Monday, April 15, 2024

‘No sex’ tenancy rules are infuriating – but so is having sex in any shared house

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Once upon a time, a twentysomething’s wildest dream might comprise owning a five-bedroom house, a Ferrari in the garage, a wardrobe full of designer gear and a swimming pool. Nowadays, they might just settle on being able to have an orgasm at a reasonable volume, without five of their flatmates being able to hear.

Last week, a report in Vice by the journalist Beth Ashley collected the experiences of young Londoners who’ve been policed into not having sex in their own homes by their landlords – either implicitly through bans on “overnight guests”, or explicitly stated in tenancy agreements. Some properties have even been known to request “no loud sex”. Though so far not a widespread trend, it’s an understandably upsetting development for most young people – already unfortunately branded as “generation rent” – for whom home ownership is a pipe dream and being forever fleeced by a landlord class is the rumbling reality.

Even one of life’s last free pleasures would appear to be vanishing. But the report also created a weary shrug among veteran renters like myself, because in many ways all shared property has a celibate effect on people. All rentals may as well come with a no-sex clause, because having sex in a shared property is basically agony.

Given that – according to a forecast from the Resolution Foundation – 50 per cent of millennials will be renting into their forties, it’s clear that more and more of us will spend our supposed “sexual peak” (around late teens with men, thirties and early forties in women) living in the awkward sterility of a shared living environment. This is galling, as anyone who’s lived in a cramped student accommodation or a thin-walled new build in a city knows.

Regardless of your relationship with your flatmates – from total randoms to best friends – sex is always compromised somehow by the lurking awareness of someone being close by. Let’s take the most obvious issue first: sound. For the vast majority of sexual humans, sound is a key facet of intimacy. Beyond words, moaning and grunting are forms of respiration that act as communication. It’s all quite beautiful, except when you know someone’s headboard directly adjoins yours, and you can quite clearly hear an episode of Buffy streaming from across the divide.

While there’s a school of thought that says that you should – on principle – just go loud or go home, too many people are grimly adept at having very quiet sex, silent orgasms, and generally sacrificing their passions for fear of social embarrassment.

The best you can hope for are flatmates who are able to talk about sex, in even the most broad, loose or even stupid way. The best random flatmate I ever had exclaimed – having helped carry his belongings up to his room: “Yep, going to be doing a lot of shagging in here” – which was so perfectly ridiculous that it instantly defused any potential awkwardness. He set out his stall by confidently predicting he’d soon be having sex on it.

You often default to the values of the house’s most prudish tenant, for fear of offending them. Which is lovely and conscientious but also agonising if you value sex highly

Not everyone gets the gift of such cocky candidness, or even any banter at all with their cohabitees. Some friends have reported living with people so uptight that they tacitly derail the sexual activities of others, by asking for a heads-up or prior notice before coitus takes place. In such groups, you often default to the values of the house’s most prudish tenant, for fear of offending them. Which is lovely and conscientious but also agonising if you value sex highly.

Life cycles also get in the way, too. If you all work similar hours and occupy the home at the same times, you’re unlikely to ever get a moment to enjoy proper sexual freedom – with a lover or without – or to have fun anywhere apart from your bedroom. If the person you’re dating has the same situation at their end, the problem persists. As the housing crisis gets worse, extreme situations occur all the time. I know people who still cohabit with their ex, for example, because they’re locked into a year-long tenancy and are unable to find any other financially viable solution. Both try and lead active sex lives, and are upfront about their position to new lovers, but it’s sad that this scenario isn’t an Eighties sitcom but a modern reality.

Attitudes towards sex in this country used to be forever defined by the title of a terrible (yet successful) stage farce called No Sex Please, We’re British – which despite being a critical flop, ran in the West End from 1971 to 1987. In reality, modern Britain is actually an above-averagely horny place. A global survey in 2022 ranked us as the most sex-obsessed country on Earth. We watch a lot of porn and buy a lot of sex toys, it turns out. But beyond those obvious metrics, there’s a palpable sense of sexual adventure emerging in Britain that I think has its roots in the housing crisis.

‘As the housing crisis gets worse, extreme situations occur all the time’

(iStock)

For example, there’s been an explosion in sex-positive clubs offering safe, monitored spaces for people of all sexualities to have sex in. Once mostly found in “bathhouse” culture among gay men, these spaces are increasingly skewing towards more straight-leaning people, in part as a way of having sex outside of the stifling confines of their own flatshares. At the more deluxe end of the spectrum, hotels and Airbnbs are increasingly marketing themselves as places where couples can have an overtly sexual weekend break. And at the other, places like famous cruising spot Hampstead Heath and other parks are visibly and anecdotally becoming places where increased sexual activity is taking place. It’s as though, 26 years after its release, George Michael’s “Outside” has become a way of life to a much broader audience than he ever intended.

Getting governments to do anything about the vicious inequalities between landlord and renter, and the dire prospects for the young to ever own their own homes, is an interminable struggle. Yet, perhaps if “no-sex” tenancies and forever-renting starts forcing a generation of people to have sex in public, we can only hope it might shift them into action sooner.

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