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Sex for rent: Landlords are taking advantage of desperate tenants

The housing crisis is putting thousands of people at risk of sexual exploitation as they struggle to pay spiralling rents.

May 16 2024, 12.34pm

When Helen* put down a deposit for a studio flat in 2021, she didn’t think she’d quickly fall into financial difficulty and struggle to pay rent. After the care worker from Manchester revealed her situation to her new landlord, he propositioned her with a sex-for-rent agreement; he would visit the flat once a week for sex and in return, forfeit her monthly rental fee. Shocked by the idea at first, Helen eventually accepted the deal, thinking it would help her get back on her feet. It didn’t.

“The first time he came over for it [sex], he was so forceful… I hated every second,” Helen tells The Lead. After he left, I just felt so awkward and dirty. We had an agreement that he would not try to force me to do things I wasn't comfortable with… but the second time he returned, it became obvious he didn’t care about the ground rules we agreed on.” The 29-year-old immediately regretted her decision to agree to a sex-for-rent arrangement. She was so scared after witnessing his behaviour in their second meeting that she was unable to follow through with any more physical contact with her landlord. “When he came over for our third arrangement, I put my key in the door, turned off the lights and pretended I was asleep. He called me up so many times. I knew that he was furious. I pretended to be busy at work, but he got even angrier.” 

After Helen refused to proceed with their sex-for-rent arrangement, her landlord retracted their initial offer. “I assumed that because we still [had sex] twice, some of my rent would be discounted, but he told me I still owed the full rent.” Eventually, Helen had to leave her flat. She never recovered the money that her landlord had agreed to discount from her arrears in exchange for sex. 

Helen is one of the 200,000 people who have experienced sex-for-rent arrangements in the UK, the majority of whom earn just £20,000 or under a year. Despite large numbers of landlords engaging in this illegal setup, only one has ever been convicted and jailed for a sex-for-rent arrangement under the Sexual Offences Act: 53-year-old landlord Christopher Cox, who was sentenced to 12 months in prison in 2022. He specifically appealed to young, homeless women who were in need of a place to stay. Even after an initial investigation, Cox continued to post sex-for-rent adverts online. As Britain’s housing crisis deepens, stories like this are only too likely to increase in frequency. 

Jackie* is another woman who was propositioned with sex-for-rent by her landlord of four years. He casually suggested it when he came over to make minor repairs at the property. “When I mentioned I was really struggling for money, he told me I could pay in ‘other ways’. It was so strange, and when I asked what he meant, he told me to ‘get my kit off’. When I told him this was completely inappropriate, he suddenly realised he didn’t have the right tools and left.” 

Because Jackie rebuffed her landlord’s sexual advances, her life as a renter became difficult. “He stopped coming round to fix things or help me at the property. Before I'd rejected him, he was always quick to respond to me, but after the incident, everything changed,” she says. He stopped answering my calls, even when she really needed help. “My boiler broke, no response. My kitchen tap was leaking, no response. It was like he was trying to pressure me to agree to his demands.”

Not only are existing tenants receiving sex-for-rent offers from their landlords, but prospective renters are being targeted too. After fleeing properties due to homophobic attacks and hate crimes, Joel, a 26-year-old LGBTQ+ campaigner, was left searching for a property in London. They said they were almost immediately propositioned with sex for rent arrangements through adverts on buy-and-sell websites and social media.

“I was bombarded with different [questions] like… what’s your favourite sexual position? Other people would say, ‘we have a room,’ but when I would go [to view the property], it would segway into ‘it’s going to be transactional sex.’ He [the landlord] even told me it would be threesomes,” Joel told The News Movement. Disturbingly, he had even been asked to perform sex acts when merely viewing potential properties so the landlord could “see how good he was.” 

According to The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention charity, 28% of LGBTQ+ youth reported experiencing homelessness or housing instability at one point in their lives, meaning they are more likely to be coerced into sexual exploitation as they try to get a roof over their heads. 

“When I mentioned I was really struggling for money, he told me I could pay in ‘other ways’. It was so strange, and when I asked what he meant, he told me to ‘get my kit off’."

So what can be done about the rising cases of sex for rent? 

In 2023, Suella Braverman announced that the government was considering harsher laws regarding sex-for-rent arrangements. After Generation Rent's findings went public, the Home Office also launched a probe to gather more evidence and decide whether a new law is necessary. 

The government probe closed in June 2023. The Lead contacted the Home Office for updates, but they were unable to provide any at the time of writing. While they reassured us they were taking measures to combat the housing crisis, they couldn’t provide substantial evidence to support their claims. 

At the same time, some organisations are concerned the Home Office will go too far, pushing back against criminalisation of sex-for-rent arrangements. The English Collective of Prostitutes [ECP] are among these groups. Their view is that current legislation does not work and further sex-for-rent legislation may “curtail women’s housing options, pushing women further into housing precarity and homelessness.” 

“If women want to respond to an advert and enter into this arrangement, that’s up to them,” the ECP wrote in a statement. “If the landlord is coercive, exploitative, threatening or violent, and therefore committing a criminal offence, he should be prosecuted.” 

The ECP is also concerned about sex workers who have used these arrangements with their clients as a form of financial income and is apprehensive that further legislation and laws could impact sex workers who choose to enter sex-for-rent arrangements willingly. 

It would be a mistake to cast sex workers concerned over blanket criminalisation and advocates for exploited tenants as opponents. Campaigners make it clear that slum landlords, poor housing and unaffordable rents are at the heart of the sex-for-rent scandal. A crackdown on individual cases of landlords propositioning their tenants would achieve justice for some, and explicit regulation trying to differentiate consensual transactional sex from exploitation could address some of the problems, even if it is fraught with risk. But in this specific case, it’s evident that sexual exploitation is just one particular angle of an even wider problem: Britain’s decades-long housing crisis. 

The number of Section 21 no-fault eviction notices recently hit an eight-year high, and the number of court-ordered bailiff repossessions jumped by 50%. Until these deep-rooted issues in the housing sector and the policies enabling them are fixed, there will always be landlords seeking to exploit people affected by the crisis – including for sex. 

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