|Denholm Spurr, in South London [Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed]|
BuzzFeed News has uncovered dozens of ads on Facebook and other sites that reveal a new LGBT dimension to the housing crisis: young men lured into "sex for rent" contracts to avoid sleeping rough. In a multi-part investigation, we expose the truth about these landlords, as young men speak out about being raped, beaten, drugged, infected with HIV and treated as domestic slaves.
It took just three months for Denholm Spurr’s life to plummet, for the newly graduated straight-A student to find himself exchanging sex for somewhere to live. He did not know what he would lose, that what awaited him was a succession of men who would drug and abuse him, that he would be infected with HIV, and, on several occasions, raped.
Sometimes the men – some of the landlords – had no need to use force. “I didn’t have the strength to say no,” he said. “I became what I felt people wanted. I branded myself as this ‘sexual being’ that other people fed off… I felt that’s what I needed to do.”
Spurr’s eyes flickered as he cast his mind back over everything. “The last five years of my life would have been extremely different had I just had somewhere to stay.”
He wants people to know what happens when young men so desperate to avoid sleeping on the streets will do anything for shelter – and what lies in wait. He wants to raise the alarm.
In a multipart investigation, BuzzFeed News exposes a dimension to the housing crisis that has so far been concealed: men having to exchange sex for a place to stay.
Over the last few months, numerous stories have highlighted how landlords are exploiting young women unable to afford accommodation by offering them “sex-for-rent” arrangements. But the reports, including an entire BBC documentary, have omitted a demographic: gay men, lured into these arrangements, sometimes for different reasons, often with devastating consequences.
Today, in the first installment of this series, we uncover some of the damage done to these young men – the sexual violence – by landlords and reveal how they are being enabled by two major internet companies, one of which is Facebook. The world’s largest social media platform, BuzzFeed News can reveal, is hosting explicit posts from landlords promising housing in return for gay sex.
In multiple interviews with the men exchanging sex for rent and groups trying to deal with the crisis, BuzzFeed News also uncovered a spectrum of experiences that go far beyond what has so far been documented, with social media, hook-up apps, and chemsex parties facilitating everything.
At best, impoverished young men are seeking refuge in places where they are at risk of sexual exploitation. At worst, teenagers are being kept in domestic prisons where all personal boundaries are breached, where their lives are in danger.
The investigation began in early February, replying to the landlords' adverts – the surface. Within days, it swerved into strange and unexpected quarters. By the end, it led to the darkest of places: young men raped, strangled, enslaved, and hospitalized – one with knife wounds to the neck.
The head of a major homelessness charity described the irony that underpins the gay sex-for-rent phenomenon: Vulnerable young men enter into these agreements thinking the street would be the most dangerous place to sleep, or that traditional sex work would be the most perilous.
They are wrong.
The Facebook group is called “Gay Houseboy’s and those who hire them” and describes itself as a “group for gay men seeking gay boys to work for them as houseboys, and for gay houseboys seeking employment”. Despite adding “No nude pics" and "no 'hookup' posts” its members post adverts enticing young men to exchange sex for a place to stay.
BuzzFeed News discovered the group last month as concerns peaked over Facebook’s handling of the data breaches of millions of users and as Mark Zuckerberg, its founder, and CEO told Congress his company “didn’t do enough” to prevent it.
|Facebook / BuzzFeed|
In British law, inciting someone into sex work is a crime, according to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, whether you pay them with money or with goods or services such as accommodation. As such, last year the then-justice secretary David Lidington said: “an offense is committed when a person offers accommodation in return for sex”.
The posts and the group itself operate under one of several disguises that conceal gay sex-for-rent arrangements, keeping such setups hidden from those who should be looking. In this instance, the disguise is simply a word: houseboy.
For many, particularly outside the West, houseboy simply means male domestic worker: cleaning, cooking. Among many gay men, however, there is another assumption, expected duty: sex. But unlike some adverts on mainstream websites that rely on innuendo, most on Facebook are explicit in the terms of the agreement: gay sex in return for accommodation.
“Looking for a white male 18-25 to come and join our household for a life in position,” reads one post on the Facebook group. “General duties will include cleaning, walking the dog, shopping, cooking and general house projects… This position would ideally include sex and lots of affection from our boy.”
Another is simply a photograph of a young naked man, with his penis exposed, standing by a Christmas tree with the words: “ISO [in search of] True HouseBoy 18-25 White Slim Clean.”
“Live in the heart of Hollywood” is the promise in a further post, from a landlord seeking a “houseboy/personal assistant”. The landlord boasts, “My company deals with a lot of high profile clientele”, asks that respondents send photographs, and specifies, “Prefer young (but legal age) and very uninhibited types. Boy-next-door but with a wild side.”
Others insist on respondents replying with “face and body photos”, or have strict age limits, seek houseboys “with benefits”, or are suggestive of controlling dynamics. “Married couple here 40 and 46 seeking our forever boy for total and complete ownership,” says one.
Young gay men in the group posted on its page, too, asking for live-in positions. One 24-year-old wanting somewhere to stay says he is ”willing to [go] where ever I’m needed”, explaining that although he is from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he has “nowhere to go down there anymore”.
Another member of the group told BuzzFeed News by private message that he has only once been a houseboy but said that the landlords “tend to assume that every houseboy is a whore… I was the opposite. I just wanted stability.” People he knows who have also taken up houseboy positions “have been kicked out…it’s really not a safe way to live…the men really think they own you.”
Not all young men are so concerned. Another houseboy replied to a private message suggesting that there can be two-way enjoyment to the arrangement, which it would seem for some fulfills a master/slave fantasy. “It really just depends on luck,” he said, “finding the right person who would take you in and basically just use you as a sex toy… I was in underwear all day doing laundry and house chores.” When his landlord returned home he would “use me as he pleased”.
The group administrator also replied. He said he has worked as a chef for a gay couple with a houseboy who “slept with them” along with a range of domestic chores. In general, he said, “the employer is usually searching for one of three things.” Among these is “a person that does the housework, is a companion and engages in physical interaction”. Another is a “couple looking for triads [threesomes]”. He added, “Most of the applicants have no prior experience but are willing to do anything to be kept.”
Despite the explicit nature of the postings on the group’s site, the administrator told BuzzFeed News that Facebook has not intervened. “We have never had an incident from Facebook,” he said. “If they [members] want to post something that will not fly with Facebook I write them and tell them what needs to be changed.”
This has not stopped explicit notices being posted.
When approached by BuzzFeed News to respond to issues relating to this group, Facebook initially replied promising that a representative would comment. That response, however, did not materialize, despite several attempts by BuzzFeed News, over several days, to invite Facebook to do so. A week after first contacting the social media company, the group remains on its site.
Meanwhile, online adverts for gay sex-for-rent arrangements proliferate in other mainstream websites – either unnoticed or misunderstood by the companies hosting them. BuzzFeed News found dozens on Craigslist's UK site and one on Room Buddies within just two months.
During this time, Craigslist in the US removed its entire personal classified ads, after Congress passed a new law against sex trafficking ads, but its UK ads, among which all the following were found, remain.
Some use the word “houseboy”; others specify their requirements in graphic terms, while others are more opaque. Craigslist removed only a portion of the most overt ads, but not before BuzzFeed News was able to respond to them. Craiglist did not respond when approached by BuzzFeed News for comment about the adverts.
This one, for example, wasn't taken down for several days:
“Looking for slim houseboy for a live-in position in South-East London (very near tube). You will clean and provide sexual services in return for free accommodation and board… I’m a mature (mid-sixties) white English male…”
Other adverts use more coded language or terms, some offer reduced rent or suggesting that it is “negotiable” based on “mutual understanding”, or if you can come to an “agreement”. Further subtle terms refer implicitly to a sexual dimension: “open-minded”, “relaxed” – or less implicit: “exhibitionist”, “naturist”. Most demand a photo.
This advert offers a room for £70 a week – about half the going rate: “Looking for someone under 35 or so. Open minded, easy going. Preference for gay/bi….Please reply back with a clear recent photo.” Another, which is still on the site, makes no mention of sex but the rent is zero “in exchange for assistance with a variety of tasks”. The landlord seeks a “fit young gay male up to about age 25”.
Some landlords entice not only gay men but also bisexual or straight men. This ad is entitled “£10 room/bed share for bi/naturist male” in Whitechapel, east London: “Open-minded bi male naturist in early 30s, looking for a well-hung bi or bi-curious naturist/nudist male or even a straight guy who would be open to experimenting and doing sexual favours in exchange for renting in my flat… I will be holding couch interviews next week.”
Other landlords offer deals in which only a fraction of the rent is reduced in exchange for very specific sexual demands. One advert explained that the room had previously gone for £600 a month but was now only £400. But in return, the successful applicant “must be ok with receiving anal… a few times a week” and must be “bi or str8” or a “really masculine gay person”. He also expects the respondent to not be skinny and to be “disease free”. This would be “tested” to ensure it.
BuzzFeed News replied to several – posing as a young gay man needing accommodation – particularly to the less explicit adverts.
“Free lodging” offered in one advert in the Brighton area, suitable for a “gay male student….wanting a supportive safe home”, for example, made no mention of sex. But following a request for further details, the “supportive safe home” turned out, in the landlord’s email reply, to mean: “you letting me suck you off and enjoy your nipples and armpits”. This advert remains on Craigslist.
Another Craigslist advert appears entirely benevolent, even caring, offering a “sofa for the cold nights” for “any guys that are homeless and need a place for a couple of nights”. It adds, “Come get showered and warm and get a good nights sleep.” The mention of showering and specifying men prompted BuzzFeed News to respond, asking what he expects in return. “Nothing,” the landlord replied. “Just looking to help people out.” But then he sent another email: “You got a picture of yourself?”
Another landlord telephoned after BuzzFeed News asked for more details. The advert on Craigslist was clear. He wanted a man “willing to serve for accommodation… Full details can be given if you leave a phone number.”
His voice was raspy – so gravelly that at times it cut out over the phone. What he said – what he wanted – however, was clear: “sucking, fucking and role play”, as well as a “bit of bondage”. He wanted this to happen regularly. He liked wrist and ankle restraints, too.
But it wasn’t only sex. “You’d be sharing my bed,” he explained. “I would expect you to keep the house tidy.”
He lives in Basingstoke, a commuter town 50 miles from London, is an HGV driver and “slightly heavier than I should be”. He explained why he advertised: “I just want to stop having to go online all the time for sex," and said he has “a huge sportswear fetish,” before asserting: “I take it you obviously like cum”. He suggested a visit.
Instead, BuzzFeed News responded to an advert on RoomBuddies, an extensive mainstream site carrying classified roomshare ads, offering a room to a young gay man: “No rent is expected if we can agree with an arrangement.” (When approached for comment RoomBuddies told BuzzFeed News: "We rely on the support of our customers as we like other individuals can miss things. Should the user and or advert be reported we could deal with the user appropriately.")
This landlord replied by email saying he was “open-minded” and “naturist” but “not into silly sub-dom [sadomasochism] games”. He expected help around the house but did not explicitly say he expected sex – it appeared to be implied. BuzzFeed News arranged to visit him at his flat in south London. Rent in a flat-share like this would normally be approximately £600 per month.
He opened the door. Short, Northern, and 70, with grey, thinning hair, he led the way first into the dark, somewhat shabby room he was offering – a sofa-bed awaited – before walking through a kitchen and out into an unkempt garden. Rats were burrowing under the greenhouse, he explained.
As well as the chores, he wanted someone with whom to play board games or go to concerts. But when asked about his penchant for naturism, as expressed in his email, he dismissed it as merely something that “seems to get mentioned in a lot of ads, but it’s not a requirement”. Regarding what would be expected beyond the chores he simply restated his dislike of sadomasochism but specified only that he was “easy going” regarding sex and liked “normal relationships”.
It was unclear whether he genuinely did not expect sex from a lodger or whether he was shy or simply hoped it would happen organically, without demanding it upfront.
All of which raised two questions: What happens to someone who moves into a place where no rent is required but where what is really expected remains unsaid? And is that better or worse than an arrangement in which the terms – the kind of sex, the frequency – is explicit?
The answer was provided a few days later by a young man who wishes he didn’t know. Denholm Spurr sits at a kitchen table in Brixton, south London, tapping his fingernails against the cup next to him. He makes sudden gestures and movements – getting up, looking away – as if gripped by energy surges. His accent is middle-class Home Counties, almost plummy; not perhaps what you might expect.
Soon after finishing his drama degree, aged 22, he came out. The stress gestating in preparation to it, coupled with the response – his parents, he felt, did not react well – led to a breakdown. He had no money; he had debts from the university.
“I didn’t feel I could go home and it just snowballed from there,” he says. “I went out one night and the first guy that showed me interest I went home with.” With nowhere else to go he stayed with this man for several weeks.
“I was really vulnerable,” says Spurr. “I didn’t have the capacity to make decisions that were in my own interest.” The man would buy him drugs and take him to chemsex parties – group sex mostly fuelled by the class-A drugs crystal methamphetamine (meth), GHB/GBL (G) and mephedrone, all of which can drastically reduce inhibitions.
“I’d lived a very sheltered, conservative life,” he says. But suddenly he was thrown into the extremities of sex and drugs, amid poor mental health and depleted self-worth. “I lost two stone in that two months. I went down to a 27-inch waist. I felt ill.”
The relationship broke down and he moved into a female friend’s house temporarily. But it was here, a month later, that the first consequence of sex-for-rent surfaced.
“I got HIV,” he says. “I went for my first test after coming out and got gonorrhea and HIV. I think I would have recovered from that whole period of my life if that had not happened.”
Instead, Spurr embarked on what would become three years of sex-for-rent arrangements, mostly temporary, hopping from one to the next.
It is here that the second disguise that conceals this arena appears: In many cases among LGBT people, such arrangements are not advertised, not traceable, often not even verbally expressed, but the terms of which are understood by those involved – and can be as fleeting as an arrangement for a few days, one night, or even just a few hours. Apps like Grindr are the primary tool used, connecting those in need with those enticing them. And so, having already been introduced to the chemsex scene where parties (dubbed “chillouts”) in private houses can stretch for several days and where participants can stay for the duration as long as they continue to have sex or take drugs, Spurr sought them out. “I would just go from one to the next because I thought if I leave I’ve got nowhere to go,” he says.
The requirement of intoxication rendered him unable to defend himself.
“There were times,” he says, “I went under [lost consciousness] on G and then I woke up and someone was fucking me.” He had specifically told some of those people earlier that he was not interested in them. How does he view those incidents now?
He pauses for a moment and replies flatly. “Rape.”
This was amid a whole range of sexual acts he submitted to but did not want. “I just didn’t care,” he says. “The problem was my level of caring about myself was at the lowest point possible. I had had suicidal thoughts.”
Chemsex parties, however, were just one of the situations in which Spurr provided sex to escape rough sleeping. Often, if he needed somewhere just for the night, especially at short notice, Spurr would use Grindr, assured of the fact that he could find a man nearby whose bed he could sleep in. But it meant that the choice of whether to have sex was removed.
Other times, he would go to gay saunas – sometimes staying for three, even four days – one of which had free entry for under-25s on a Monday night. Was it safer? “In theory,” he says, before segueing quickly to the realities of staying in someone’s house for several weeks when you don’t pay rent. There were, he says, occasions where people expected nothing. But mostly – he says about 75% of the time – he had to comply sexually.
“There’s a kind of underlying pressure,” he says, when the terms of the arrangement were not made clear, “that makes it much more complicated and more difficult… It becomes blurred.”
One man with whom he stayed mistook Spurr’s unresponsiveness with eagerness. “I would pretend to be asleep when he initiated [sex] but he would think that’s because I wanted to be dominated,” says Spurr. With that landlord as with others, he says, “I felt more worried about upsetting them than I did my own self-respect.” There was another reason not to say no: he could be thrown out.
Even, therefore, when this man offered Spurr the sofa rather than sharing his bed, Spurr would not take up the offer. “I would feel like I should sleep [in his bed]… I became what I felt people wanted.” In the evenings, Spurr would begin to sense that the man he was staying with wanted sex. “All of a sudden they’re really close to you, in your personal space. There may be times when they say, ‘Do you want this?' And you’ll be like, ‘Yeah?’ And it’s very difficult because they have asked the question and you have said yes.” Consent evaporates.
For Spurr, the more unspoken the expectations are, the tougher the experience is – and the greater the fear of displeasing the landlord. He talks about a man who responded to his plea on Facebook for somewhere to stay. The man let him stay for £240 a month – less than half a typical London rent. The landlord said nothing about sex making up the rest. Instead, he “put notes under my door every day, messaging me on Grindr and Facebook. It was always, ‘I really care about you, I want to look after you.’ It was very full-on.”
But after three months, Spurr’s housing benefit still hadn’t arrived to pay him. “I felt a sudden pressure. I think he felt that was an opportunity…to go in for the kill. All of a sudden he was like, ‘I need to advertise your room unless things change.’”
Spurr felt it was clear what he meant and, concerned by the emotional intensity of the endless messages, he said that he would move out in a week’s time. “I went out that night, I got back and the locks had been changed. All my stuff had been bagged up… This was someone who had looked me in the eye and said, ‘I would never make you homeless.’”
Spurr went to his local council hoping he might eventually secure a council flat. But instead, not qualifying for housing as a single, childless man – a common barrier for gay men – he was put in a homeless shelter.
“I was the only one that was gay,” he says. “I didn’t feel I could be open about that.” Instead, he started using Grindr to secure straightforward sex work to bolster his benefits. He received £70 per week on Jobseeker's Allowance, £15 of which had to go to the shelter, leaving £55 on which to buy everything.
Conventional sex work became his salvation. After the first time selling sex for money rather than rent, he says, “I thought, Wow I actually feel quite happy because I have this money that I can do what I want with.”
In hindsight, he says, “it would have been a better choice” all along to exchange sex for money than for shelter, but that he had thought that “somehow escorting was the lowest of the low.” Through escorting Spurr paid off his debts and eventually secured a place in a shared rented house, where we now sit, two years on.
The entire experience has left lasting damage. He has flashbacks walking down the street – he’ll see a house and suddenly remember having stayed there. He stopped enjoying sex. It took him years to see himself as anything other than a commodity.
None of his experiences, he says, would have sunk so low for so long without the initial hostility he experienced towards his sexuality, which he had internalized.
“When I came out, all I had to go on was that gay was dirty,” he says. “That was the catalyst.”
Since finding somewhere stable to live and leaving escorting, Spurr has developed a career as an actor, appearing in several successful theatre productions. He seems hopeful. But just before saying goodbye, he says something that only later, as more and more people agree to speak, resonates fully: His experiences are not uncommon. In fact, compared to many, he was lucky.
Following the publication of this story, a representative from Facebook contacted BuzzFeed News to say that the organisation has spent "a long time looking into this" and that as a result of the issues raised by BuzzFeed News regarding the houseboys group "the page has now been removed" as it was found to violate Facebook's standards.
A representative from RoomBuddies also said in a statement after publication:
"RoomBuddies takes this issue very seriously and unfortunately we have seen adverts of this nature on occasion. Our moderation team is trained to spot adverts like this and remove them. We also have systems in place to allow our users to report adverts and messages, which we deal with promptly. And we have a messaging platform which we encourage our users to use, so we can help keep them safe online. Our team does their best to police our website, just as Facebook and other websites do. However, we are limited by the anonymous nature of the Internet. This opens up a much bigger discussion on online identity and privacy, especially with the imminent GDPR changes.”
This is Part One of a BuzzFeed News investigation.