When the market-oriented housing system meets deregulated virtual space, opportunities open up for bypassing the regulations for equal access to housing. In the case of Craigslist, an online marketplace established in 1995 that has since spread to over 70 countries, the housing section “rooms & shares” features adverts offering free or heavily discounted accommodation in exchange for sexual favours.
Upon opening the room share section users are immediately confronted with titles such as: “Free accommodation for gorgeous female” or “Live rent-free in luxury – avail 4 cute female”. Such adverts make “sex for rent” schemes between a male seller and a female buyer seem not only obvious, but presumably socially accepted. In this instance, the assumption that it is acceptable to request “sex for rent” originates in patriarchy, a societal structure in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded. More specifically, it originates in the patriarchal claim of a man’s rights over female bodies in both the domestic and the public space.
As Carole Pateman describes it, through the marriage contract, the woman at home is expected to perform both sex and domestic work for economic support and protection. The public aspect of patriarchal right, through what Pateman names a “prostitution contract”, manifests through the demand for female bodies to be sold as commodities in the capitalist market. Sex for rent appears to be a compelling hybrid of the two contracts, which is helping to fuel a resurgence of oppressive relations in ostensibly socially liberal societies. And while these oppressive relations manifest differently based on the subject’s ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation and physical ability, it’s worth exploring how the basic patriarchal dynamic plays out in some of the world’s most overheated housing markets.
Toronto is one of the least affordable cities in the world: its fast paced development significantly surpasses the housing supply. Although the 2017 Fair Housing Plan did stabilise the prices by introducing stricter rent controls and taxes to foreign investments and real estate speculation, affordable housing remains far-fetched for many. In this case, in a rather friendly and polite manner, the “sex for rent” arrangement is depicted as a reasonable solution to the burden of housing costs. A “professional, successful, respectful” man is offering a private room to young, financially unstable women in exchange for a “friends with benefits” relationship. This “mutual beneficial consensual living arrangement” can be seen as a form of transactional sex, where a well-off man, (aka a “sugar daddy”) repays an often younger partner with financial support. However, the crucial difference with other transactional deals, where the support consists of tuition fees, dinners or holidays, is that here the roof over one’s head is in question. Housing is a fundamental human right, a precondition for realising other human rights, such as the right to work, social security, health or privacy. Home is also the most intimate sphere of one’s being, deeply connected to our feelings and needs of security and identity. So, while the arrangement “friends with benefits” may suggest a level of equity in the domestic relationship, the position of the tenant is in essence a submissive and insecure one which denies the subject this fundamental human right.
A number of metropolitan areas in Australia and New Zealand have been experiencing a serious shortage of affordable housing. But while Australia’s property bubble is deflating rapidly, with a dramatic decline of 10% in 2018, the New Zealand’s housing market remains overpriced. In both countries, the homelessness rate remains extremely high, with many people living in cars and garages. In this example, one of the four fully furnished rooms with high speed internet is being offered in exchange for fulfilling a “wide array of arrangements”, with women invited to suggest themselves what their contribution could be. The man who is offering his mansion epitomises the model male consumer capitalist subject: “fitness, eating good and looking as good as I can.” An early-middle aged Caucasian is calling for a fairly young, “promo model” type of woman who would be evaluated based on a photo and the sound of their voice. However, while claiming his primary motives to be socialising and philanthropy, he is preying on young and unstable students and travelers.
In this further example from Toronto, an older, “nice” and “accomplished” Caucasian man is offering a submissive relationship to a younger woman in exchange for an income. While he is not offering a living space per se, the advertisement is placed in the housing section to prey on financially unstable women who are struggling to find “inexpensive” and “better” housing. Instead of focusing on the features the potential candidate should have, the text accurately describes the person offering the job, with details that would be irrelevant were it not for the job’s obvious sexual implications. Even if we assume that the advertisements are directed to those consciously engaging in sex work, the deceitful nature of the text lies in its strategic placement.
According to a UBS Global Real Estate Bubble Index, a skilled service worker would need 15 years of work to afford a 60m2 flat near central London. Such conditions instigated a proliferation of “sex for rent”, which the media, the nonprofit sector and a number of politicians in the UK are actively campaigning against. In this example, a private room is being offered in exchange for the household duties and the ambiguous suggestion “maybe more”. The owner doesn’t find it necessary to introduce himself, but rather focuses on the requests he has of the “young girl”. The predatory nature of this text is particularly striking, as it is addressing women who are just old enough to legally consent to sex in the UK and find themselves in a vulnerable position of having left or wanting to leave home. By preying on such vulnerability, the advertisement also hints at the fact that the sex for rent dynamic is likely to register more acutely amongst traditionally marginalised groups, whose subjection to other forms of oppression generate greater obstacles in their access to safe and affordable housing. Meanwhile, it further perpetuates the claim that the woman would perform not only sex, but the housework as well.
When viewed from a global perspective, Berlin counts as a city that has seen some of the highest and fastest paced rent increases over the past couple of years. Yet it remains an attractive destination for young, geographically mobile and educated millennials. Apartment sharing is their prevailing mode of habitation as they enter the labor market and often cannot afford to rent full units on their own. Unlike the other examples explored here, in this listing the “sex for rent” scheme is communicated very directly. In exchange for sex, a young, fit man is offering to share his well located spacious flat. On these terms a young, open-minded and attractive woman could not only obtain a fully furnished room but also spend some quality time with the owner. However, trading sexual favours appears to be insufficient – a rent of 100 euros still remains to be paid.
In this example, another from London, we see how the exploitative dynamic is exercised with equal force beyond the heteronormative sphere, in this case within the gay male community. A private room is available for little or no money, with the final arrangement presented as one’s matter of choice. In a rather domineering tone the owner, a 40 year-old, professional Caucasian “man” in possession of a spacious flat in London, is offering reduced or free monthly rent to a younger “guy”. The owner’s explicit request for the “face pictures”, in order not to waste his time, alludes to his professional lifestyle.
In recent years, the contrast between New York’s luxury housing market and the rate of homelessness and overcrowding has become increasingly striking. It is only recently that the local government considered taxing non-residents for their luxury properties, as they pay no city or state income taxes. What here seems to be a regular home sharing advertisement subtly inserts the suggestion of negotiable rent under a FWB (“friends with benefits”) arrangement in a list alongside other more innocuous details, such as house amenities and the reassuring presence of other flatmates. A picture of the “loft-like apartment” reveals a design-conscious interior, with an exposed brick wall and the obligatory racing bike, connoting the cultural capital of its young residents. Interestingly the focus is not placed on the qualifications of the woman in question but the qualities of the apartment. The precondition of the security deposit and the first monthly rent suggests that the room in this apartment was previously rented for another currency.
In all these adverts, a familiar yet increasingly contested pattern of discrimination is unrestrained and painfully evident. The majority of property owners and renters are middle-aged, Caucasian men describing themselves as “successful”, “professional”, and “fit”, whilst the target audience for these advertisements are predominantly young, financially unstable women or members of the queer community. Without data on people responding, it is impossible to assess the level of exploitation underlying a particular advert. But given the fact that one is more likely to experience housing precarity as, for instance, a working class woman of colour, it is safe to say this dynamic has even more troubling implications for women affected by other sources of oppression.
Since patriarchy and capitalism are essentially two intertwined systems of oppression, the self-association of advertisers with success, professionalism and even respect comes as no surprise, nor does the usual referral to their Caucasian ethnicity. Indeed, without necessarily considering it an element to assess people’s attractiveness (there is usually no mention of race in the description of the potential applicants), this aspect of their identity becomes an element to establish privilege and paint an accurate picture of their role in the proffered relationship.
What should be surprising, however, is the normalisation of a deal in which one needs to abandon one human right — not to be held in servitude — in order to satisfy another — the right to adequate housing. If the exploitation of housing by real-estate were not so rife, and the home was universally accepted as a place of security, then perhaps “sex for rent” would cease to exist. The breakthrough for female emancipation is historically associated with the removal of housing from the market and the growth of the welfare state. Yet, as long as we apply to housing what Mark Fisher described as a ‘business ontology’ in which it is “simply obvious that everything in society should be ran as a business”, the underprivileged will continue to experience widespread erosion of their historic strides toward equality.