Poverty is a dominant feature of life for many university students. Statistics from Melbourne University show that living expenses (excluding course fees) for a student in share accommodation amount annually to around $25,000. Most students must work at least one job to supplement the meagre government-provided youth allowance, which, if paid at the maximum rate of $425 per fortnight, amounts to just $11,050 per annum.
It is little wonder then that the March 2 Melbourne Age reported that up to 40% of women working in the city's brothels are full-time tertiary students, most of whom engage in prostitution to meet the high cost of study.
This is not a case of women freely choosing to take part in sex work. It is a consequence of a welfare system designed to punish the poor, who, more often than not, are women. It is a "choice" that has been forced onto these students, as with most prostitutes, by economic necessity.
The capitalist family system, based on women's economic dependence on men (their father or husband), makes women primarily responsible for (unpaid) household cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. This limits their educational and employment opportunities and ensures continued economic dependence on an individual man (the family "bread-winner"). The concentration of working women into low-paid, highly casualised industries is testament to this.
Under capitalism, a woman's body is regarded as little more than a marketing tool. Images of women are used to sell everything from cars to mobile phones. The multi-billion dollar "beauty" industry is built on convincing every woman that she, as she is, is unworthy of love or respect, and so must spend an inordinate amount of money "improving" her appearance. Magazines targeted at women give her "helpful" hints on how to use her body to achieve that pinnacle of female achievement, catching and keeping a husband.
The sexual commodification of women, together with capitalism's pro-family ideology, reinforces the fundamentally sexist notion that women's principal sexual role is to gratify men.
It is these social relations that prostitution is based upon. It arose not as an expression of women's sexuality, but as a consequence of their economic dependence on men.
The key aspect of prostitution is the purchase for money of a woman's body for the purpose of a man's sexual gratification. Even if a woman is able to choose her clientele, or proscribe particular sexual acts, the fact remains that for a period of time, the customer owns the woman. She is a thing to be used for the sexual gratification of another person; she is expected to have no emotions, ideas or desires of her own.
While there exist prostitutes who believe that their work "empowers" them, this regular treatment as a sexual commodity cannot but have a negative impact on a woman's sense of self-worth, on her perception that she has a right to be treated as a person, not a sex object.
Conservative commentators and some feminists have argued that prostitution should be illegal, claiming that this will discourage the practice. However, it is prostitutes themselves who always bear the brunt of anti-prostitution laws. Forcing prostitution underground leaves women open to ever more dangerous situations, and removes the opportunity for collective organisation that working in a brothel may permit.
Socialists argue for the removal of all laws that penalise prostitutes and fully support the self-organisation of sex workers to campaign for better health and work safety. Such collective action helps raise prostitutes' self-confidence and organisational skills, enabling them to fight more effectively against their oppression.
The availability of real choices for women with regard to work and education is essential if they are to break from the shackles imposed by sexist attitudes and practices. A woman who is not willing to be limited by the "marriage, kids and housework" formula for her life and who understands that collective political action is needed to defend women's rights, can become an invaluable fighter in the movement that seeks to eradicate women's oppression altogether.