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Sex for rent: The hidden costs of renting in London

7 Mins read

Amid the current housing crisis, many people house-hunting in London are receiving inappropriate propositions on rental platforms.

“It shouldn’t even be called ‘sex for rent’ because it is clearly coercive and non-consensual,” says Leyla* as she recounts her most recent London housing experience.

For Leyla, the search for housing was desperate. House-hunting can lead to situations that are far worse than simply struggling to find somewhere decent to live. Across the UK, an increasing number of people, often women, are being forced into exchanging sexual acts for a place to live.

This practice, commonly known as ‘sex for rent’, is a form of sexual harassment and a major concern in the housing industry.

After losing her job due to the pandemic, Leyla had to find a more affordable place to live in London. “I had been searching for weeks, through friends and on any housing platform possible.” She went to dozens of viewings, but nothing seemed to work out. “After sharing a bed with my sister for over a month I needed my own space,” she adds.

Struggling to find affordable housing in London she came across an ad on SpareRoom. The rent was within her budget, but still a bit expensive. Nonetheless, she decided to attend the viewing.

“When I got there, the landlord seemed friendly and welcoming.” Offering her yet another black tea, he showed her around the flat. Leyla felt relieved to see that the space was clean and well-maintained.

However, when they sat down to discuss the rent, and opened up about her financial situation, the landlord suggested that they could ‘work something out’ if Leyla was interested in the room. “I didn’t quite get what he meant at the time, so I signed the contract and moved in a week later.”

Once landlords feel comfortable, “you just know that after a few days, they are going to crack a bottle of wine open and discuss ‘alternative payment arrangements’,” points out a Reddit user replying to a thread on creepy ads lurking on SpareRoom.

According to research by Shelter, the national campaign for homeless people, 30,000 women in the UK were offered such housing arrangements between March 2020 and January 2021.

This occurred at the start of the pandemic when people were increasingly facing work instability and related issues, such as the housing crisis.

Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, suggests that a lack of affordable housing and inadequate protections against eviction exacerbate the situation. In an interview with The Times, she says: “tragically, sexual harassment by landlords is yet another situation where men with power are too easily able to abuse women with none.”

“I tried to brush off his advances and ignore his comments, but I needed money, and I was broke. So yeah, I entered a ‘rent for sex’ agreement, if that’s what people call it.”

Leyla

Initially Leyla felt lucky to have found a friendly landlord and a nice place to live. However, things started to change soon after she moved in. The landlord would often buy her groceries like bread and milk, insisting that it was on him and that she didn’t need to pay him back. “He was in his thirties, well off, I didn’t think much about it,” she says.

“More and more he began to ask me about my financial situation whether or not it had changed, how much I was earning at that time,” says Leyla.

Things took a turn for the worse when the landlord started to use Leyla’s financial struggles to coerce her into having sex with him. “It became apparent, when he explicitly asked me if I wanted to agree to some sort of arrangement,” she points out. He never used the word sex, just “getting to know each other’s bodies,” she adds.

At first she resisted: “I tried to brush off his advances and ignore his comments, but I needed money, and I was broke. So yeah, I entered a ‘rent for sex’ agreement, if that’s what people call it,” says Leyla. “When I wasn’t ‘sleeping with him’ in the same bed I was on the couch. He snored so loudly at night I sometimes couldn’t fall asleep. I also helped by cooking from time to time,” she adds.

“I don’t feel ashamed for what I did. I am gutted with the people like him that pray on individuals like me, and with the system that does not prosecute people like this,” says Leyla in a single breath.

It is not fair that individuals like her, that are homeless and in search of a job to received minimum benefits from the state. “The benefits I receive while looking for a job are hardly sufficient to cover my expenses. It cannot afford London rental prices,” Leyla adds.

Hand dangling key by Kindel Media
Desperation for your own space can lead to unintended consequences [Pexels: Kindel Media]

From explicit ads posted on Craigslist and Spareroom to silent in-house agreements, London’s rental scene continues to be a dangerous playground for vulnerable people who are struggling to find affordable housing.

One of many landlords’ advertisements read “Room for submissive female. Own room in modern flat share. No requirements, other the desire to explore submission. Nothing heavy and all limits respected.” Others are looking for “company” and of course, “nothing sexual unless we both want to explore it.”

“I felt sick to the stomach receiving these ads when I first moved to London,” says Lauren, who has received countless sexual offers when searching for housing.

A thread on the r/worldnews subreddit titled “I had no choice: Sex for rent rises with coronavirus poverty” stuck strong conversations about the role of the government in these cases. Underlining the absence of government support for individuals who are struggling to find affordable housing, it is clear that more needs to be done to protect vulnerable populations from exploitation and abuse.

“If your landlord allows you to forgo your rent payment in exchange for sex, that means they’re financially secure enough for you to forgo your rent payment without the sex. So, your landlord is like an extra double mega piece of shit,” comments user Kalapuya on Reddit.

Shelter is calling for action, as the impact of pandemic continues to exacerbate the housing crisis, it is crucial that the government takes swift action to protect those who are most vulnerable. This includes implementing stricter regulations and penalties for landlords who engage in sexual exploitation or harassment, as well as providing more affordable and accessible housing options for those in need.

There also needs to be greater awareness and education around the issue of sex-for-rent arrangements, so that individuals can identify when they are being exploited or coerced and seek help. This can be done through public campaigns, outreach programs, and partnerships with community organisations.

Despite the serious harm caused by sex-for-rent arrangements, the law in the UK is currently inadequate in addressing these crimes.

While offering sex for rent is technically incitement to prostitution and a crime under Section 52 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the present legal framework requires the victim to self-define as a prostitute to secure a conviction. Not only is this morally wrong, but also acts as a clear disincentive to victims of this repugnant crime coming forward to the police.

As of January 2023, only one person has ever been charged in a sex-for-rent case. Christopher Cox, sought “a girl in need” in Surrey, posting adverts that read “If you are a young girl 16-plus who is stuck at home and wants to get away or maybe you are homeless seeking a safe route out, I have a room available in my home for a young girl.”

There needs to be a baseline that anyone can fall back on, because so much abuse is leveraged by a desperate need for shelter and food. “If anyone could walk out of a bad situation into a safe, private housing at any moment it would be much harder for abusers to employ financial coercion,” says Anna who was once a victim of such ill treatment in London.

“I lost my job six months ago and I couldn’t pay rent for the past four months, my landlord was going to evict me if I was not going to please him sexually,” Anna confides to me over coffee. “I didn’t know where to go or who to stay with, I’d just moved to London from Italy. I panicked and gave in,” she adds.

“I am gutted with the people like him that pray on individuals like me, and with the system that does not prosecute people like this.”

Leyla

The term ‘consensual’ suggests that both parties involved in a sex-for-rent arrangement have freely and willingly agreed to the terms of the exchange.

“If I were willing to engage in such activities to cover my rent, I would probably choose to do sex work separately and rent an entire place with the proceeds, rather than be at the mercy of some creep,” says Lauren* now residing with her partner in Clapham. Receiving these proposals, however, did make her worry about how many vulnerable women might be considering such offers.

“After finding a new place I shared my story with a close friend, told her what happened, we cried together,” says Leyla. “She told me I could have reached out and stayed with her,” she adds.

She had been too ashamed to tell anyone about her situation. As her throat tightened, she gasped for air and tears started streaming down her face. “I tend to somatise my emotions and then I breakdown like this,” she says with a smile wiping away her tears.

The reality is often much more complicated, as many individuals may feel coerced or pressured into these arrangements due to their desperate need for shelter and basic necessities.

These individuals may feel like they have no other option but to agree to the terms presented to them, which can lead to a sense of powerlessness and exploitation.

Shame and fear may prevent them from seeking help or telling anyone about their situation. It’s important to provide support and resources for individuals who find themselves in these situations so that they can seek help and get the assistance they need.

Please reach out to Victim Support in case of need on + 44 0808 16 89 111. More information can be found at www.victimsupport.org.uk.

* Name has been changed to protect the interviewee’s identity.


Featured image by Medium Photoclub via Pexels CC.

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