As the mother of a daughter, one of the worst things to read about is how greater numbers of young British students are turning to prostitution to help fund their education, information the National Union of Students disclosed last week.
Now, they didn't give any details, but the headline is depressing enough. Didn't the sex industry used to be a last-ditch effort for desperate women? And a profession that women would enter into after a troubled childhood, neglectful parents, or a drug-addled past? When it did it become a viable work option for your average twenty-something to consider?
Throughout history and literature, prostitution has often been treated with ambivalence, so perhaps it's no great surprise that in the 21st century it's become almost pedestrian.
Catherine Deneuve plays the role of housewife-turned-prostitute Severine Serizy in Luis Buñuel's classic 1967 work Belle de Jour. Photo: Getty
Dostoevsky loved his redemptive "tarts with a heart," (like Crime and Punishment's Sonia, who debased herself to feed her family and eventually led Raskolnikov to confess and repent), while Zola created the fascinating Nana, at once exploitative and lovable, girlish and a harpy, who was difficult to love but even harder to hate.
Characters like these showed the humanity and complexities inherent in the woman who was a prostitute by trade and doing what she could in the circumstances allotted to her. The thing is, in the 21st century women have many more options, so to choose sex is a worrying one. Then again, since the sex industry so blatantly exists, is it wrong to exploit it for a positive end - to feed a child, to support a family and perhaps even to pay for an education?
What really disturbs me is how prostitution – or at least the sex industry that it's a part of – is no longer really on the fringes of society but has now become so mainstream that the lines between reality and pornography are blurred. Everywhere we look, porno-chic imagery abounds, from vajazzles and discussions of breast implants on TOWIE to the continued 'Playboy ideal' of femininity (big bleached hair, fake tan, big boobs, stripper heels, Hollywood bikini wax).
We're so desensitised to sex in all its forms, that it's no wonder that girls will consider having sex with a man for money or stripping in front of a webcam to earn a few hundred pounds a week (or a night). And at least these women are doing it to further their educations; prostitution has been so sanitised over the years that people will sell their bodies not as a last-chance, desperate measure but as something to be done to gain some extra spending money in order make a splurge designer purchase. How scary is that?
With all of the highly sexualised imagery being projected at young women from all angles comes the realisation for women (and girls) that as sexual subjects they command attention and have power, and as sexual objects they can be exchanged for other goods. As Ariel Levy wrote in Female Chauvinist Pigs: "If you remove the human factor from sex and make it about stuff: big fake boobs, bleached blonde hair, long nails, poles, thongs, then you can sell it. Suddenly sex requires shopping: you need plastic surgery, peroxide, a manicure, a mall."
Sex nowadays is no longer about the human factor; so often, it can be casual, nameless and irrelevant. So taking it that one step further and treating it as a business deal doesn't seem so outrageous after all, especially when cash-strapped students need to make money, fast, before they drown in the never ending doom of rising tuition fees, soaring living costs, prospective graduate unemployment and government cuts.
Women who turn to the sex industry for some extra cash will often speak of their experience as though it was empowering – "I relied on myself to get by." Sleeping with someone for money, or stripping for a stranger might be a savvier way to get £200 in your pocket than working as a silver-service cater waiter, but that doesn't make it any less demeaning. Conflating that with empowerment is yet another by-product of the pornification of our society.
Perhaps the laissez-faire attitude towards prostitution is also the result of the post-Belle de Jour culture. Belle's real-life persona, the respected scientist Brooke Magnanti, turned to the world's oldest trade to help fund her PhD and makes it seem like prostitution is a viable alternative to working in a coffee shop or at a pub. Intelligent and successful, she's the worst possible poster girl for prostitution because she makes it seem so normal, easy and safe to do. And she doesn't regret it one bit.
For every Belle, there's a horror story. A woman who was mistreated, abused, hurt on the job. As a young female, you're extremely vulnerable in that industry (particularly as someone who is just dipping into it and still has to learn the ropes).
The only reason the sex industry has become a viable option for women to consider is because of the unhealthy saturation of sex and sexual exploitation everywhere we look. Sleeping with someone for money just allows women to further be commoditised and exploited (even if they think they're in control).
Also – and no seems to talk much about this anymore, weirdly, but what about all of those STDs? Perhaps it's useful to look back at the demise of Zola's Nana for a refresher on yet another not-so-pleasant side of the sex industry: Once goddess-like, the diseased prostitute ends her days decomposing, putrid and covered in suppurating pustules (she dies of small pox but there is the intimation that she is also suffering from syphilis).
That alone makes waiting tables for minimum wage sound rather more appealing, doesn't it?