Home truths: how soaring rent wrecks our sex lives

As the cost of living climbs in the UK, millennials are flocking to their parents' homes to save cash on rent – but are they paying the price with their sexual autonomy?

Feature by Rianna Walcott | 27 Apr 2018

As with plenty of young people, my sex life really took off while I was at university. At my peak, I was living with my best friends in an exceptionally warm and sexually open-minded flatshare: the kind that trades lewd stories over dinner and helps one another take artistic, well-lit nudes. Living in a sex-positive environment in a relatively tiny city, I prided myself on refusing ever to travel for dick. It came to me.

But that all changed when I graduated last year, leaving this haven to move back in with my parents in London, under the misapprehension I'd soon find my feet and get a place of my own. This move, though financially necessary, has had enormous implications for my once bountiful sex life.

Firstly, I have had to humble myself when it came to hook-ups, traipsing all over London from Archway to Wandsworth. But worse than that, for the first time in my life I find myself lying to my parents. While I recognise this is for everyone’s benefit – a frank conversation with my West Indian parents about sex would probably be fatal for everyone involved – lying at nearly 24 about endless ‘sleepovers’ has me feeling like a rebellious teenager in a coming-of-age teen movie.

Still, I gritted my teeth, hid my sex toys and promised myself this was only a temporary measure – I could move into my own place in a matter of months and go back to being a freewheeling heaux: right?

Wrong. Getting money together takes forever, and the temptation to stay put and finally pay off my credit card bill is just too high. These days I have a pipe dream of staying at home until I save enough for a deposit on my own place, but my sexual frustration and minuscule earnings have been making that difficult.

Young people hear an awful lot about how our current instability is all our fault. Apparently, if we could just give up the avocado toast we’d all have houses by now. But this mess hasn’t been caused by a generation who just can’t stay away from fancy coffees. The under-30s are spending three times more of their income on housing than their grandparents, yet living in smaller, more overcrowded spaces. We are also only half as likely to own our own homes, and four times as likely to be renting privately, as compared to the baby boomer generation. And though the financial status and choices of millennials are well and truly up for discussion, what that's doing to our sex lives is a truth it seems we'd all rather ignore.

For Miranda, 24, living in Wales with her mother and brother was detrimental to both her sex life and her mental health due to a toxic relationship with her mum. Moving away to university provided a space for her to explore her sexuality where she was able to meet other queer people, join wider discourse about gender and sexuality, and be introduced to academic queer theory. She isn’t out to her family: “When I lived at home I didn’t exactly hide my sexuality but it was definitely a sense of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the house. I never discussed my attraction or relationships with women and as far as my mum is concerned I’m heterosexual.”

Miranda’s recent move to Essex to start a new job has improved her mental health and general wellbeing, as now she is able to, in her words “date who I want and be who I want and eat what I want without my mum scrutinising me.” The shame she felt around eating and sex held many parallels when living at home. “My mum was obsessed with my weight and would routinely starve me, to the extent that I had to buy and hide food for myself. Then one day she found both my vibrator and a whole load of food packages under my bed, which looking back is actually very funny... Ironically now I’m eating much better simply because I don’t feel the anxiety about cooking and eating around my mum.”

The feeling of shame around masturbation is one shared by Maria, 22, from South East London. “The number of times I'm coming close to orgasming through my vibrator and a family member just walks into my room without even knocking. I look forward to the days I have a free yard just to masturbate with no risk of interruption.”

Valentina, 22, shared my own issues with finding alibis. Her South American parents “don't understand the concept of platonic sleepovers with friends,” so she struggles to find excuses for staying out late. For Samirah, 24, culture and religion also play a part in her newly restricted sex life. As the child of socially conservative Muslim parents, the platonic sleepover excuse doesn’t wash for her either. She’s found inventive ways around this problem, including “once pretending I couldn’t go on a day trip to the Safari Park with extended family because I ‘had to see a friend visiting from Scotland’. In reality, I wanted a free house to invite a (different) friend over for what turned out to be three minutes of sex, amid anxiously listening out for the sound of a key turning in the front door lock, and being found in bed with someone.”

After moving away from London for university at 18, Samirah had “the freedom of space and a wealth of time” at her disposal, in which to explore her sexuality and identity: “I became more confident, and I eventually claimed my identity as pansexual.” Since graduating two years ago and moving back to London, she has had comparatively few opportunities to date. “My parents heavily restrict my freedom to go out and socialise. I can’t use my room as a private and personal space, let alone a sexy boudoir.”

Shane, 22, only felt able to come out as gay after leaving home, but even then he didn't tell his parents. Moving home he felt as though he had reverted back to being closeted, and unconfident. He describes avoiding conversations about dating all together: “I’m not sure what I’m looking for in a relationship yet, so I’ve been keeping it short-term, mainly having hook-ups. So of course I can’t say anything to my parents – how do you explain that?”

He feels that it makes little economic sense to move out yet, but laments feeling “like a child again, living at home.” He too has been engaging in many ‘sleepovers’ at friends’ houses, and even some extortionate cross-town Ubers. “These £70 Ubers – no-one at work can really understand why I did that, because they don’t live at home. I can’t help but feel a little irresponsible about it, but then, how else am I supposed to get some?”

As a generation grappling for independence, it’s a struggle to relate this need for agency to our parents-slash-landlords. We are still expected to pull through and emulate the baby boomer model, with well-paid jobs, houses with white picket fences, and most importantly a stable partner to share those costs, but finding that partner is near-impossible without gaining the independence and personal space to date.

Instead, we are forced into an extended childhood by our economic uncertainty. For a generation that has been promised more sexual and social freedoms than our predecessors, it’s a struggle to reconcile with the reality of our living situations. Perhaps it isn’t the avocado toast keeping us off the housing ladder then, but rather the money spent on Ubers and hotel rooms while playing at being adults.

Some names have been changed