Couchsurfin' USA: The Female Travelling Experience

Taking stock of the perks and pains that the patriarchy holds for women backpacking across North America

Feature by Rianna Walcott | 07 Aug 2015

This summer, I realised my birthright as a middle-class Briton by going backpacking. Over the course of three weeks, I travelled by trains, buses and planes from Los Angeles to New York with my stalwart companion, Abby.

When I first presented the idea of travelling after my year abroad to my parents, the response was immediate and vehement: "You’d better not be planning on going alone!" I wasn’t planning on going alone, yet I was still incensed at the idea that I wasn’t capable of doing so. Retrospectively, they were absolutely right. Many parts of my journey would have been very difficult as a lone woman, and others certainly less pleasant. My first taster of the difficulties of travelling alone as a girl came on the greyhound from LA to San Francisco; no matter how aggressively you pretend to text or sleep, or how long it has been since you showered, you will always be the top candidate to sit next to. My first overnight bus was spent next to a woman who attempted to embrace me every time I fell asleep. I could not go on like this.

As a result, our #squad was born; two plucky and polite young ladies couch-surfing and charming their way across North America. On a superficial level, women receive perks such as expedited and free entry into nearly all clubs, but at the cost of liberal harassment; in Toronto we found that we were expected to pay for supposedly free shots with kisses. One of our hosts captured the essence of our problem: a staunch feminist blogger, she worked as a ‘paid to party’ girl, essentially being paid to look beautiful at clubs and flatter men into buying fantastical amounts of alcohol. I asked her how she managed to reconcile this with her feminist beliefs, and she responded that it was the difference between benefitting monetarily from a patriarchal system, and becoming a victim to it.

The benefits to being a female traveller cannot be discounted. We found that strangers were willing to host us on short notice, something they admitted they would have been less likely to do were we men. It is undeniable that we were largely treated with far more care and consideration than had we been men, by men and women alike. There was a whole lot of chivalry going on, with people insisting on giving us lifts, helping us with our bags, and seeing us safely inside our hostels.

"In Toronto we found that we were expected to pay for 'free' shots with kisses"

As we wended our way across the states, we Tindered. I couldn’t help but notice our propensity at every location to find safety in numbers, often finding at least one male friend to accompany us in each city. I wonder if this happened organically, or if it came from an unspoken desire for protection in a strange new place? In Detroit, Abby matched with a kind, erudite boy named August who did charming things like take us to museums and bookstores, somehow ending up in an apartment balcony on a warm night, drinking and laughing over erotic Chinese poetry.

The convenience we found in aspects of travelling, regarding the implicit assumption of our harmlessness and general chivalric tendency to ensure our safety, was offset by guilt. By taking advantage of these tendencies, were we perpetuating a view of the ‘weak woman’? There is a duality to our perceived lack of threat: part and parcel of being assumed harmless is being assumed vulnerable. Yes, as a female traveller you are approachable, probably polite and easily helped, but you are also approachable, probably trusting and easily hurt.

I had a fantastic time travelling with Abby. We made some life-long friends, or at least friends that I’ll be hitting up next time I’m in their state and need a sofa. But when I return to see the states I missed, I’ll probably still go travelling in a pack.