Recent reports by numerous media outlets have once again highlighted the prevalence of so-called “sex-for-rent schemes” amid the Coronavirus outbreak. While this exploitation is sadly nothing new within the UK, it has once again been pushed into the spotlight as a result of the cliff-edge economic uncertainty that currently faces the country.

For those unfamiliar, individuals – mainly women but sometimes also gay men – who face problems paying rent due to the economic impact of Coronavirus are being propositioned by exploitative and unscrupulous landlords with the promise of rent-free accommodation in return for sex. This is a disaster that warrants harsh criticism on two fronts.

Firstly, the law as it stands offers little protection to those who may be vulnerable to this type of exploitation. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance explains that the likely approach in addressing this issue would be to charge an exploitative landlord under s52 Sexual Offences Act 2003 with the offence of ‘causing or inciting prostitution for gain’. This is problematic for several reasons. In the first instance, it labels victims of this behaviour as ‘prostitutes’, legally speaking. Subsequently, if a victim then perceives there to be legal ramifications from this – for example, they may think that the label automatically equates to criminal activity – it may then discourage them from coming forward, as they might the fear that the law is not “on their side” if they accept the label.

Secondly, the CPS guidance refers to situations ‘which developed following a suggestion made by the tenant or prospective tenant. Such a scenario would call into question whether the landlord had ‘caused’ the tenant to become a prostitute.’ While this description by the CPS belies the true nature and power dynamic that makes up the vast, vast majority of prostitution-related arrangements, it exposes a further shortcoming of the legislation in that the prosecution would have to prove causation. In other words, it does not include situations where the tenant had been exploited in past arrangements, and even then, proving that it was the landlord who initiated the exploitation is a big hurdle to overcome considering the CPS’ disastrous and rapidly declining rape prosecution rates.

Parallels can also be drawn with this and the approach legislators should take with regard to the legislation governing prostitution. While some campaigners are calling for the wholesale decriminalisation of everybody involved in prostitution, this type of situation highlights exactly why this would be a disaster. Women within prostitution are often completely economically disempowered and impoverished, and do it because it is necessary to survive. While the dynamic may be different between women who need to earn money for food and women who don’t have the money to pay rent, the status of the punter (or landlord) is the same in both situations. It is built on a power imbalance where they have the capital – either money or residency – to use as a bargaining chip over somebody who is dependent upon it.

Let’s take this one step further: how would sex-for-rent scenarios fit into the legal landscape if prostitution were decriminalised? In effect, the landlord would be one short step away from running a brothel, and indeed, this may be seen as a viable “career path” for landlords with several rooms going spare. It is a fantasy to suggest that landlords wouldn’t take advantage of blanket decriminalisation by offering free accommodation in return for sexual access.

CEASE UK is calling on the Government to amend these legal loopholes as soon as possible, to protect vulnerable individuals who are faced with the “choice” between homelessness and sexual exploitation. That is no choice at all. Beyond this, the Government needs to recognise that laws which criminalise those who have to resort to selling sex in order to survive are archaic, harmful, and they need to be reviewed as a matter of urgency. Equally, those who profit from this exploitation, whether financially or sexually, should be held to account to ensure this vast system of abuse is not normalised, excused, or given the legal status that pimps and punters so desperately desire.