This report (link here) by Juliet Watson (Lecturer, Urban Housing and Homelessness, RMIT University) for the Conversation is about Melbourne women experiencing homelessness and the gendered violence they experience. In relation to sex-for-rent situations, Watson uses the term “survival sex” in her article, a description that might be new to some; let’s break it down.
"Lack of money, welfare support and social capital meant, for some, their only resource was to exchange sex for somewhere to stay." (link here)
Survival sex is a term used to describe a person engaging in/trading sexual acts out of desperate need. To be clear: this is not sex trafficking, but to push it under the sex work umbrella obscures the dynamics underpinning it. I believe it is its own category. While sex for survival is a choice a person, usually women, makes, it is not chosen for empowerment. Sometimes people have limited options, and this can make those people vulnerable to exploitation.
From the outside, in the view of sex-for-rent situations, it can be difficult to draw a clean line between exploitation and a mutually beneficial agreement between two parties as there was a choice and agreement made, and the parties are consenting.
I’ll use an example where the boundaries might be clearer: There’s evidence that U.S. Amazon warehousing workers, with their intolerable working conditions, including fractured feet from walking miles on a concrete floor (link here), are being exploited.
As the employee chooses to work at Amazon, we could assume this choice was made in a good environment, and therefore the choice is the best situation for all parties. But to do so, we have to ignore that for some people there are additional variables that have secretly powered that choice.
Maybe they can’t get another job for whatever reason, or 12.50 USD an hour is the best they can make in their area and they need that job to make ends meet. Amazon in turn understands the limited options feeding the choices of their employees, and doesn't treat them well or with respect, because Amazon knows the employees can't/won’t leave or, if they did, they are easily replaceable. This is a form of exploitation.
This situation doesn't mean we should blame the worker for not leaving, it’s not a "well you made your bed so you should lie in it" situation, we need to support the worker and turn a critical eye to the institution that allows this exploitation to take place and try to enforce changes there.
Women experiencing homelessness have few options, and they are vulnerable to exploitation for the following reasons.
"Women experiencing long-term … homelessness are most likely to have a range of complex issues such as histories of sexual abuse and/or domestic violence, problematic drug and alcohol use and mental ill-health." (link to document here ) - Quote from 2009 report Somewhere Safe to Call Home: Violence against women during homelessness by Dr Sueellen Murray)
Also from Dr Murray's report: men’s violence against women was the most common source of violence when they were living in homelessness services, especially mixed sex operations. (My emphasis)
This is an important piece of the puzzle, because if women are intimidated or assaulted in homelessness services, they are less likely to go to them. I know this seems obvious, but in discussing the research I’d done for this piece I was asked: "why don’t they go to a (homelessness service)?"
Bronwyn…: I first experienced homelessness when I was 13. I left home because of an abuse situation and I stayed on the streets for about two weeks before DHS picked me up … It was really rough because I was only a kid. I got bashed up a lot and then they put me into a lot of kids’ shelters and I got also bashed up there too. Then they put me in adult shelters as well and the sleazy men tried to take advantage and stuff.”
Women tend not to go places they are unsafe.
"Sexual violence and intimidation were common experiences for this group of women. Anita described several experiences of sexual assault in homelessness services. As a young woman she had spent some time in a youth refuge and a neighbour of the refuge had sexually assaulted her. Later, staying in a mixed-gender crisis accommodation service, she was raped by a co-resident." - Quote from 2009 report Somewhere Safe to Call Home: Violence against women during homelessness by Dr Sueellen Murray
And sleeping rough is also dangerous:
Young teenager Zoë had a frightening experience while sleeping rough: I was sitting in a corner [in a bus shelter] and he was standing over me like this and because I wouldn’t kiss him he abused me, he punched me on the top of my head and that was quite scary. And I guess that’s what sort of veered me away from the streets … even to this day I’d be too scared to go and curl up on a seat because I’m too scared someone’s going to come and you know ...
These examples, in women’s own words, can help illustrate the environment in which they live. Limited options to escape violence, sexual or otherwise, often leaves women with limited choice.
When we analyse sex for rent situations, we can use this lens if appropriate.
|This is an example of an advertisement that was up on Craigslist.|
It’s much easier to consider these agreements as mutually beneficial, without applying the lens of exploitation. But, to me, this is what feminism is for. Feminism is an analysis tool. I sometimes see feminism as the questions no one else wants to ask.
Sex for rent situations haven’t only cropped up in Australia. London, enduring years of austerity measures which hit women the hardest (link here), is rife with landlords asking for sex for rent (link here).
The landlords see this as a business transaction. And while some women may find this arrangement fine, more power to them, I am really writing this piece to boost the voices of women devastated by this.
The bad part about being homeless is that people think they can take advantage of you because you’re going to do anything ’cause you’re homeless. Especially guys think, ‘Yeah, she’s out there on the streets, she’ll fuck me, she’ll do me.‘ The way they think [of you] – as just a piece of meat. – from an interview with Hayley, from Juliet Watson’s book Youth Homelessness and Survival Sex.
These sorts of potentially exploitative situations are a cause for concern, if we understand that women earn less than men in Australia, and domestic violence (which affects more women) is one of the leading causes of homeless conditions. Homelessness among 19-24 year olds is up 117% this year in NSW.(link here). This is unsurprising as we have an incredibly high cost of housing.
And I want to reinforce that you can support women who have to make these choices less than willingly, without supporting the institutional failures that led to those choices being made. Just as we can support Amazon workers who choose to work at Amazon, without supporting their exploitation.
By: Tee Linden