When Jacob Lopez was booking his trip to Madrid on Airbnb, he read the hosts’ reviews and picked one with a solid reputation. He hadn’t read anything about knives, threats, locked doors, or sexual assault, but that’s the horror that defined his stay, he says.
In a New York Times column, Ron Lieber shares Lopez’s story and raises concerns about Airbnb’s safety regulations. The company has homeowners rent out rooms or their entire residence to travelers, acting as an alternative to hotels or hostels. Like other “sharing’’ services, it has raised controversial questions about regulations and safety.
Upon arriving at his host’s apartment on July 4, Lopez, a 19-year-old Massachusetts resident, said he was locked in a room and pressured to submit to a sexual act. He sent messages to his mother back home, asking her to call for help. She called Airbnb looking for the address, but employees refused to give her the information, she said, or to contact local police, suggesting that she contact the Madrid police herself—an attempt that proved to be unsuccessful. Her later calls to the company went unanswered, she said, and Lopez remained trapped and was sexually assaulted. He later escaped without the help of authorities or Airbnb.
The host, who was born male and lives as a woman, has denied Lopez’s accusations. She says the act was consensual and Lopez is transphobic.
Airbnb’s safety suggestions include reading reviews and checking references, as well as communicating with your host prior to arriving and signing up for traveler’s insurance. In Lopez’s emergency situation, those pre-departure tips were no longer helpful. A spokesperson for the company told The Times that it’s planning to clarify policies so that employees know to contact authorities when made aware of dangerous situations.
During that weekend, 800,000 people used Airbnb worldwide, 70,000 of whom stayed in Spain, and Lopez’s situation was “unique,’’ a spokesperson from Airbnb said in a statement to Boston.com. Still, “one incident is too many, and while no industry has a 100 percent safety record, that’s what we strive for,’’ the spokesperson said.
Read the full Times column here.