First published in The National on 17 April 2017
ACROSS the UK there are women searching for places to live. Friends, mothers, sisters, aunts, the woman you sit next to on the bus, or in class, or stand behind in the supermarket line. Some of them are likely thinking about that roof over their head, adding and subtracting, mentally balancing the books and deciding what sacrifices can be made to make the rent. The capricious economic landscape has made this essential human need – the need for shelter – harder to grasp.
The national average for a double room is now nearly £500 a month, and an average overall property rent tips £815.
Rent has increased by an average of 20 per cent in two years. That means more mental arithmetic for many. It doesn’t take a genius to conceive of the sizeable bite that takes out of most incomes, when real wages have declined more than in any other advanced country since the financial crisis. In fact, money spent on a place to stay is about half of what an average tenant takes home. In London it’s 72 per cent. It’s no news that we’re in a housing crisis – but there are some willing to use this crisis to their advantage.
“Free accommodation for female student”
“If any young female student is in need of free of charge accommodation & is prepared to act as a ‘resource’ in return, then please provide full personal details & a recent pic & reply from your own private e-mail address please. No pic, no reply.” – Craiglist, July 2016
Scour the pages of Gumtree, Craigslist, or many other room rental sites, and you’ll find them: free room, rent negotiable, other ways to “show your appreciation”. Company. Nudity. Sex. These online adverts are ranged from the implied to the often explicit, with “landlords” shamelessly exploiting the women’s penury for personal sexual gain.
To meet the exigencies of the rental market, once more women’s bodies are being reframed as an acceptable commodity – something detached from a humanity, to be traded in exchange for a basic necessity. And technically speaking, it’s perfectly legal.
“I would expect a relationship in lieu of rent”
But what’s wrong with two adults in a mutually beneficial arrangement? What if both parties are going into it with their eyes open? Surely it’s a matter of personal choice? These are just some of the arguments I’ve heard to refute and defuse the seriousness of this situation.
“Free room for dirty housekeeping/ PA slut”
Fantasy about choice and situation dilute what’s taking place. It’s comforting to think of some edgy Sex In the City scenario – something a bit nudge-nudge, wink-wink. It’s tempting to consider ourselves as progressive enough that two adults could exchange resources, bodily or otherwise, and that individual actions don’t have net negative consequences for a specific group. It’s tempting to assume everything about such an arrangement would be cool and consensual because there was a conversation first. We might even like to tell ourselves it could be fun. Hey – there’s a reason this is a porn trope.
“You will be attractive, slim and willing to offer more intimate favours too”
When you think about it in these terms, in an imagined scenario, you selectively edit for palatability. You probably don’t think about the situation leading a woman to that advert, and you probably don’t imagine the act of payment in detail. Sex is too abstract a concept to consider the realities of what’s being traded here. We’re talking penis in vagina. In mouths. Hands on and in bodies. Things of course any woman can offer freely – but when you’re trading sex for rent, how free is that choice truly? If you’re a vulnerable woman with no place else to go – do you have the power to say no, or did you leave that at the door? Is it an acceptable price to reduce your own body to currency because you need somewhere to live? That doesn’t sound very sexy. Homelessness hanging on a “no” is a mood-killer.
“I have a nice room available in London for a girl who enjoys being a dirty little slut”
No woman should have to make the choice between giving sexual access to her body and affordable rent, but some are considering it, and putting themselves at risk in the process. We have to unpack not just why they’re making this decision, but why this “exchange” is being offered and why some “landlords” think this sort of offer is okay. It doesn’t matter if what’s on offer is a penthouse apartment or a crumbling bedsit – the distinction is irrelevant. Women shouldn’t have to put themselves in danger to secure a place to stay, blurring consent by entering a space where someone else has all of the power. Women shouldn’t have to fuck their way out of precarity.
“I’m seeking a beautiful young lady with a penchant for facesitting”
The men offering this arrangement either don’t see a problem, or wilfully ignore the reality of what they’re doing: dispossessing women of the right sexual freedom by offering something they desperately need. It’s not about consent or empowered sexual choices – it’s women being cornered and coerced into sex with their landlords because that’s the best option available to them. Women who find themselves making this choice likely aren’t doing it because it’s easy, fun and they really love sex with strange men. There is a backdrop of desperation that can’t be ignored. Rising rents. Falling wages. Zero-hours contracts. Part-time work. Seeking asylum. Fleeing domestic violence. Fleeing sexual violence. Leaving care. Impending homelessness. There are factors that predispose women to such a choice, and where there is desperation, there is always an opportunity for exploitation.
“In return I want a few minutes of sexy fun in the shower etc when I come to visit”
As long as women are at risk, and women are framed as sexual objects to men, this predatory behaviour will continue. We can’t ignore that what could be one woman’s personally empowering choice is normalising a behaviour that puts other women in danger. For now, we can report the ads, lobby our MPs for more affordable housing and continue to call this out for what it is: the preying on of vulnerable women in a climate of financial precarity.
But it will take a lot longer to fix the root cause. Until women are seen as fully human, and not valued sexually above all else, someone will sit down at a computer, write that ad, and think of themselves as generous.