Jeff and I have been using Couchsurfing as a way of meeting people and traveling the world for the past couple of years. We started by hosting a few people in Jeff’s apartment in Yamagata, then began using it to find hosts when we went to South Korea, Taiwan, and other places in Japan. We’ve been using it a lot lately for our round-the-world trip, too. We always follow the Couchsurfing safety guidelines, reading through profiles and picking hosts with lots of good reviews. So far we’ve had a fantastic time, and have actually made a lot of good friends through Couchsurfing. We recommend Couchsurfing to everyone looking to travel on a budget.
Which is why when this one host (let’s call him A for “asshole”) decided to swat me on the ass, it was a really fucking big deal.
We read his profile and saw he had a young adult daughter living with him, not to mention the hundreds of positive reviews. There were a few negative reviews, but those seemed to be more about miscommunications, so we thought we’d be okay with him. He seemed nice enough in our correspondences. We were looking forward to three nights getting to know him, his daughter, and their area of the city.
The first night, A picked us up from the train station near his place. When we got there, we stayed up to chat with him as he seemed super keen to talk, even though Jeff and I were exhausted from all the travel. We geeked out over Firefly and Dr. Horrible and lots of other things with him and his daughter, who’s only a few years younger than me. Despite the random remarks about how sexy I was that A kept throwing into the conversation, things seemed all right. I thought my unease was just annoyance brought on by fatigue; I hadn’t slept well the night before and had barely eaten that day, not to mention A had thrown drinks at us the moment we walked in the door, so I was feeling ill. We watched the first episode of Dollhouse. A passed out half-way through, and when the episode was over my Jeff and I went to bed.
The next day was better. I felt great after a full night’s rest (eleven hours of sleep, according to Jeff). A and his daughter had both gone to work by the time we woke up, so Jeff and I wandered around, had lunch, bought groceries to make dinner for everyone that night, and came home and did a bit of work. Dinner was fun, and we watched some more Dollhouse and Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing. I should have known when A drunkenly spoiled a minor (at least I hope it’s minor) twist of Dollhouse for us because he “just couldn’t take it anymore” that things were going downhill fast. Oh, and the continuing stream of inappropriate “compliments” was also raising red flags sky high. Chill, Kristin, I thought. It’s just words. He’s just drunk.
Let me give you some examples of the things A said and did over the days we spent at his house:
Talking through the opening of Dollhouse, “Just imagine, Kristin—and it won’t be hard to do because you’re a sexy girl—being imprinted like Echo and giving a guy the weekend of his life.”
“That’s a flattering dress,” while ogling my chest.
To Jeff: “You are so lucky you get to tap that!”
“I don’t trust people who don’t drink,” bringing me glass after glass of different liquors and teasing me for only taking a few sips.
The last day, A took us out to a sculpture park near his house, and then we picked up a friend of his and went to see a cricket match. When we got home from the cricket, A gave us his Couchsurfing guestbook to sign, and we gave him our host book to sign in exchange. We had some drinks, we put a lasagna in the oven for dinner, and hung out in the kitchen, drinking and chatting. His daughter came in at one point with her guinea pigs, then went back to her room where her and her friend were hanging out.
The more A drank, the more forward he became about making remarks about me. He started talking about how sexy I looked in my “school girl” skirt, which is to say a black pleated skirt I was wearing. I took my glasses off to clean them at one point, and then he told me how “sexy it is when a girl take off her glasses, because it’s even sexier when she put them back on again.”
All the while Jeff and I are exchanging glances, trying to shrug off the weird things this middle-aged man was saying. We tried to laugh and joke, but it just kept getting weirder. Eventually A threatened “playfully” that if I didn’t “watch out” I was “going to get spanked.”
Now, it said in his Couchsurfing profile that he likes to “spank naughty girls,” followed by a winking emoticon. He reiterated that factoid to us our first night staying with him. Great, I thought, again trying not to be judgemental, assuming that the “naughty girls” he spanked were always consenting, let your freak flag fly, man. Everyone has something.
Apparently, though, it didn’t take much to be “naughty” in A’s eyes, nor did he seem to care that I was growing more and more uncomfortable with his remarks. At one point I moved from standing freely in the middle of the kitchen to lean back into the corner of the counter, crossing my arms over myself. A teased me for “being shy.” Sobering up and losing my patience, I snapped back, “I feel safer over here.”
Apparently, I was being “naughty” when I kneeled down in front of the oven to check on our lasagna to see if it was cooking. Purposefully kneeled from the knees so I was crouching down, instead of bending at the waist because I could feel him staring at me, because of course it’s my responsibility not to draw undue attention to my body (uh, not). As I did so, A said my name twice, as if in warning.
I left the kitchen, suddenly aware that Jeff was nowhere in sight. I went to the living room, thinking Jeff was there. I asked A’s daughter and her friend where the light for the living room was, and turned it on because it was dark. Jeff wasn’t there, so then I thought maybe he had gone to our room for something. A was standing in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen. I had to go through the kitchen to get to our room, so I walked past him. He held out his fist for me to bump it, like he had done a thousand other times since we had arrived, an expression of, “Oh, come on, don’t be a party-pooper” on his face. Frustrated, I bumped it, and he turned aside to let me pass. When I walked past him, he brought his hand down and swatted my ass.
Nope. Nope, nope, nope. I must have jumped halfway to the ceiling. I retreated to the room A was letting us sleep in, and tried to look occupied as A followed me. There was a buzzing in my ears. I picked things up and put them down without really looking at them. A held out his arms and pulled me into a hug, telling me I had “nothing to fear” from him. He left the room, but as he did so, he pointed at me and said that I “didn’t have to like it.”
All this happened in the space of about thirty seconds. Jeff, who it turns out had just gone to the bathroom, came into the room as A was leaving. I must have been pretty pale, because Jeff instantly looked worried. In response, I said, shrugging my shoulders, *Well, apparently it’s cool to slap my ass.” He held me. I think we were both shaking. Then I said I wanted to pack up and leave.
We contacted the people who had agreed to host us the following day to beg them to let us come a night early. It was nearly 10 PM by this point, but after Jeff explained what had happened (I just couldn’t), they urged us to come to their home as soon as we could. We packed up our things and fled through the back of the house, almost running to the train station.
Jeff kept telling me, “I’m here. We’re in this together,” and squeezing my hand. He had anger in his eyes like I’ve never seen, and I knew that while he was squeezing my hand he was probably imagining squeezing A’s neck.
As the train pulled out of the station, I drafted a report to the Couchsurfing safety team, which I sent as soon as we came in range of some free Wi-Fi. The morning after, our hosts pointed us in the direction of the nearest police station, and I went and filed a report. I had to laugh when I walked into the station at half past 8, looked the officer at the reception desk in the eye, and told him I needed to file a report of sexual assault. His face fell immediately, and he went in the back to get another officer. I’m sure that’s not how either of them imagined their mornings going, but they treated me with every respect and courtesy as I told them what happened.
I didn’t want to press charges. We weren’t in the city for that much longer, and besides, a court case wouldn’t go far when the only evidence was my testimony versus A’s. I knew that even before going to the police, and I am 100% okay with that. All I wanted to do was put my experience on the record, just in case A does it to someone else. And I know he will. I know he probably already has. I really doubt I’m the first person A has swatted “playfully” on the ass.
I’m lucky. I have a supportive partner whose response to learning this had happened was to help me get to a safe space. We had understanding hosts who stayed up until 1 AM in the morning waiting for us, making sure we got to their place safely. The police officers I made my report to listened to me and took me seriously. They were compassionate and apologized that they couldn’t do more than go by A’s house and speak to him, even though I told them from the beginning I knew there wasn’t really anything they could do. If they hadn’t been as kind, I planned to go to the US Embassy to try and get help there, but thankfully they behaved professionally and offered me every courtesy.
The night it happened, I thought, It’s not that big a deal. I should just let it go. It’s just a swat on the ass. We only have tonight left here and we leave in the morning. I shouldn’t create unnecessary hassle for us. It’s not a big deal. Even now I still balk at describing it as “sexual assault” because I wonder if that doesn’t make it sound worse than it was.
The thing about people like A is that they know exactly what they’re doing. They do this again and again. They know to build up trust just enough so you relax around them, and they bide their time until they can get you alone and vulnerable. It’s no accident that the moment Jeff left the room is the moment A decided to swat my ass.
People like A start with something little and seemingly innocuous, like offhand remarks about your appearance, and then see how far they can go from there, how far they can push themselves through your boundaries. I couldn’t stand the idea of someone coming to stay with him in the future and having a similar or god-forbid worse experience. Thankfully the Couchsurfing safety team thought the same way and decided to deactivate A’s account. They understood that the trust implicit in the relationship between host and traveler is not something to be taken for granted. They understood that we were already in a vulnerable position as strangers in an unfamiliar place. They understood that A had taken advantage of his position of power and authority over us as guests in his home.
It’s difficult to go to a stranger and tell them something like this. I felt ashamed, angry, guilty. I was terrified I wouldn’t be believed. I can’t even begin to imagine how much harder it would have been for me if it had been anything more than a swat to the ass. I can’t imagine the pain of deciding to report if it had been someone I had known for a longer time, if it had been someone who was part of my group of friends, if it had been someone I couldn’t get away from.
Even months and months later, I’m having trouble with this blog post. I wrote this in the week after what happened, and then sat on it. I didn’t want to publish it. I was scared and still am. I know there are people who will read this and not understand what the big deal is, even though I’ve tried to explain in the best way I can why it is a big deal, for so many reasons.
As a traveler you rely on the compassion and kindness of strangers far more often than you would normally. It’s a big deal when that rug is ripped out from under you. It’s a big deal when you don’t know where you can go to for help, either because you don’t speak the language or you don’t know if the police can be trusted or any number of things. The violation of trust. The abuse of power. The three days of inappropriate behavior culminating in a breach of consent and personal boundaries. The lingering sense of vulnerability.
I know there are people who will read this who have had something similar happen to them, perhaps many years ago, or perhaps very recently, and those are the people that this post is for. Them, and people who are traveling now who might find themselves in similar circumstances.
There are things we can do to protect ourselves both at home and on the road, as with any crime, but that’s only part of it. The burden of prevention shouldn’t lie with solely with us as targets or victims. Teaching people about consent and respecting others’ boundaries is part of it too, but even that doesn’t cover it all. People like A already know that what they’re doing is wrong, and they don’t care, no matter how many times they’re confronted with issues of consent.
The only way to really stop people like A is to talk about the horrible things they’ve done, to report them, even when there’s no legal recourse. People like A expect their victims to stay silent, and without fail seek to coerce us or shame us or scare us into silence. Our silence is what gives them the audacity to do what they do, to continue to victimize more people. If our silence is their power, then our voice raised in protest is their downfall.