The growth of online marketplaces has led to an explosion of a new type of advertisement with potential tenants being asked for just more than their monthly rent. Online marketplaces have made these situations more visible through several features of the platforms that host these ads. Understanding those features can help us better understand how common internet platforms contribute to ongoing gendered inequality.

In our latest research we analysed 583 advertisements posted to London and Los Angeles Craigslist that offered housing in exchange for sexual favors. Additionally, we interviewed 34 women who were or had been in these ‘sex-for-rent’ arrangements.

Non-monetary rent arrangements are hardly new. First, landlords use ambiguous language in an effort to evade ‘flags’ of their ads for inappropriate content. Second, the norms of online anonymity favour potential landlords in these arrangements, allowing them to operate in a moral and legal grey area. Both of these features make it more challenging for the potential renters to negotiate their lease, and the women we interviewed reported that it is very difficult it is to renegotiate these arrangements once they move in.

This imbalance of power between landlords and renters in sex-for-rent arrangements rely on four key tensions that the online platforms support.

First, the ads must navigate innuendo while preserving a pre-arranged ambiguity. Platforms help landlords and tenants preserve what we call “arranged ambiguity” by using vague language to skirt flagging mechanisms and content rules. We found sex-for-rent ads easily by scanning for ads that either did not include a rent amount or included a very low monetary amount.

Most of the sex-for-rent ads that we identified featured sexual innuendo (483 or 81% of the sample). Landlords used language such as “favours,” “tit-for-a-tat,” and “payback methods” to suggest sex and intimacy. This ambiguity, however, comes at a price. It burdens tenants with the task of dissecting imprecise language to grasp a landlord’s intentions and starts them in an unequal negotiating position.

Second, these ads are not for sex work, per se, but landlords are persistent in their specific demands of tenants. Sex-for-rent solicitations prize amateurism and ads frequently reference romance. However, ads also regularly specify desired tenants’ physical features, psychological traits, and sexual preferences. Our interview data show that once in arrangements, landlords coach tenants on how to meet their demands. Thus, a confusing rhetoric emerges: tenants should be amateurs, open to romantic relations, while also fitting quite specific characteristics and catering to landlords’ particular demands. Women are expected to be novices, selected for their traits, yet they are subsequently groomed to meet the needs of their landlord.

Third, the ads and the arrangements play on notions of making a calculated sacrifice now versus the changes of a better life in the future. While people in sex-for-rent relationships enter their arrangements carefully and with negotiation, we found that their negotiations were shaped in part by larger economic pressures. One is the context of breaking into paid work in the cultural industries, which often relies first on unpaid or low paid work and in-person auditions or go-sees. Ultimately, the decision came down to weighing the opportunity to pursue their dreams against the tolls that the arrangement would take on them. The women we interviewed varied in their degree of satisfaction with the arrangement, from being extremely content to actively looking for a way out, but all had carefully weighed their options—and exercised agency—before entering into an arrangement. Women looking for work in cultural industries read ads as offering a better life and they calculated the personal costs of the arrangements alongside the sacrifices that they felt they had to make for their careers. Some arrangements also offered stipends, shopping budgets, lavish gifts, and employment leads.

Fourth, consent in these arrangements is tricky. Sex-for-rent arrangements blur the line between consent and an ongoing sexual exchange that is both explicit and tacit. People explicitly agree to sex-for-rent arrangements, and several women we interviewed were satisfied with their arrangements. Two factors, however, complicate notions of consent in these arrangements: the skewed power dynamics between landlords and tenants and changing arrangement terms. In the first aspect, women in these schemes frequently come from positions of diminished power. In the second aspect, almost all the women we interviewed expressed some deviation from their initial negotiations and what occurred in practice once they were in the arrangement with their landlord. Vague language in ads help to afford unequal power in the negotiation and maintenance of the terms of the arrangement. The terms of the exchange are not frictionless market exchanges of free choice, but based on differences in information and power afforded by the ads and the arrangements themselves.

Sex-for-rent ads show the dark side of platform economies, where gender and socioeconomic status play into complicated power relationships between landlords and tenants on popular housing websites. Our research suggests that the tensions that govern these exchanges comes in part from the nature of online platforms and suggests how a feminist approach to technology might help us think of brighter futures for the Internet.

The full paper by Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Internet Institute (OII)  Gina Neff, and consultant, post-graduate Becca Schwartz can be read, open source, in the Journal New Media & Society.