"We get your knickers when you have worn them."
"Frequent nudity and overt flaunting/flashing important."
"15 min adult cuddle once a week."
"Are you in a bit of a tough spot…"
These are quotes from ads in the housing section of Craigslist, a classifieds site that also lists car pools, guitar lessons and second-hand caravans for sale. In categories like 'sub-lets and temporary' rooms are advertised for free (or minimal rent) in exchange for whatever arrangement pops the poster’s cork.
One guy is offering free accommodation to a "young female to help me have a baby". Another is offering rent of £1 per day for an "open minded young girl who would like to explore kink and submission."
According to housing and homelessness charity Shelter, ads like these are, "a dangerous attempt to establish deeply exploitative relationships." In a 2016 blog, Shelter wrote that by posting these ads, men are intentionally targeting desperate women who feel they have no other options.
This didn’t seem to be the way the men saw themselves. The poster who wanted 'adult cuddles' wrote in his listing, "I’m a nice person. By the looks of things on this dodgy site, I'm one of the only normal, genuine guys on here."
Another poster, offering a room for two weeks, claimed he wanted nothing in return: "Too good to be true? I’m an honest, open and respectful person. You decide."
One guy is offering free accommodation to a "young female to help me have a baby."
I decided to take him up on this, and responded to his ad, as well as several others. Identifying myself as a journalist, I asked the men behind the Craigslist ads if they'd be willing to speak to me. Matthew, one of the guys who claims to want nothing back, agrees to a chat on the telephone. A Canadian in his mid-30s, he tells me he rents out several properties in London. Having spoken to his tenants, he found it, "alarming, the difficulties people go through, trying to find a place, then being let down."
When he had a two week window between tenants, in the central London flat he lives in himself, he decided to offer the room for free. He says, "I was freaked out by the kind of seedy free rooms for a young woman, and I wanted to put something out there, for someone who might be stuck."
Despite a number of responses, Matthew chose not to let the room. He says he heard from "prostitutes who wanted to work from the room, people with mental health issues, and people who were flaky."
I wonder if Matthew thinks the women he hoped to help were wary, assuming he'd want sex in lieu of rent? He doesn't think so. Matthew seems genuine, but when I follow up the next day to ask why it was only women he wanted to help (surely young men face similar dangers?) he doesn't respond.
Rick is offering a room in zone 3, for up to two months, for £30 a week. His listing says this is "in return for being extremely risque and provocative around me. Frequent nudity and overt flaunting/flashing important as is willingness to be infrequently watched remotely through a camera and photographed." He messages back to say he's happy to speak to me: "It'd be a colourful experience for us both."
On the telephone, Rick, who's 41, explains his health has gone downhill and that his intimate life has suffered: "Recently I thought, if I'm not going to do it, I’ll watch it," he says, "but I got fed up with porn because it teases you with what you can't have."
He says he's a first time poster, and placed the ad hoping for, "a little fun, with someone who likes showing off and is having fun themselves." I put it to Rick that exhibitionism is also a way of teasing the voyeur with what they can't have. Does he hope it would develop into a physical relationship? He says, "I’d be fully open to it."
"You can swipe until your finger drops off, you still won't meet anyone."
Rick has had no responses to his ad. I ask if he's considered signing up to a niche dating site and he says he has — it was a waste of time. Tinder, too, disappointed. "You can swipe until your finger drops off, you still won't meet anyone." I ask Rick if he's concerned that a woman might respond to his listing because she's in a difficult spot. He says, "I’m not going to take advantage of people. If they come here, they come for that reason — I expect them to be honest with me." What if they're stuck and they're going along with the exhibitionism because they need a place to live? Rick says, "I would speak to them. I would say, 'what are your motives for being here? Is it the rent or the exhibitionism?'"
I suggest to Rick that a woman who needs somewhere to live, might agree to things she wouldn't otherwise agree to. He says, "ever since humans have walked the earth, people have had to resort to methods of making money that they didn't want to turn to. Even the oldest tradition exists because people had to make money. In this instance, if people have turned to something they wouldn't normally do, I would try and be light on them. I'd say, 'if you don't want to do much of it, I could limit it.'" Rick later says he's revised his ad, limiting the stay to one-four nights, with no charge.
Joe, who wants his tenant's dirty knickers, describes himself as a late 20s professional. He owns a four bedroom house in Fulham, and rents out two rooms to friends from university. He offers the spare room to women, "in exchange for housework and access to your worn knickers." At the end of each day, the tenant leaves her knickers in a box on his dresser, and he puts them in the linen basket after he's masturbated with them; although, "I like to wear them too, so maybe I keep them an extra day."
Joe tells me when tenants feel comfortable, they hand over their knickers in person. "It’s £800-£1,000 a month rent they're getting for free. I'm quite generous and they usually don't have the sort of knickers I would want — it means they get a whole new selection."
Joe interviews prospective tenants alone, and if he likes them, there's a group interview with his housemates — only one of whom knows the criteria for the tenancy. I ask Joe if he specifies what he wants in the gusset — are skid marks welcome? What about when she's on her period? "Erm yeah, nothing when she's on the time of the month and everything else is fine."
There have been about 20 responses to his most recent ad, and three previous tenants who stayed three months, five months, and one month each ("she was interning"). He tells me the responses are from women aged 19-35, many of whom are European. He says they're women who are, "moving to London, wanting a cheaper option — people annoyed at London's crazy rent crisis!"
Who is he looking for? "A nice girl, who we would enjoy hanging out with, and just give me her worn knickers."
At the end of each day, the tenant leaves her knickers in a box on his dresser, and Joe puts them in the linen basket after he's masturbated with them.
Unlike Matthew and Rick, Joe has a girlfriend he's been with several years. I ask how she'd feel if she knew. Joe says she has an inkling he likes women's lingerie ("I wore hers once in bed") but she wouldn't like it. Joe says the arrangement never develops into a physical relationship ("I’d love to but I don't think it's for the best"), and he'd stop it completely if he gets married.
Does he worry that someone would do this because she was in a tight spot? "Yes of course I worry about that — that's why we have two interviews. I can tell immediately who's OK with it and who's not." But how can he tell this? "The way they are and their reason for wanting the room." Is it possible to fully consent if you’re stuck for somewhere to stay? "If a women chooses that and is consenting," says Joe, "I don't see anything wrong with it. It's a hard one, I suppose. I feel I'm on the right side of it."
Mark, who wants a weekly "adult cuddle" is the only poster who agrees to meet me in person. His ad says he's 40, but when we come face to face he acknowledges he's older than that. He's burnt out with relationships. He says, and doesn't want one night stands as they're hit and miss. He likes companionship and he doesn't want to lead anyone on — so he offers a room in his Canary Wharf flat in exchange for sex once a week. Does he discuss with the women exactly what the sex will entail? He says, "I tell them I'm completely normal." Mark's ad offers the room to 18-35 year olds, but he tells me won't actually consider anyone under 21. I ask if he’s going to alter his ad to reflect that. He says no.
His past tenants include a 21 year-old Russian who stayed for eight months and an Italian who stayed for two. He's currently waiting for a Spanish girl to arrive, explaining, "foreign girls seem to be more appetising." Mark likes to get to know his tenants ("I’m not going to jump on them straight away").
I'm quite generous and they usually don't have the sort of knickers I would want — it means they get a whole new selection.
But not all the arrangements work out.
One woman, from an island near Australia, stayed a week before deciding she couldn't go through with it ("it's a bit of a piss take if you've stayed at my house for a week"). Another, from Malaysia disappeared after four days when Mark told her, "it's time to get friendly tonight."
I ask Mark if he worries that some of the women aren't comfortable with the arrangement, but agree to it because they're stuck for somewhere to stay. "There is a possibility of that," he admits, going on to tell me about a Canadian woman: "We got it on the third night she was there. It didn't feel right, so I didn't bother her again for about a week, then mentioned maybe we should have fun tonight." When Mark got home, she was gone. He says, "I don't get no satisfaction out of that, that she felt that she had to sneak away."
Mark explains he'd never ask a woman to leave unless she had somewhere else to go: "I always assure them of that." What would happen if he suggested sex and the woman said no? "It’s not a problem — but I've never had that refusal, because I'm not sexually demanding." He later adds, "they enjoy themselves, it's a two way thing."
"The only thing I’m exploiting, is living in London is seriously expensive. They're people who are earning £1,200 to £1,400 a month and they’ve got to pay £800 a month in rent. If I'm exploiting anything, I’m exploiting that."
I put it to Mark that if women wouldn't agree to the arrangement if they were better off financially, doesn't that suggest they don't 100% want to do it? He says, "look, I get access to women that I wouldn't normally get access to — so yes, you're probably right."
In saying this, Mark echoes Shelter, which sees these arrangements as a housing problem. They say, "while it is a story of men trying to exploit women, the thing that makes that exploitation possible is unaffordable housing." According to Shelter, "High housing costs don't make these particular exploitative relationships inevitable… But not being able to afford shelter drives people to desperation."
Mark sums up the housing crisis when he says: "I may not be the Johnny Depp of London but this gives me access to women that I probably wouldn't get."
All names have been changed.
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