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‘Sex for Rent’ Arrangements: Why They Exist and How to Tackle Them

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About The Author

Matt Wojcik (Regular Writer)

Matt is currently a second-year law student at Durham University. He has a keen interest in international law and environmental law, which stem from his background as an international student. Outside of his LLB, Matt dedicates his time to societies, committees and outreach projects at Van Mildert College.

Housing is absolutely essential to human flourishing. Without stable shelter, it all falls apart.

Matthew Desmond

The recent phenomenon of ‘sex for rent’ arrangements – and advertisements for such arrangements appearing on many websites – across the UK may be argued to have been caused by a combination of an ever-evolving social media age and a dysfunctional housing system that is plagued by a shortage of affordable housing and power imbalances between landlords and tenants which the most vulnerable in society must navigate.

‘Sex for rent’ arrangements involve an offer of free or discounted rent in exchange for sex and have been widely condemned as both immoral and illegal. Indeed, it is a criminal offence to enter into these arrangements. However, the provisions regulating this area have not, as of yet, been effectively enforced in practice.

In light of this, after considering the root causes of such arrangements, this article will analyse the ways in which the criminal law may be employed to tackle ‘sex for rent’ arrangements.

A Dysfunctional Housing System

As an editorial in The Observer has contended, ‘abusive sex for rent arrangements thrive as a result of a lack of affordable housing.’ The current lack of affordable housing may be attributed to policies introduced by previous governments that have been maintained and developed by their successors.

One such policy is the ‘right to buy’ scheme. Introduced via the Housing Act 1980 (HA 1980), and continued to this day by the Housing and Planning Act 2016, this policy propelled the notion of home ownership as social currency by granting citizens the legal right to purchase their council homes at a discounted price. Thus, a survey carried out by Social and Community Planning Research for the Department of the Environment in 1985 found that the people exercising their ‘right to buy’ were:

[D]isproportionately drawn from the middle aged and better off. Most were in full-time work with more than one wage earner in the household.

Consequentially, those earning higher wages capitalised upon the policy by buying their council houses, which were predominantly of good quality and placed in economically advantageous locations, such as London. This, inevitably, resulted in fewer and fewer council houses being available in important and expensive areas of the UK. It is noteworthy that, concurrently with the ‘Right to Buy’ policy, the government discouraged the construction of new council houses.

Ultimately therefore, over time, the continued sale of council housing led to a general decline in local authority stock which now housed the marginalised socio-economic groups and decline in local authority tenure. Simply put, the regime first introduced in the HA 1980 led to better quality council housing being sold off and fewer council houses being built; those  unable to capitalise on the ‘Right to Buy’ policy were left to remain and fight over the limited stock of unsold, lower quality council housing.

That said, one could quite fairly point out that the ‘Right to Buy’ policy is now nearly forty years old; it might therefore be questioned how it affects the society of today. Additionally, this policy only concerned council housing. Indeed, the issues inherent to accessing affordable housing today as a whole have many other causes. But it must not be overlooked how the legacy of such policies has shaped the way the more vulnerable in society navigate the housing system:  the scarcity of council housing leaves them at the mercy of private landlords.

‘Sex for Rent’ Advertisements

A by-product of this reality is that many in society seeking to find an affordable place to live face exploitation. For the most part, this exploitation is financial, as landlords use the demand for housing to raise their rent prices.

However, facilitated by today’s social media-driven age, there has been a surge of private landlords taking to sites such as Craigslist to post advertisements that may read ‘room available for homeless woman (North London/Essex)’. Though this might seem a valuable opportunity for someone in desperate need of accommodation, a recent BBC Three investigation details the account of a homeless woman who, upon answering an advertisement for a property, realised that she had entered into a ‘sex for rent’ arrangement. The woman continued to endure the harassment to which she was subjected – in the form of continuous sexual advances – for fear of being asked to leave and return to homelessness.

As The Guardian has documented, some ‘sex for rent’ advertisements couch the underlying intention of the arrangement in indirect terms, referring euphemistically to ‘benefits’ or ‘keeping me company’. However, others are far more direct, outlining the availability of ‘free accommodation in exchange for an erotic arrangement’. Either way, such arrangements are very clearly an abuse of power, begging the question of how the law may be utilised to tackle such a phenomenon.

Tackling ‘Sex for Rent’ Arrangement via the Law

At its most basic, the legal issue at the heart of ‘sex for rent’ arrangements is one of consent. Indeed, it was the definition of consent contained within the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (SOA 2003) that was used by Katie Russell, of Rape Crisis England & Wales, in her detailed argument of why she believes that ‘sex for rent’ arrangements are against the law. This definition is found in Section 74 of the SOA 2003:

[A] person consents if he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

Thus, in a purported attempt to apply this definition, Katie Russell explains that:

Agreeing to have sex with someone under the pressure and fear of homelessness, or in exchange for the basic right to have somewhere to live, does not equate to agreeing by choice.

This understanding of consent is morally sound; if someone is experiencing distress or fear of becoming homeless and, under the effect of that fear or distress, they agree to enter into a ‘sex for rent’ arrangement, it would be difficult to argue how that person has ‘freedom and capacity to make that choice’ in any real sense.

The issue with this remark, however, is that there is no offence in the SOA 2003 that provides for a lack of consent and that may be applied to ‘sex for rent’ arrangements. The question of whether such an offence would be of merit is beyond the scope of this article, which merely intends to assess how the ‘sex for rent’ phenomenon may be tackled using existing law.

Returning to this question, the offence that – in theory – may be employed to tackle ‘sex for rent’ arrangements is that of inciting prostitution for gain. This offence is set out in Section 52(1) of the SOA 2003:

A person commits an offence if he intentionally causes or incites another person to become a prostitute in any part of the world, and he does so for or in the expectation of gain for himself or a third person.

Close analysis of this provision, and the others which supplement it, illustrate how the phenomenon of ‘sex for rent’ arrangements may be tackled by this offence. For example, Section 54(2) of the SOA 2003 explains that for the purposes of Section 52(1)(a) of the SOA 2003,  a “prostitute” is a person who – whether or not they are compelled to do so – offers or provides sexual services to another person in return for payment or a promise of payment, whether that be to themselves or another.

Meanwhile, Section 54(3) of the SOA 2003 confirms that, for the purposes of Section 52(1)(b) of the SOA 2003, a “payment” is ‘any financial advantage’ provided ‘gratuitously or at a discount’. Crucially for ‘sex for rent’ arrangements, this includes ‘the provision of… services’: a definition that is likely to include the provision of housing or accommodation for a reduced, or without, rent. Indeed, the Explanatory Notes to the SOA 2003 provide that:

The reference to “sexual services” [in Section 54] would cover someone who controls the activities of a number of women in prostitution, where the gain he derives from them is their engaging in sexual intercourse with him.

Enforcing the Law

As The Guardian has reported, that the application of the offence of causing or inciting prostitution from Section 52(1) of the SOA 2003 in the context of ‘sex for rent’ arrangements has ‘never been tested in court’. This is further confirmed by Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove, who has lamented the fact that:

Since last year, there has not been a single arrest, let alone a conviction, let alone anybody actually going to jail for it.

Naturally, the lack of opportunity for testing out whether this method of tackling ‘sex for rent’ arrangements cannot be attributed to the drafting of the SOA 2003. Instead, it is argued that the lack of an opportunity for the courts to examine this is psychological and societal. Vulnerable people at the brink of homelessness may be trapped within the confines of a ‘sex for rent’ arrangement. They will most likely be hesitant in making a complaint to the police, and with no place to go but the street, they remain trapped by their own circumstances. It may therefore be argued that it is the practicality of bringing such an issue to the attention of authorities that is stopping affected persons from coming forward and allowing their case to be heard and tested in court.

And, with statistics showing that the UK’s homelessness rates, particularly among the vulnerable, are rising, it is becoming more and more unlikely that the practicality of making the necessary police complaints will become any easier and any less risky in the near future.

Conclusion: The Way Forward

It is clear that, if the phenomenon of ‘sex for rent’ arrangements is to be tackled, it is a change in attitude that is needed, rather than a change in the law. If society is to take advantage of potential mechanism for combating these arrangements - the offence of causing or inciting prostitution from Section 52(1) of the SOA 2003 – an embracing of a more tolerant and understanding approach to homelessness is necessary.

Indeed, it is argued that if those at brink of homelessness can be encouraged to have more faith in the legislation that society has created  to aid and protect them, the more willing those trapped within ‘sex for rent’ arrangements will be to come forward with a complaint that can help facilitate justice.

There may be some welcome progress in this regard: just last month, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came into force. This legislation imposes legal duties on English councils to take positive steps to prevent and relieve homelessness. While the introducing of such steps is admirable, it remains to be seen whether its failure to address the deep-rooted causes of homelessness – such as the shortage of council housing as a result of policies like the ‘Right to Buy’ – will render making and realising the necessary changes impossible.

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Tagged: Criminal Law, Housing Law, Land Law, Sexual Offences

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