“Struggling to pay rent? Give me sex instead.” The sextortion nightmare that must be stopped

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women everywhere. In the UK, hospitality and retail – sectors traditionally employing large numbers of women – have borne the brunt of restrictions and many women have lost their jobs, find themselves unable to pay their mortgage or rent, and are evicted; others have been the victims of domestic abuse whilst ‘in lockdown’ and are rendered homeless when they finally manage to escape.

The shortage of social housing means that many have ended up living in privately-rented properties where, it seems, increasing numbers have fallen victim to abuse by landlords who exploit the situation for their own pleasure –literally – offering tenants accommodation “rent-free”, except of course that it is never free. There are strings attached.

Such exploitation has always gone on, but societal changes, and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic have brought it into the light and it is becoming more widely recognised. Social media and the MeToo movement have meant that people feel more easily able to put on record what has happened to them.

In January 2018, a YouGov survey commissioned by Shelter and widely reported in national media found that 250,000 tenants had been asked for sex in exchange for free or discounted accommodation in the previous five years. In the following monthBBC Three published an article in which undercover reporter Ellie Flynn discovered that not only was there no understanding of the amorality of extorting sex in exchange for “free” accommodation, but nor was there any appropriate legislation under which perpetrators could be prosecuted – so no enforcement action could be taken anyway. 

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

Flynn interviewed Ellen Moran of Acorn, a tenants’ union and anti-poverty group, who said: “In our society, it seems acceptable for people to wield their power over the vulnerable in order to get what they want, no questions asked…That power is entrenched and such actions are ignored by law enforcers.” Her organisation is now campaigning for a change in legislation to make demanding sex for rent specifically illegal – possibly under modern slavery laws – so that landlords can be prosecuted. “The authorities need to publicly recognise that it is a crime and act on that by prosecuting in order to dissuade perpetrators. We need real change in order to solve this problem.”

In September 2018 KentOnline reported that students at the University of Kent in Canterbury were being preyed upon by landlords offering accommodation rent-free in exchange for sex. This was probably only the tip of the iceberg. Since the increase in tuition fees, going to university is now so costly that many students are unable to make ends meet, and some – especially women – are targeted by men who exploit their financial worries. In 2017, the Student Money Survey  found that “the pressures of covering costs and limited income opportunities means a small number of students continue to rely on gambling and adult work as ways to make money.” That small number was 2 per cent. By 2020, the proportion had increased: 4 per cent of those surveyed had done sex work and one in ten would consider it a potential source of money in an emergency. 

Photo by Tony Mucci on Unsplash

In 2019 LBC Radio carried a report about landlords in London offering “rent-free” accommodation which they advertised on the website Craigslist. Originally established as a kind of ‘classified ads’ website in the US in 1996, Craigslist seems to have become the go-to place for ‘landlords’ to advertise for tenants who are willing to engage in what one ad coyly called an “intimate arrangement”, so desperate are they for a roof over their heads. LBC’s story again referenced the lack of legal clarity around this sort of procurement of sexual favours.

This question was picked up by the Aberdeen Law Project, based at Aberdeen University. ALP produced a report entitled “Sex for Rent: Exploitation or Free Agreement?” following a workshop between the Project and MSP Kevin Stewart, Detective Sergeant Craig Currie, Mark Thomson from homeless charity Shelter Scotland, and Marsha Scott of Scottish Women’s Aid. It found “the government has recognised a link between vulnerability and homelessness and exploitation…[but] no legislative steps have been taken to tackle the “sex for rent” issue…”

Without the transaction of an exchange of money, sex-for-rent arrangements are considered to be simply an agreement between ‘consenting’ parties and as such are not covered by any current legislation. So the men perpetrating this exploitation are able to carry on committing abuse because their victims are often vulnerable, in dire straits financially, and unsupported. What is more, the victims are unlikely to complain or report the abuse and any sort of organised action against the practice is under-resourced. Worst of all, there is no enforcement or sanction to help prevent it, despite Crown Prosecution Service guidelines being updated to provide – in principle – a pathway to charging such rogue landlords.

In December 2019 the government announced in the Queen’s Speech that they would be bringing forward a Renters’ Reform Bill, which – amongst other measures – would guarantee rents for a defined period and give more protection for tenants against eviction; but there was still no formal recognition of sex-for-rent abuse within the proposed legislation. However, in early March 2020 the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, Wera Hobhouse, writing on the Politics Home website, announced that she would be putting forward an amendment. She said, “there still has not been a single successful prosecution for sex-for-rent. A new approach is needed…The victims of sex-for-rent arrangements need clarity and justice. And this is what I will be fighting for with my amendment to the Renters’ Reform Bill.”

Under current law, a victim would find their own reputation being under attack if they were courageous enough to report the abuse: as Wera Hobhouse noted, “legal experts… raise the concern that anyone bringing a case against a landlord could risk being labelled a prostitute” [author’s italics]. It is easy to understand why victims prefer to remain silent.

The Covid-19 pandemic has stopped progress on the Renters’ Reform Bill. No date has been made available in Parliamentary business for the Bill to be introduced, although housing minister Christopher Pincher has now told the House of Commons: “We will do that at the appropriate time when there is a sensible and stable economic and social terrain on which to do it.”

In the meantime, the problem is going nowhere. The Times reported in May 2020 that Craigslist fails to stop ‘sex for rent’ adverts from landlords , and protection for tenants against ‘sextortion’ seems to be as remote as ever, whilst the incidence of abuse continues to increase: Reuters reported that the pandemic itself is causing a rise in sex-for-rent exploitation: ‘I had no choice’: Sex for rent rises with coronavirus poverty .  “The financial difficulty which many across the UK have experienced as a result of Covid-19 will mean that more people will be forced to accept these arrangements as an alternative to being made homeless at the worst possible time”, said Hobhouse.

Peter Kyle, Labour MP for Hove and Portslade, and shadow justice minister, has campaigned for legislation against ‘sextortion’ and managed to get Amber Rudd to take the issue seriously when she was Home Secretary. He said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 02 January that she had set up a workstream at the Home Office to address the issue – but that none of her successors have shown any interest in taking it further.

He said, “If you are a victim of this type of exploitation, the legal definition of your status is you’ve become a prostitute. This is a huge disincentive to victims coming forward so we need a specific offence.”

He doesn’t mince his words when he calls for sanctions against Craigslist, which he describes as “pimps” profiting from the sexual exploitation of British youngsters. As he points out, the ads show faces and phone numbers: it should not be difficult to pursue these ‘landlords’ and bring them to justice.

Will the government right this wrong? Might Home Secretary Priti Patel recognise the power of unscrupulous ‘landlords’ over vulnerable tenants, and make demanding sex-for-rent illegal? Will Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick see a place to tackle this in the Renters’ Reform Bill? Maybe Women’s Minister Liz Truss will object to economically-disadvantaged students being branded prostitutes because they naively entered into a devil’s pact for affordable rent.

There is clearly an urgent need for legislation to criminalise sex-for-rent abuse, and it becomes more urgent in the face of growing levels of hardship and increasing struggles for many to keep a roof over their head.

What if it was your daughter?