A growing number of landlords are asking tenants for sex in exchange for housing as COVID-19 lockdowns and job cuts have left many struggling to pay their rent, housing experts said.
A survey by the National Fair Housing Alliance of more than 100 fair housing groups combating discrimination across the US found that 13 percent had seen an increase in sexual harassment complaints during the pandemic.
“If I did not have sex with him, he was going to put me out,” one woman facing eviction by her property manager told the alliance in an podcast on its Web site. “As a single mum, I had no choice. I didn’t want to lose my housing.”
Sex for rent has come under growing scrutiny in the US and the UK amid spiraling housing costs. Charities have highlighted a rise in online adverts offering rent-free accommodation in exchange for sexual favors.
Under the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people worldwide have lost their jobs or income as lockdowns and travel restrictions have forced many businesses to close their doors.
Authorities in North America and Europe have introduced cash benefits, rent freezes and banned evictions in a bid to protect people from homelessness.
“Folks that are really vulnerable when faced with eviction, especially during a pandemic, they are sometimes faced with impossible choices,” said Morgan Williams, general counsel for the alliance, which protects tenants against housing discrimination. “The predators in the housing context ... seize upon that vulnerability.”
Data on the prevalence of sex for rent is scarce. With limited awareness of the issue, as well as legal ambiguities that mean victims could face prostitution charges, abuses often go unreported and unpunished, experts said.
A survey in 2018 by the housing charity Shelter England found that about 250,000 women in the nation had been asked for sexual favors in place of rent in the previous five years.
British lawmaker Wera Hobhouse, who campaigns against “sextortion” — the abuse of power for sexual benefit — said that sex for rent was likely to be on the rise as people desperately wanted to stay at home under lockdown.
“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,” Hobhouse said.
Williams said that many women do not report sexual harassment by landlords over fears they could lose their housing, or because they are struggling with other issues, such as poverty.
“Pursuing complaints in the current climate is a difficult thing,” he said.
Kaarin Long, women’s rights attorney for The Advocates for Human Rights, a US-based human rights organization, said that many victims were already vulnerable, including sex trafficking survivors, former prisoners and ethnic minorities.
“It’s kept under the table, it’s kept quiet because those folks don’t like to work with formal systems, because formal systems have not been good to them in the past,” Long said.
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