Couch Surfing While Female
On the boundaries of what’s appropriate between male hosts and female guests
At what point does an innocent obliviousness to social norms give way to inappropriate conduct? When do many small transgressions set against a backdrop of kindness necessitate speaking out, and when would that seem petty, entitled, ungrateful, uptight? These are the questions I found myself asking during my stay with Daniel (name changed for privacy) in Eilat, Israel.
For the record, I’ve had exactly 47 couch-surfing experiences. I’ve hosted 29 people, surfed with 12, and arranged to meet up with six people. In case you’re not familiar with couch surfing, it means that after reading the profiles of strangers living in whichever locality you’ll be visiting, you send them “couch requests” asking for accommodation (for free). The main point is meant to be cultural exchange; the free accommodation is a nice bonus. (And here’s a very heartwarming couchsurfing story for context on how lovely it can be.) As couch surfing grows in popularity, though, the quality of its new members decreases.
I’ve been at this since 2009, way before couch surfing became a for-profit company and exploded into the mainstream of the sharing economy. I’ve had experiences both remarkable and unremarkable: bonded like moths to a flame with some; found travel buddies, community, even housemates; and wanted to leave out of boredom or awkwardness with others. But never have I felt the inclination to leave anything other than a positive reference replete with generous observations of the best in a person’s character.
How many times now have I asked myself if writing him a negative reference would be “too mean” or “overly sensitive”? How many times have I blamed myself for not reading his other references closely enough, thinking “I should have known”? Such is the plight of many a disenchanted solo female couch surfer—the ranks of which I managed to avoid joining for nine years. Until Daniel.
When I arrive at Daniel’s place, he is cooking dinner for us, and it smells delicious. Who am I to bristle, then, when he side-hugs me good-naturedly later that night as he teases me about my distaste for alcohol, sits just the tiniest bit too close on the sofa, or pats my knee in a friendly way as he makes some dumb joke? Who am I to take offense when he explains the next morning at breakfast that in some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, you need to be covered “here, here, and here,” lightly but unnecessarily touching my shoulder and knee to illustrate his point?
His intentions must be pure, I argue with myself, because he cautions me against couch surfing in Egypt: “All those guys want to rape you. It’s not just hospitality.” Then again, isn’t it a trademark of humanity to project our own guilt onto the other?
How many times have I blamed myself for not reading his other references closely enough, thinking “I should have known”?
At every turn, I question the integrity of my visceral distaste for this experience. One moment he is cuddling his dog with touching presence and affection; the next he is interrupting and talking over me as his voice grows louder over some political or societal issue he feels passionate about. Lots of people aren’t good communicators, I reason. Maybe no one taught him about the merits of dialogue, maybe his family is the same way, maybe he simply doesn’t realize his tone is too forceful to be used with a person one has just met, or that he’s not letting me talk.
I begin remembering an episode of the travel vlog “Nas Daily” in which Nas describes Chinese water torture: At first, having a little drop of water fall on your forehead every few seconds is okay. It’s a little annoying, but it’s fine, you can deal with it. After some time, it starts to become really annoying, and finally, it actually makes you crazy! This can be applied in social situations too: When a lot of “little things” pile up, even though they seem like nothing individually, together they begin to feel really overwhelming. Like small drops of water, all of these small transgressions from Daniel are not worth mentioning on their own, but they add up little by little when taken in succession.
“I haven’t slept in 34 hours,” I tell him when his prized football match (watched from the comfort of the sofa—my future bed) finally ends around midnight.
“Poor girl,” he responds in a very kind tone. To him, this is merely an interesting piece of information; to me, this is a hint that I would like to go to sleep, but I need him to get off the sofa first. Okay, so he doesn’t pick up on the hint. I should have been clearer. Drip, drip… another little, slightly annoying, but manageable water droplet.
When bedtime finally comes some time later, I ask him what time he normally gets up in the morning. “I might sleep late tomorrow,” I tell him.
“Oh, you’ll wake up when I make breakfast, believe me,” he replies, disregarding my desire to catch up on sleep after two sleepless days spent traveling to reach his place. Another drop.
He sees me putting in my earplugs; his eyes widen, and again, rather than recognize my need for a good rest, he comments on my unusual preference for sleeping with earplugs indoors. I tell him that I have insomnia. He informs me that he puts on YouTube and then drops off to sleep in five minutes, so if I hear a video just going on and on, that’s why. (I will soon learn that he also sleeps with his door, which is adjacent to the living room, wide open, and that I will hear the video faintly through my earplugs for a long time.)
Then, nonchalantly, while he is talking, he takes off his shorts and drops them on a nearby chair, revealing his boxers.
Now, I’m all for dressing as one likes in one’s own home. That said, there are a lot of factors to consider here: The inherent power dynamic that exists when a single man invites a lone female traveler into his home. The unspoken rules of conduct appropriate for people one has just met. And, of course, all the other barely perceptible infractions of the evening thus far. Drip, drip, drip… But what kind of pricey princess would I be to complain about a few stray drops of water from the very faucet that benefits me so much in other ways?
In the morning he wakes me up by approaching the sofa with a cheerful, “Good morning!” My mind cycles through its usual back and forth: I told him I want to sleep in the morning. Why is he waking me?… No, he’s just being friendly. Look, he’s making you breakfast now, don’t complain… If someone sleeps in my home, I would never have the audacity to intentionally wake them without their advance consent!… But Cait, you’re very sensitive around issues of sleep. Some people weren’t taught not to do that. Don’t overreact.
He has prepared a thoughtful and delicious breakfast, and as we eat, he diligently explains to me which beaches are best for my long-awaited snorkeling adventure. He pats the dog with observable love and care, and I second-guess my ungenerous observations. People are funnily three-dimensional like that; it makes us hard to pin down. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? How could I think of leaving a negative reference for a man who is so generous to me, who gazes with such pure adoration at a close canine friend?
When I come home in the evening, we get to talking about the Israel-Palestine issue, and he explains Israeli history to me in great detail, again becoming worked up and impassioned. I observe again that I can’t seem to finish a sentence without being interrupted—or in the rare cases in which I manage, he doesn’t seem to have heard it. There’s no reply, just a continued monologue on his thoughts and opinions. Again, not altogether uncommon. Just another little water drop. Whatever.
While this is going on, we begin making an impressive and delectable shakshuka, and when it’s done, we enjoy it together during the football match between Germany and Sweden. Rapport is good; we joke that only when I leave the room are goals scored. He lets me use his computer for some work I have to do. He cracks a sex joke or two, and I laugh because at the time it feels okay.
The friendly, comfortable interaction snaps me back into guilt mode as I reprimand myself yet again. Just write a positive reference, I think, but mention the unnecessary touching.
Again he takes his shorts off in front of me before bedtime, then goes into the bathroom. I don’t understand why he doesn’t do it in his room or in the bathroom, since he’s about to shower, but whatever.
This time, his sex joke really offends me. But before, I found his jokes funny and laughed… So a part of me feels I have no right to take offense at this one.
Before going to bed, he has me pull up his Facebook page on my phone so I can like it and look at his scuba diving photos. I am busy writing a message to a friend, but I concede, quietly noticing that he frequently interrupts me when I am absorbed in something else, telling me to look here or there, or alerting me to the dog sitting in front of me asking to be petted. Like a child, I think, unaware of the availability of others and conscious only of his own whims. This is a totally innocent characteristic, just another little drop, but the drops are starting to add up.
He shows me lots of photos; impressively, he has managed to capture octopuses having sex in high-resolution. “Octoporn,” he calls it.
I feel vaguely uncomfortable with the second or third sexual reference, so to deflect, I ask him if it’s uncomfortable, when scuba diving, to have this thing in your mouth that you breathe into. He says yes, it is at first, but that you get used to it. Then he adds that, as a woman, I should be used to having things in my mouth.
This time his sex joke really offends me. But before, I found his jokes funny and laughed… So a part of me feels I have no right to take offense at this one, having signaled earlier that I’m okay with this kind of humor.
In the morning, he wakes me up by patting my shoulder. Okay, so maybe he wants to have breakfast together before I leave—he tells me he is working today, so maybe we have limited time.
As a host, my own way would have been to mention my work schedule the night before and be quiet so that my surfer can sleep, then leave a nice note and some leftovers. His waking me up without asking the night before and without previous mention of his work schedule feels vaguely entitled, as though to say, “Well, of course you will go along with the schedule I decide, unbeknownst to you.”
Somehow, this little shoulder tap is the last drop of water I can tolerate. My livid, enraged, but outwardly silent reaction is not entirely his fault, I know—I have a history of being sensitive to people who don’t respect others’ sleep, and some (read: boyfriends and previous roommates) have argued that I’m too uptight about this. It’s 9:45, after all, but for me, that shoulder pat crystalizes my interpretation of what he’s been doing: stealthily chipping away, from various angles, at the boundaries of what’s appropriate in the male-female host-guest dynamic. A tiny chip here, then a lovely meal or a thoughtful question, then another microscopic chip on the other side, each one too small, by itself, to make a fuss over.
Is he doing this on purpose, I ask myself? Is his morally gray-hued flirtation with the boundaries a calculated act, a well-thought-out way to toe the line without going far enough any one time that I would be justified in speaking up? Nahh, he doesn’t seem clever enough for that.
Less than five minutes after he has roused me, while I am checking my phone, he asks me to help him make the salad. I oblige, and begin writing this essay in my head.
Over another thoughtful and delicious breakfast, when the dog licks me, he makes a joke about how the only thing that humans lick is ice cream and some things during sex. I don’t make eye contact.
He didn’t hurt me, he didn’t rape me, he didn’t touch me in an overtly sexual way. I did not feel I was in any real danger. I did not confront him about his behavior, so I shouldn’t complain. He did let me sleep on his couch for free and made me four delicious meals. Some of my complaints are about small transgressions of a mildly sexual nature, but nothing dangerous. Most of my complaints are just an unremarkable story about your average harmless inconsiderate host. The fact that I have the privilege of complaining so indulgently about such trivial matters speaks volumes.
Nothing truly terrible happened to me, so why am I writing this? For myself and many others, this kind of morally ambiguous account is a perfect epitomization of a common dynamic that occurs often between the sexes. Now that we all (mostly) live in accordance with basic principles like not raping each other and not using a high degree of obvious force, physical or verbal, those with a craving to assert dominance or make unwelcome advances must do it in a stealthier way. They must push the boundaries just enough to arouse discomfort, but not enough to really warrant a reprimanding.
This methodology is clever and insidious in that most of the time, it causes one to question her judgment and remain silent, thereby becoming an unwilling reinforcer of bad conduct.
I left Daniel’s place feeling relieved but icky. Now I’m taking the easy, passive-aggressive way out: writing a mean essay about him instead of confronting him directly because I don’t know how to do that, don’t know how to call out a person who has on one level been so kind, who has done nothing overtly disrespectful.
When I abstractly imagine myself in such a situation, I imagine that I have the chutzpah to assert myself, to say kindly but firmly, “I don’t like to be touched by people I don’t know,” or “Gotta be honest, I’m not really a fan of that joke,” or “Thanks for telling me the time, but if it’s okay with you I really need to get some more sleep.”
For myself and many others, this kind of morally ambiguous account is a perfect epitomization of a very common dynamic which occurs often between the sexes.
It strikes me that there is such a big gap between what I imagine I would do and what I actually do. All too often, how we imagine ourselves behaving does not match up with how we actually behave when a hypothetical situation becomes reality.
What can we do to close that gap? Once more, we’re confronted with one of the more prominent controversies of this type of issue: How much of the responsibility lies with the other to pick up on cues and not push the boundaries, and how much lies with us in clarifying our boundaries? What do you think? And what do you hope you’d do, and what might you actually do?
We could stop here, simply file Daniel away under the heading “creepy guys” and call it a day. This approach, however, would not account for his good side, for his complexities as a three-dimensional human being, who just like the rest of us, sometimes behaves in ways he shouldn’t. In closing his case and cases like his, we do ourselves and our subjects a disservice: Us because we disregard an opportunity ripe for practicing compassion and looking outside ourselves, and them because we demonize their character and disregard their nuances, complexities, and basic goodness.
So, rather than close his case, I suggest we open it further with the following questions, all of which have been asked before, but which necessitate frequent repetition if we are ever to live our way into a kinder and more empathic society:
What about Daniel’s upbringing and life experiences led him to behave in this way?
Why, when expressing political opinions, does he show such little compassion or understanding for another side?
What are his parents like? How much compassion did they show him as a child; how much compassion has the world shown this man?
Has he ever had a serious relationship? What boundaries have his past partners set or not set?
Which of his own boundaries have been pushed throughout his life?
How, exactly, can we as a society design and implement a curriculum, of sorts, in interpersonal skills, and how can we make sure everyone gets to be its subject?
How can we agree on what’s appropriate, where compassion ends and undue leniency begins?
And, perhaps the most important: To what degree can I open my heart and feel for this fellow sentient being who caused me suffering?