On one day this week, four adverts offering free rent in exchange for sex appeared in the North East section of a national classified advertising website. These ‘sex for rent’ ads have hit the national news in recent weeks, with Justice Secretary Liz Truss taking it on as an issue to tackle.

Whether this will be lost in the current maelstrom of a snap election, crisis in the prisons and Brexit is yet to be seen.

It would appear that ‘sex for rent’ is a relatively new phenomenon in a time of austerity, benefits sanctions and the bedroom tax placing increasing numbers of people in serious financial hardship and poverty.

Homelessness and sexual exploitation

Ever since Changing Lives started reaching out to women with experience of sex work and sexual exploitation in Newcastle back in 2006, the link between homelessness and sexual exploitation has been clear.

Time and again, the people who use our services identify homelessness as a route into sex work (or more accurately survival sex):

‘I hate sleeping on the street, I try to find a punter who will let me sleep for free sex. I hate it but I hate sleeping on the streets more’.

I met a girl when I lived on the streets. We were desperate so when she told me she did it I started doing it too’.

There is no visible ‘red light district’ in most towns and cities across the North East, and many of the women and men we meet do not meet the stereotypical view of a ‘sex worker’ and do not identify with this label.

They exchange sex to meet their immediate and basic needs – for a roof over their head, to fund their own and their partner’s drug addiction, for tobacco, a bottle of cider, even getting their laundry done – what we describe as ‘survival sex’.

Survival sex’ and welfare policy

At Changing Lives we have been concerned for the last few years that increasing numbers of women were getting involved in ‘survival sex’ as a direct impact of recent welfare policy.

Our team working with the women they see in the red light district in Doncaster tell us that they estimate about 40% of the women they meet cite benefits sanctions as one of the main reasons they are on the street:

‘Whilst there are other needs, often addictions, we see numbers increasing of women who have not done this before. A couple of women went out just to get five quid for their electric’.

Rational and relatively straightforward…?

The ‘rent for sex’ adverts which have emerged more recently represent another layer of survival sex, whilst giving the impression that this is an equal commercial exchange.

It is likely that, for a number of people facing severe economic hardship, this seems a rational and relatively straight forward solution to manage their situation.

However, the reality is that this sort of relationship is unlikely to represent an enlightened, mutually beneficial transaction. The sexual entitlement expressed in these adverts clearly demonstrates a power imbalance, in which the ‘tenant’ is a subject to the sexual predilection of the landlord.

‘House boy – cleaning, washing, dog walking and doing what you’re told’

‘Double bed – would take in two women to share. Sex and it’s free’.

This kind of ‘survival sex’ is spilling out into the lives of increasing numbers of people who might not consider selling sex and would not see it as such. People who may not see the vulnerability to exploitation, coercion and violence they may be exposing themselves to.

…Or a gateway to sexual violence and control?

Changing Lives’ extensive experience supporting people involved in survival sex across the North and Midlands is that sexual and physical violence and coercive control are commonplace and to be expected.

The severity of violence experienced is often terrifying. ‘Sex for rent’ might at first appears as a quite easy way to solve money problems, but the potential for harm is huge.

Once in this situation, it may be extremely hard to seek help and leave – the impact of abuse on self-efficacy, the potential for shame and stigma and, let’s face it, nowhere else to go.

An additional chilling feature of the ads are those which directly seek out younger people. At a time where the government is denying housing benefit to 18-21 year olds, there is ever more potential for young men and young women to be drawn into a world of sexual exploitation and harm, in the hidden environment of the abuser’s home.

The increasing pool of people in our communities who may enter into ‘survival sex’, including some of the most vulnerable, is a consequence of some stark policies introduced by our Government over the past few years.

It is imperative that service providers and commentators do not allow this to be ignored in the political storm of elections and Brexit.

Laura Seebohm, Director, Changing Lives

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