The Airbnb Inc. application is displayed on an Apple Inc. iPhone and iPad in this arranged photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)  

Sexist Comments Flourish Across Airbnb Reviews in China

(Bloomberg) -- Airbnb bans trolling, discrimination and profanity. Yet if you’re a female user, expect a few choice remarks about your looks while using it in China.

Once regarded as a fun social aspect of online services in China, the proliferation of reviews talking about women’s looks -- from guests being called “a babe” to comments on a host’s sex appeal -- is now drawing fire as a potential safety hazard. While China has long tolerated sexism, recent scandals in the sharing economy have triggered a backlash.

“In the past, I felt such comments were compliments and even felt a sense of pride,” said Sun Qian, a frequent user of Airbnb who has had comments made about her appearance. “But recent events got me thinking how too much of my personal information is exposed on these platforms.” The 30-year-old from Beijing has even been offered discounts if she agreed to refer good-looking friends to the properties as hosts try to generate buzz.

While Airbnb highlights a detailed content policy listing dozens of prohibitions, pointed comments can be found in reviews across its site in China. In one, a user said “what long legs this lovely little sister has,” the guest at another home described the owner as “a legendary beauty, both sexy and passionate” while a third wrote that “the landlady and her mom are both babes.”

The company promises to remove views that “may pose a personal safety risk to an Airbnb community member” or infringes on “privacy rights.”

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"Bullying and harassment are unacceptable violations of our community commitment and our policies," the San Francisco-based startup said in a statement on Tuesday. "Our community’s safety, both online and offline, is our priority."

Rating women by their looks wouldn’t be accepted in much of the world but Chinese culture is far more liberal about such public appraisals, with anything from wealth to weight and social status considered fair game.

“I don’t think there is consensus among Chinese women that they think it’s offensive. That’s where the disconnect is,” said Rui Ma, an angel investor in Chinese startups whose career has seen her spend time in both China and Silicon Valley. “It’s been normalized, and it’s going to be extremely hard to fight against.”

The amount of information about women on platforms such as Airbnb and local rival Xiaozhu has come into focus since a female user of Didi Chuxing’s car-pooling service was murdered this month, allegedly by a driver who picked her up after noting what others said about her appearance. Didi has since taken precautions to limit the commentary on people’s looks, such as by deleting personalized tags.

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Airbnb said it takes appropriate action whenever it is made aware of such incidents, yet the comments continue to appear. “This girl has a real aura of elegance,” read one posting.

The issue isn’t restricted to Airbnb, with similar comments on rival Xiaozhu. “You have a great figure. Not fat at all, very sexy and charming,” read one review.

Xiaozhu says it doesn’t provide label tags for users and incorporates an automatic key word filtering system for specific phrases it says are vulgar, obscene or violent. The company also has censors to evaluate whether comments are appropriate, according to spokesman Pan Caifu.

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But the tide is turning after the Didi killing, which triggered concerns among women about their personal information. The crime has prompted many to seek greater responsibility in safeguarding their privacy from online services and prompted many women to change their head-shots and descriptions.

Yasmina Guo said she’s seen female acquaintances replace their profiles overnight with cartoon pictures or -- at the other extreme -- menacing-looking old men described as “butchers.”

“From a very young age, we’ve been exposed to this kind of environment where people feel very comfortable commenting about your appearance, and this is spilling into the online world,” the 24-year-old Airbnb devotee said. “However, on social media, it can present a real danger and people are becoming more aware.”

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