barriers to fall because you were too worried about making a scene.

Lest all of this worry you, it should be noted that in all of my Couchsurfing experience, and in all of the experiences of the people I have met, I have never heard of a situation that couldn’t be safely handled. And even more important, out of the accumulated stories I’ve heard, issues like this are incredibly rare. They do occasionally happen, which is why I wrote this section, but they’re not the norm.

Culture Differences

As you travel around the globe (or even between neighboring cities), you’ll start to notice clear cultural differences that affect how people date. For example, Portland and Seattle are two cities in the Pacific Northwest of the United States only 175 mi (281 km) from each other. People from both cities share a culture of reservedness typical of the northwest, but expressed in subtly different ways.

In Portland, people are friendly and willing to talk and flirt with strangers. But it’s difficult to set up a date because they tend to prefer to stay within their local comfort zones. They have their usual bars and restaurants, usually centered around their homes or in their neighborhoods. Even though travel throughout the city is quick and easy, they’re reluctant to travel far.

In Seattle, people are colder, less willing to talk to strangers and less friendly even when they do. But once they make a connection with you and let down their initial barriers, they’re much more likely to commit to meeting you for a date at a new location. Even though travel throughout the city is slow and parking is a problem, they’re more willing to invest the time to meet a rare connection.

These changes in culture become more apparent (and often more confusing) as you travel larger distances and internationally. It’s important to keep in mind that these customs carry ethical consequences. What’s right and good in regards to dating in one part of the world is not in another. Some cities are conservative and frown on sexual exploration, others embrace and celebrate it. Some cities are authentically friendly, some have an empty friendliness, some are unfriendly until you’ve proven your worth. In some places, women may dance with you as a prelude to sex; in others, the dancing is highly arousing yet means absolutely nothing, and making a move too far will earn you a slap on the cheek. In some places, an unwed woman simply does not allow you into her home, unless she happens to be a part of a younger, more liberal generation, in which case allowing you into her home may be an invitation to sleep but not to sex. In some places (even in otherwise liberal cultures), homosexuality is frowned upon, and gay men and women need to be surreptitious about their sexuality, even in the privacy of their own homes when they’re unsure which way their guest leans. In most places, monogamy is the norm; but in others, there is such a high proportion of practicing non-monogamists that dating app profiles will often specifically state a person’s preference. In some places, you might get away with touching someone on the head while flirting with them; in others, it’s a gross insult and, whether or not the person you do it to is understanding, you may find other locals piling in at a chance to beat up a foreigner for insulting one of their own. And on and on…

As a traveler, you must be aware of these differences and act accordingly. It is not your place to enforce your ethics upon the cultures you visit (and you could find yourself in a lot of trouble if you do). Instead, you must find a way to respect the culture of your environment, while also staying true to yourself.

Tying It All Together

Couchsurfing is just one of the ways to meet people as you travel. Dating apps are another (and it’s entirely legitimate to use these for non-sexual reasons as well), or simply meeting people while you’re out, or attending events at your destination. A well-rounded traveler, looking for all the different types of experiences travel can offer, should explore all of these options and see which ones work for them.

It is a delicate balance to flirt as you move around the world—in terms of preferences, ethics, and self-preservation. Although there are many changing variables, it isn’t often as difficult as you might expect. And even if you are worried about cultural differences, there are always, anywhere you go, other travelers to meet whose customs may closely match your own.

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