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Sex-for-rent is the hidden danger faced by more and more female tenants

Penny Anderson in The Guardian

The private rented sector is broken and house-hunting is a dreadful task fraught with abject desperation. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, to the list of nasties (the grasping letting agents and truculent and capricious buy-to-let owners) whom tenants confront can now be added creepy, predatory rentiers offering homes in return for sex.

In the weird swamp world of online portals, everything is so much more dangerous. Female tenants are especially vulnerable when flat-hunting, and some landlords are quite open about what they expect, while others hide in plain sight. The basic act of flat-hunting often involves wandering into an unfamiliar neighbourhood, then entering a flat for guided viewings with strangers: a man you have never met before, who could assume or imagine that signing a rental agreement entitles him to sex. Remember, too, that this man might ultimately be in possession of the key to your home, and, if he’s a live-in landlord, could occupy the adjacent bedroom. 

Some ads are overtly soliciting sex, while others are coy. During a bizarre viewing tour of a tiny flat with a friend, the drunken landlord, having first claimed that he was moving out to live with his girlfriend, changed tack. He explained: “She’s not really my girlfriend and would it be OK if I visited?” I left.

An especially odious case involved a friend who moved out after her landlord offered to reduce the rent if she were “nice to him”. He then accused her of prudery and had the effrontery to pursue her for the income he lost after she escaped his lair. (And frankly, it was a lair, wasn’t it?)

Let’s be clear: this isn’t an issue about consensual sex or self-empowered, independent “sex-workers”. It is exposed women seeking a safe place to live, who are then ruthlessly compelled to have sex with their landlords in order to keep a roof over their heads. Many are trying to escape homelessness – and encounter vile men offering to house vulnerable women in return for sex. And by vulnerable, I don’t just mean women who are poor, but also exploited asylum seekers, those fleeing domestic violence, care leavers and victims of “the right to rent”, where potential tenants must show documents proving they have the right to remain in the UK.

I endured some troubling encounters when using a website popular with flat-hunters, having placed a carefully worded flat-wanted ad. One response sounded positive, but when I called, the landlord was evasive about terms, thought my self-description (“professional female”) odd, and then asked if I wanted “male company”. I hung up. To my amazement, a male friend found this hilarious, doubted my story, then checked to unearth a whole new world of abuse of women (and some men) simply looking for a home.

Yet still coercive homes-for-sex is too often seen as bit of a laugh. It isn’t. It’s not merely undermining but hazardous. A friend home-hunting with her toddler was contacted by one man who offered her use of his home, eventually explaining that he didn’t require rent; rather he “enjoyed light, consensual anal intercourse”. She was both terrified and appalled.

The private rental sector in areas of high demand (especially London) is growing sleazier by the day, and many men are brazen about what they expect. A supporter of tenant support group Acorn shared one man’s response to a female flat-hunter: “Can you pay with sex twice per week?” In a moment of dark levity, a male commenter offered to provide the sex, reasoning this probably wasn’t what sleazebag-guy was expecting.
Many platforms seem slow or unwilling to deal with such abusive posts, or else tacitly tolerate them. Shelter has picked up on the situation, noting the power imbalance and the distorted sense of entitlement: man provides home, man deems himself entitled to sex with isolated, scared, sofa-surfing young woman lacking genuine alternative options.

The answer is of course for offenders to cease and desist. But failing a mass changing of ways and renunciation of sordid sexual bullying, it seems women must take steps to ensure our own safety. So, when flat-hunting, do not go alone. Always let somebody know where you are. If possible, arrange a guided viewing with an agent (if an agent is being used to let the property). And if you are being coerced into sex, inform the police.

The internet has opened up a whole new fresh hell of sleaze and importuning. On the plus side, it’s also excellent for naming and shaming. And hopefully those women so desperate that they have felt as if there were no choice but to submit can be empowered to summon enough courage to report these abusers.

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