Imagine this scenario: It’s close to the end of the month. You haven’t been working for three weeks now due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. You know rent is due in the next few days…but there’s just no way you can come up with all of the money.
You haven’t been able to go back to work yet, so you have basically no income for this month. You send out a text to your landlord, carefully choosing the words you’ll say, asking for an extension on next month’s rent. After sending the message, you put the phone down on the counter, wondering what will come next.
Your phone buzzes, and picking it up, you see your landlord has answered, but with a sexually explicit image. The message may be surprising, but it’s an “alternative offer” for paying the rent. They want sex, and will forgive your debt in exchange.
A concerning illusion or real life?
While this may seem like a scene from a movie or porn video, it is actually a reality for some tenants during this global pandemic—and increasingly so.
For millions of workers around the world that have suddenly found themselves unemployed, at home, and with little or no means of earning their livelihood, coronavirus has meant that they now find themselves in a vulnerable position—economically, and otherwise. Some face the uncomfortable reality of having to stay shut in the home they can no longer pay for, and deal with exploitative landlords who take advantage of their precarious situation.
This very scenario or worse has occurred over the last month at rapidly increasing rates.
At the office of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, 10 cases were filed in just two days, surpassing the amount of sexual harassment housing-related cases they have had in two years. Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the commission, summarized the implications of this uneasy situation, saying, “The power dynamic goes without saying. All of us feel intimidated by our landlords because shelter is so critical.” She went on to say that the volatility created can leave those vulnerable people in a situation where, “the conditions are ripe for sexual exploitation.”
It’s clear the pandemic is posing some serious problems, acting as fuel to worsen some preexisting ones as well.
“Sex for rent”: a global issue
Typically, according to reports, sexually-harassing landlords are repeat offenders. They can make use of the vulnerability created by situations like coronavirus to continue these unacceptable behaviors that they are likely already getting investigated for. The result is an increase in landlords’ indecent proposals, or even sexual assaults. Tenants are advised not to give in to these illegal proposals, and instead seek legal help or a tenant’s rights organization.
Hawaii isn’t the only place where they are detecting this problem and calling it out: outside of Chicago, they also are spotting increases in these sorts of, “sex-for-rent” agreements. One organization called Open Communities, which delivers legal and housing aid, has communicated that they’ve seen the numbers triple on housing-sexual-harassment cases in the last month.
The US Justice Department has also made strides in speaking up against this behavior, sending memos to attorneys nationwide to divert financing and other resources into looking into these “sex-for rent” schemes because they have recorded a “historically unprecedented” rise in sex trafficking cases since the lockdown went into effect. The DOJ condemned the appearance of these cases as “despicable” and “illegal,” and is looking further into the issue following the surge in reports from Hawaii’s Commission on the Status of Women.
And you know what’s also unacceptable? These “sex-for-rent” agreements are popular scenarios posed in porn videos all over mainstream porn sites. Here are a few titles that came up in a quick internet search that normalize and fetishize this illicit and unethical behavior, portraying it as a sexual fantasy:
Petite teen Alex rides guy to pay the rent
Sabrina gets banged by her landlord in exchange for her apartment rent
Blonde Latina having sex to pay the rent
A pornified video game was even included in a quick internet search where the player has to convince a young woman to have sex with them in exchange for a rent extension. How messed up is that, gamifying sexual harassment? And, even worse, younger consumers who may not know better might not understand that what they’re viewing is fantasized harassment and exploitation, even if consenting actors are portraying the scene.
Lockdown’s implications for sex trafficking
It’s no secret that this global lockdown has pushed people to stay indoors, causing screen time to go up.
Unsurprisingly, crime has also made that digital transition, and as a result, numbers of cybersex trafficking cases—including children exploited over livestream—are also on the rise. Major human trafficking awareness organization Polaris also warned about the higher likelihood of human trafficking during this time due the same vulnerability affecting some tenants’ unstable living conditions.
Negative and positive, the quarantine has meant a range of experiences. It has led many people to be stressed, anxious, and isolated. It has also turned people’s gazes to consuming more explicit content online, and that is having an industry closely linked with sex trafficking: porn. In fact, since the end of February, one major porn site has seen its daily access increase over 11%.
Porn: A good use of time during quarantine?
Porn sites have been incentivizing consumers with offers like free subscriptions during this lockdown period.
However, in a time when connection and community are extra critical to our well-being, porn can worsen already-existing anxiety and isolation. Studies reveal that porn is linked to behaviors of social withdrawal and can lead to feeling lonely, stressed, or anxious. It can cause strain on the relationships people need the most right now—like a romantic partnership, or a friendship.
So while the porn industry may be enticing new and existing consumers with offers that seem too good to be true, we encourage consumers to consider before consuming, especially in this time of quarantine. While it certainly can be a testing and tense period, it can also be an opportunity to reconnect with old friends, and build a real bond with those bunkering in right beside us, not those on the other side of the screen.