Last week the BBC covered the landlord advertisements which offer accommodation in exchange for sex with young women. Although charities have described the adverts as exploitative, this is not considered an illegal act in the UK. While there have been several good pieces published over the past few days on this problem which rightfully attack the usurpation of women's bodies, the central issue of class largely remains peripheral to such critiques. Indeed, inasmuch as these are women's bodies being exploited, these are nonetheless poor women's bodies and feminist critiques must take account of class issues hand in hand with sex-based discrimination.
In a country where council housing has been all but demolished since the Thatcher years, housing is at Britain's most precarious state with homelessness augmenting visibly week by week throughout parts of London, like Hackney and Tower Hamlets. The legal loopholes through which rent is extracted from humans has taken on perverse proportions from Airbnb where hosts can command extortionately high rents thus driving up the local rent threshold as has been critiqued in cities like New York and Berlin which have recently taken action against such practices, to landlords who make homes out of unsafe office spaces and warehouses where roommates do not even know each other as the landlord plops in strange figures without the household's consent And more recently the sex-for-rent deals which have been featured over 100 times on Craigslist this past year have made a media splash.
As Poppy Noor details the legal autonomy of the individual is held up under British law with the one exception of late-term abortion, she argues that sex-for-rent "can't work in this manner because their very legality rests on ambiguity. The adverts rely on covert language and sexual innuendo to remain legal, and so a number of them commit to ironing out the further detail in person." So attacking the legality of these forms of advertisement would depend upon controlling the language of ambiguity which is essentially impossible, legally speaking.
There lies the question of bodily autonomy, an issue that comes up over and over again in the debate between prostitution abolitionists and pro-sex work advocates. How can you negotiate your autonomy while the other holds control over the contract and your safety?
Although women are the primary victims targeted by these adverts, this form of exploitation is not new. I remember in December 1987 when looking over Village Voice adverts from Washington D.C., on my way to New York City and I found an apartment share whose rent was a bit cheaper than the rest. But when I called up the telephone number to arrange a viewing of the room, the man on the other end of the line said, "I should let you know that if after the first month we have not established a sexual relationship, I will have to ask you to move out." I was quite young and shocked. I just let out a "Ewww" and hung up.
But the reality today is that the most vulnerable individuals in search of housing in our society are women and homeless youths and it is not enough to claim that sexism is at the base of this problem alone. Indeed, there are men who are also exploited by these adverts and neither the left nor feminists should be surprised at this practice of rental exploitation. It's been around in various forms from marriage, to indentured servitude, to the increasing numbers of land owners in the United Kingdom.
While living London, I noticed the incrementally precarious nature of renting. While what is called the "buy-to-let" sector has been under relentless criticism over the years in the UK, it has until very recently been the driving force behind untenable rents in London and around much of the country. Different from years past when landlords were expected to earn money only after years of renting, today's market maintains a quick pay-off mentality as the kinds of mortgages that buy-to-let landlords have prohibit them from renting to the most disenfranchised and have hiked rents up to the degree that most Londoners are living as Ross, Phoebe and Chandler well until retirement. Across the country, Brits are spending half their income on renting, so it should come as no surprise that women will be the most exploited of renters.
Meanwhile, in London Bloomsbury has been turned into international student housing as the UK education system has been angling for international students, primarily from China, in order to get them to fill the coffers of graduate programs and overpriced housing. Foreign students study at major British universities while others take certificates at acting and music schools in the area. But the UK is not alone in this as the US has long been offering video game design courses, encouraging Chinese immigration for study in higher education, and even setting down American campuses in China to begin this recruitment process.
The brute reality is that while the usual victims of the housing crisis will inevitably tend to be women, the one commonality across the board is that the perpetrator is inevitably greed. In the big scheme of things, when a woman is given the choice between homelessness or housing, how she "pays" for her survival is incidental to the wealth of the "lordship" to whom she is indentured. What sex-for-rent establishes is yet another way in which neoliberal capitalism and patriarchy work together to market housing options as "free choice" when today they are a postmodern form of slavery.
The larger question that we must ourselves as a society is why so many walk into our friend's second, third, or fourth home, gasping in awe and admiration. Why do we value that which hurts so many of our brothers and sisters?
It is time for us to have a frank discussion about greed and exploitative economic practices.