Photo: Meagan

In 2008, I was a professional bellydancer and went on a self-organized tour of Canada and the United States. Teaching classes and workshops and doing performances, I zigzagged across the country on interstate after interstate; I picked up rideshares from Craigslist to split gas expenses, and decided to rely on Couchsurfing for any residential needs that couldn’t be taken care of by the dance communities I was teaching in. I’d been a member of Couchsurfing for a few months before I finally tried it out.

I was on my way to a solo camping trip in Cape Breton Island for a few days before teaching a workshop in Halifax, and had to pass through a small town called Antigonish. Using the Couch Search, I found a doctoral student with a spare room who seemed nice. He was smart and friendly and had a lot of positive reviews. A few emails back and forth, and I’d invited him on my camping trip. One thing led to another, and we ended up making out in the rain in a tiny tent. We dated long-distance while I fulfilled the rest of my tour, and he wrote me long letters from his summer archaeological site, smeared with dust and waiting for me at any address I gave him. Eventually we split up, but I always wondered if maybe other people had successfully used Couchsurfing as a dating service.

Not just a dating service: It turns out that Couchsurfing’s hookup culture is not only known, but actively exploited. A Business Insider article calls it “the greatest hook-up app,” reducing the idealistic website to a glorified version of Craigslist’s “casual encounters.” Coming from the perspective that the main reason people join Couchsurfing is taking advantage of a home delivery service for highly sexed foreigners, the article interviews several hosts about their success rates. One woman met her husband through surfing…and now they use the site to host threesomes (and moresomes) with willing visiting guests. Another man details his various conquests and mentions that he lists on his profile that he will only accept surfers who are female, and between a certain (younger) age range.

When I was surfing and hosting more regularly, I saw those profiles occasionally. Often they were accompanied by a picture of the host where a female companion had carefully been cropped out. Someone who said they were only interested in female surfers (men need not apply…no homo!), and preferably cute ones, would earn an immediate NO response from me. I was there to foster alternative economies and meet interesting people, and I wasn’t interested in fending off unwanted sexual advances when far from home.

Unsurprisingly, the pickup artist culture thought exactly the opposite, and found Couchsurfing to be a ripe area for exploitation. A guy named Maverick wrote a guide to hooking up while couchsurfing, which has since disappeared from his website, although another stellar article (8 Signs of a Slutty CouchSurfer Girl) remains. It doesn’t take much poking around his site to realize that he’s a trained pickup artist with a Tucker Max-style following. Couch Bangs is a site dedicated to men telling stories of how they convinced, enticed, or coerced various ladies into sleeping in their beds and not their couches. In classic Nice Guy™ fashion, a guy writes:

The first night she was playing hard, and i mean like “go fuck your self if you want to get me,” She was even taller than me to make matters worse, but i kindly showed her around the city and took her to nice romantic place in Alexandria, VA. (like if a care) She told me i was doing to much for her, i replied that i was just a good guy that had lots of spare time. but the first day nothing happened as the matter of fact she agreed to meet another guy from couch surfing to meet that same night (what a ass low move she did to me).

God forbid you be a good host and show your guest around for the purpose of helping her have a good time in a new city. Nope, no reason to care unless you’re gettin’ some.

Given Couchsurfing’s original goals (to help travelers meet other like-minded travelers, find a cheap/free place to stay, and build an alternative community), it’s a shame to assume that everyone on the site is using it for sex. The site has supported a community of travelers for almost 10 years, despite a rocky transition to for-profit status a few years ago. It’s also naive to assume that nobody ever hooks up with a host — traveling is exciting and fun, you’re far from home and feel more able to do things you might not normally do, you’re meeting interesting new people and possibly snuggling under their blankets on a dark, romantic evening.

Couchsurfing is basically an opportunity. You can meet interesting people, and sometimes when those meetups happen, sparks fly and the couch never gets used. Sex between consenting adults is not only possible, but enjoyable and fun, given the right circumstances…and it doesn’t have to turn into dating or end with anything more than an obliquely positive review. Participating in no-strings-attached sex on the road is a choice everyone can make for themselves.

But calling Couchsurfing a “hook-up app” vastly undersells all the rest of its potential, and minimizes an entire community.

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