A human rights lawyer is warning landlords that asking for sex in lieu of rent is a criminal offence.
Noeline Blackwell, who is also chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, warns sex-for-rent landlords that the law is not on their side.
“It's not a criminal offence to sell sex, but it is to buy sex. Buying sex with accommodation is the equivalent to buying it with money. The law around sexual abuse and rape is simple and comprehensive. If sexual activity occurs without free and voluntary consent, that is sexual abuse."
Ms Blackwell said that the 2017 Sexual Offences Act clearly states that sexual consent must be given freely and voluntary. But if someone is consenting to sex for survival or for shelter, that sex is not free or voluntary.
“These people are being coerced into doing something — they may not be hauled into the house but it is still coercion — sex is not free and voluntary in most of these cases, consent is given for basic shelter."
“And someone is abusing their capacity to provide that shelter. It's not a crime to offer your body for something, the crime is on the other end. And even if people don't report it it may well be a criminal offence," she cautioned.
Although data on the issue is limited in Ireland, in Britain research found 140,000 incidents of people being propositioned for sex in return for accommodation over two years.
Ms Blackwell said that although landlords may be committing criminal offences in the jurisdiction, the chances of the tenant reporting the crime to gardaí are currently very low.
“People in this situation are generally very vulnerable, if they report their landlord they will lose shelter and have to deal with a court case and everything that goes with that. There will never be full reporting of sexual offences, but in these cases, where someone will lose their income, their home, their capacity to feed themselves, reporting it to gardaí is highly unlikely.
She said that the phenomenon is “a worry” and welcomes a survey by the Residential Tennancy Board (RTB) which is due this year in which tenants will be asked about their experience of sexual harassment from landlords or in rented accommodation.
“The Residential Tenancy Board is going to do a survey about whether sexual favours are being sought by landlords. Trying to understand the problem better is the very next step," she said.
She said that the Rape Crisis Network has been receiving calls from worried tenants about "inappropriate" behaviour from landlords.
“It has been happening for a while but we're starting to hear more about it. What we hear anecdotally on the helpline from time to time is about people who are abusing their position and their power. Landlords who are being too familiar with tenants, turning up unannounced and being inappropriate."
She urged anyone who believes they may have suffered sexual exploitation or abuse to call the Network's 24-hour confidential freephone number on 1800 77 88 88.
A spokesperson for the RTB said that it is developing a survey to examine the specific issue of ‘sex for rent’.
They said: "Given the very sensitive nature of this issue and the need to ensure that the survey conducted is both ethically compliant and adheres to best research practices and protocols, there are several requirements that are in progress before fieldwork can be commenced."
"The RTB are also in consultation with the Rape Crisis Centre and with our research partners to ensure that research conducted will also give an appropriate response rate in order to effectively report on the matter. These issues are in progress.
"The RTB believe that any form of sexual harassment, intimidation or inappropriate behaviour in a person’s home is very serious.
"Aside from the RTB trying to gain a better understanding of the prevalence of this issue, it is important that tenants understand that they have certain rights. In the first instance, for any criminal matter this should be referred to the Gardaí for investigation."