“It didn’t bother me too much until I realized what was expected of me:” Couchsurfing and Caregiving Labour
Dr Katie Hail-Jares1, Ms Rhianon Vichta-Ohlsen2
1Griffith University, Mt Gravatt, Australia
2Brisbane Youth Service, Fortitude Valley, Australia
Couchsurfing, or temporarily staying with friends, extended family, acquaintances, or strangers, is the fastest growing form of youth homelessness in Australia; between 2011 and 2015, 52,729 people indicated they were couchsurfing when accessing specialised homelessness services throughout Australia. Qualitative research, though, suggests these numbers are a low estimate, as many couchsurfers do not view themselves as homeless and do not access services. Similarly, service providers have long assumed that couchsurfing is less damaging or dangerous than sleeping rough, though emerging research suggests this is not the case. One especially concerning issue is the prevalence of sexual and labour exploitation among young people who are couchsurfing. In interviews with 65 young people, ages 14-27, who were couchsurfing throughout Queensland, we document the experiences of coerced and forced labour, including sexual exchange, caregiving, childminding, and housekeeping. Rather than being understood as an exchange of chores for a place to sleep, hosts often expected young people to take on these duties in addition to providing rent, to be available at all hours, and to accept such responsibilities with little or no notice. Young people were also expected to invest emotional labour into such activities as well; wanting to provide such services and displaying gratitude. When such emotional labour was not present, young people were evicted or threatened with such eviction. We suggest that these young people’s experiences fit within the international definitions of trafficking and discuss policy changes that could further protect such young people against such exploitation.
Katie Hail-Jares is a Lecturer at Griffith University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Her research interests include sex work and exchange, incarcerated communities, and wrongful convictions.