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Landlords Coercing Tenants Unable to Pay Rent to Provide Sex: Sex Trafficking or Not?

According to numerous published reports, some landlords are using the economic desperation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic to pressure tenants unable to pay rent to provide sex. 

Make no mistake: This is sex trafficking. 

When Polaris shared information about this disturbing trend on social media recently, we heard back from some of our followers that this was not trafficking. Bad behavior, sure, or disgusting, but trafficking? Not as they understood it. We appreciate the opportunity to help explain more about how human trafficking really works, and what it is really is. It may surprise you. 

Sex trafficking is the crime of using force, fraud, or coercion of another individual to engage in sexual activity in exchange for something of value – be it money, drugs, or rent. The force, fraud, or coercion – usually not entirely separable – can occur when a person is being recruited, and throughout the trafficking experience. 

While the stereotypical “Hollywood” version of sex trafficking usually focuses on physical force – being kidnapped and held at gunpoint, for example – U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline data shows that in reality, this is extremely rare. Coercion is much more likely to be the form trafficking takes and can occur at any time in the trafficking process.

The most common coercion technique is the threat of harm or loss. An undocumented immigrant is threatened with deportation if they don’t have sex with her boss, or if they don’t work 80 hour weeks without overtime pay. A person lured into sex trafficking by a romantic partner can be coerced into prostitution by the threat of ending the relationship. A mother can be coerced by her trafficker into continuing prostitution by the threat of having her drug use reported to Child Protective Services.

In the case of a landlord soliciting sex in exchange for rent, the implied threat is clear: provide sex or you and your family will be homeless. No payment plans or reduced rent is offered. No alternative like cleaning work or building repair is put on the table. You are quarantined to your home, unable to earn income. There really is no choice. He forces you to trade your physical autonomy for what you pay that month in rent. Coercion in return for something of value is trafficking.

This matters, because while landlords soliciting sex in exchange for rent clearly are not deterred by basic decency or human dignity, they may well be swayed if they know their actions are criminal. “Human trafficking” may never come into their thinking because it is so often seen as a far off crime or something that’s only part of the underworld. But, of course, it isn’t. That’s why these definitions are worth knowing and clarifying now more than ever. 

The coronavirus creates ideal conditions for exploitation of vulnerable people experiencing economic hardship due to loss of income. Although some states have enacted moratoria on eviction and rent, these policies are scattered and might not be adequate to ensure that tenants can remain in their homes. 

It is essential that people are made aware of their rights and the resources available to help them. If a person is experiencing sexual exploitation from their landlord, there is recourse. Sexual harassment by landlords is illegal under the federal Fair Housing Act and tenants can file a report with the Department of Justice. In particular, people of color and undocumented immigrants might be more vulnerable during these times if they fear consequences for reporting their landlords. There are additional resources provided on Medium.

The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline has resources that can help people in vulnerable positions find safe, healthy places to stay, transportation, and support. If you or someone you know is an abusive situation, please contact us by texting BeFree (233733) or call 1-888-373-7888. Polaris will be continuously updating our information and resources.

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.