Seven things I learned after being sexually harassed while travelling solo

Four weeks ago, I was sexually harassed by an Airbnb host in Lund, Sweden. He turned out not only to be a pervert who, in his own words, “Cannot resist sweet girls,” but also a fraud who does not use his real name on his listing on the site.

For those who wonder: I am fine now. It is just I needed some time to recuperate.

What happened, then, you might ask?

The host, who introduces himself as (name now omitted), a (presumably twenty-something) Lebanese man currently doing his masters, tried to sleep with me by claiming that I am going to share a single-sized bed with him. As he attempted to seduce me started later, sometime after midnight, I decided to stay on guard and have a sleepless night by claiming that I had a deadline to catch (Thank God I have a dissertation to write!).

I have incorporated the details of the incident in the review I posted on the host’s Airbnb profile, which unfortunately has been deleted by the site on the grounds of privacy violations. However, I believed that the so-called “violation” was necessary to expose another mind-boggling discovery that evening: I found out what his actual name was (name now omitted as Medium used this information as a justification to previously suspend this article on the grounds of privacy violation), after my friend looked him up on hitta[dot]se based on the address and phone number he provides on his listing. You can read the screenshot of the review below.

In the midst of his persistence in seducing me that night, I encountered the first lesson, which is about defence mechanisms: Avoid the possibility of any argument for two reasons: (1) Only confront when you are ready to flee. In my case, fleeing was not an option as it was late at night and I had no idea where else to go; and (2) If you are not ready to flee, you have to be really cautious before making any move — try to predict how the perpetrator would react and how you could handle their reactions (or if you could handle them at all). Therefore, while trying to keep my composure and not looking uncomfortable, I had to come up with a plan. Unfortunately, it had to involve a lie.

I had thought of saying that I am not interested in men. However, I dismissed the idea almost immediately, as he might see that as an opportunity to say something along the line of “You just need to give it a shot (with me).” After all, one of the most common lesbian clichés is on the matter of finding the right guy (and his penis). Moreover, I am also aware of the unflattering tendency of men not acknowledging women as their own person but as someone belongs to a(nother) man (“Bros before hoes”, anyone?). Thus, I decided to reach out to a guy friend and asked for his availability for a Skype call as my boyfriend for that evening. The attempt only made his intention more obvious, though, as he said that for the night I’d better “Forget your boyfriend.” Nevertheless, I was adamant in telling him that I would have to sleep later because I have work to do, and he begrudgingly went to sleep eventually.

The following morning, I decided to have the window wide open to wake him up, because in no circumstance I would want to come near the bed while he was still there. His first sentence was, “Sweetie, come to bed,” a clear sign that he wanted to try his luck one last time. While the night before I still attempted to rationalise his gesture as harmless, partly because of the glowing reviews on his profile, this time I decided to be more upfront in saying no. I repeatedly said so when he asked for a kiss before he leaves; whenever he tried to touch me, I would draw myself away and say firmly, “Don’t.” And that was my second lesson: Do not dismiss your instinct when it turns on the danger alarm.

Seemingly upset for not getting what he wanted, he mentioned that if I were not interested in sleeping with him, I should make it clear from the beginning, and in a tone of disappointment declared that “I thought you are open-minded.” That said, he also said things like, “I will miss you more than you ever know,” “You are my sugar,” to the extent that he made himself tea and later asked me to dip my finger into the cup and stir it because it would make the tea sweeter.

I cannot describe the relief I felt once he left the apartment, especially after the quick detour he did to grab something he said he forgot — it was the stack of mails addressed to (the perpetrator’s real name) in the book shelf.

I slept only three hours that day. The moment I woke up was like recovering my senses after an autopilot mode, as I tried to comprehend what had happened the night before and how did that make me feel.

There were confusion, shame, and resentment, among others, boiling altogether. That was the moment I realised that I had become a victim of a sexual harassment; not because I had seen myself as one from the very beginning, but because I shared the thought and feeling of one as I recalled the experience. That was my third lesson: Being a victim of a sexual harassment is NOT your fault.

However, it was particularly horrendous for me because I am no stranger to rape culture: As a masters’ student in Gender Studies and a journalist for a women’s magazine, I have read, discuss and write about it in my classes as well as at work, and I am also familiar with the experiences of both survivors of sexual violence and people who work to support them. I thought, because of all that, I should have known better, not only on the matters of prevention but also how to handle the unfavourable incident.

I have always believed that no victim of sexual violence “asked for it”, that their reports need to be listened to instead of shunned and shamed, that they are not supposed to feel guilty for experiencing such horrible thing that might traumatise them for life, and that the perpetrators should not be able to get away with it. However, a first-hand experience disrupted my grounds of knowledge, and I was left shaken as I tried to pull myself together.

It took me hours to convince myself that I should not feel either ashamed or guilty for being sexually harassed. And that was my fourth lesson, which also serves as a reminder: A sexual harassment can happen even without physical violence or whether or not a penis penetration was involved. It is about unwanted sexual advances, and due to the absence of mutual consent, creates uneven power relations where the perpetrator tries to exert their power to put the victim in a helpless position. It is not about sex; it is about power.

“You did not ask for it,” I told myself repeatedly. “It is not your fault. You do not have to be ashamed. You do not have to be afraid. It is all over now. You are safe.” Those words reminded me on the importance of speaking out, and not to do otherwise for the fear of being humiliated, scolded, or simply being called a liar. (Almost?) unsurprisingly, this was how the host responded to my review, which showed how he was dismissive and attempted to swept my story under the rug.

Over the weeks, I have talked to a number of people about the experience, which also included an Airbnb representative from Trip Experience team. With the latter, I found it helpful to talk to a woman who also travels solo because then she possibly could relate better to the experience. We talked about a week ago, and she told me that Airbnb will also reach out to the host before taking any appropriate measures so as such situation will not happen again to any other guests. While I somewhat regret the site’s decision to remove my review on the host’s profile, making it back to all-positive, gloriously four-stars rated rating, I am hopeful that Airbnb will sort this thing out the way they promise to deliver. On another note, my decision to report the harassment was not for the sake of getting financial compensation, but the site’s offering of USD35 worth of coupon is nevertheless welcomed.

So that was the fifth lesson: PLEASE, report the incident and the perpetrator. A friend of mine suggested the possibility of reporting to the police. However, my last day in Sweden was only the day after, and frankly I had no clue about how the process would be like and whether it would require me to stay longer in the country, so I decided not to do it. Yet I refuse to let the perpetrator get away with trying to hook up with his female guests (who, by the way, have paid to spend the night at his place), hence the report to Airbnb and detailed review instead. I contemplated the possibility of people not to believe my story because of his positive reviews, but then I realised that this is a thought too common for many victims of sexual violence, which leads to their reluctance to speak up and decision to remain silent. I knew that I could not leave this matter to be under the tip of the iceberg. If anyone of you, or anyone you know, share a similar experience, please do tell other people what you have been through, because it matters.

Meanwhile, I encountered interesting responses from people with whom I shared the story. One of them actually began with, “If I were you, I would…”. I found this reaction, albeit possibly meant no harm, to be insensitive at the very least, and I remember thinking, “Oh honey, you would not want to be in that situation to begin with …”. Another one, “You’re still lucky, though, it could have been worse,” is similarly unnerving, this time for two reasons: (1) The notion that one is “lucky” because another has more unfortunate circumstances completely disregard the different intensity of the experience and the endurance needed to survive it, and I am not comfortable with oversimplifying other people’s situation for my personal consolation, and (2) I was already pretty shaken after the incident, which might have been milder compared to other instances of sexual violence such as rape, so I cannot even imagine how tough it was for the survivors whose experience were way more intense, and it is simply unfair to undermine their tenacity and courage by making a comparison that is not apple-to-apple. The worst I have stumbled upon so far, though, is something along the line of “I have done similar things before (but with better precaution blah blah blah), thank God I have never been harmed so far.” Darling, you do not want to be proven wrong later, do you? Have empathy please, thank you very much.

This was the sixth lesson: in responding to this kind of situation, one does not need to offer personal commentaries in order to show their support. I found it to be more encouraging to hear people saying, “It is okay, you have done what you could,” “You are safe now, that is all that matters,” or simply offer me a hug.

On another note, this experience does not and will not stop me from travelling solo. It brings me to the seventh and final lesson: One can never be too careful, but there is always a possibility that things might go out of hand, and when that happens after they have taken every measurement imaginable, it is not their fault. It is important to acknowledge that there are things we cannot control in life, and it greatly helps in taking off the burden caused by blaming ourselves. This reminds me to how some people commented on to my attempt to retain my composure throughout my stay with the perpetrator or to report him afterwards. “You have been so brave,” they said.

It made me wonder, “Really?”. While I am genuinely flattered by the remark, I am frankly not sure if I was intentionally being courageous, or if I ever were at all. At that time, I only did what I thought I should do: I must keep myself safe.

UPDATE: I have been in touch with an Airbnb representative from Trust and Safety department. The perpetrator’s profile has been removed and they have given me a full refund for my stay, in addition to US$35 worth of coupon. I truly appreciate Airbnb’s swift response in taking care of this matter, and rest assured that I have nothing against using the service in the future just because I have had a bad apple.

I would like to thank each and every one of you for your kind words and encouraging support as well as spreading the word. What you have done truly means so much to me and no words could describe how grateful I am to be surrounded with such sincerity. I would also want to dedicate a special shout-out for the brave people who have reached out to me and publicly shared their own experience of surviving sexual violence. I admire your courage and endurance, especially as I have witnessed how victim-blaming is alive and well and directed to me as I tell my story, so I know how it feels to be in the same boat with you. This is the least I could do.