Way, way back in the mists of time (oh, say, five or six years ago) polls regularly listed the most popular career options for young women as nursing, teaching or, for the particularly exhibitionist, acting. The world turns quickly, though, and this year a survey of a thousand girls between the ages of 15 and 19 found that 63 per cent aspired to be a glamour model, while 25 per cent plumped for lap dancing. Out were the dependability and possible boredom of care work; in were the seedy glamour and possible stardom of the sex industry.
While these findings at first seemed implausibly extreme, they were quickly backed up by the profiles of this year's Big Brother participants in Britain. It goes without saying that Big Brother contestants are exhibitionists. But where the UK show's first participants, in 2000, aspired to be actors or singers (mooning wistfully about the house with their guitars), this year, six of the eight female housemates expressed an interest in glamour modelling or pornography. (Kinga, one of the two exceptions, inadvertently became a porn star anyway by masturbating with a wine bottle in prime time.) In roughly five years, the possibility of a career in the sex industry, whether hard core or soft core, has been embraced by young women and come to be seen as not just a viable option, but a genuinely attractive one. For people who yearn to be recognised, but have no specific talent (in the same poll, 89 per cent of young women said they would rather be a celebrity than achieve something but lack recognition), the sex industry holds out the olive branch of fame.
The most obvious reason for this change of attitude would seem to be the proliferation of pornography.With hard-core porn easily accessible through the internet (33 per cent of internet users regularly view such material) and also being marketed to mobile phones, porn imagery has inevitably become an established part of our culture. And, with this proliferation, the image of those in the sex industry has changed, too. Although the term "porn star" has been in use for decades, it was not until recently that it actually gained some credence and gloss. Had she been working in the 1970s, for instance, it is probable that a porn actress such as Jenna Jameson would have been known only to a smallish population of men, gaining notoriety - like Linda Lovelace - rather than true fame. With the help of home video, however, plus internet and mobile technology, Jameson has become one of the most (in)famous women in Middle America, her 2004 autobiography staying on the New York Times's bestseller list for a month and a half. Britain offers similar, though slightly tamer, success stories, most notably that of Abi Titmuss. Paradoxically, Titmuss, who began her career as a nurse, came to public attention on the back of rape charges brought against her celebrity boyfriend by another woman. There soon followed tabloid sex revelations. A home-made porn video was stolen from her boyfriend's house and released over the internet. And then Titmuss threw her hat in with the industry. She has since worked variously as a presenter on a porn channel, author of sex fantasies, and the subject of thousands of nude photographs.
The home for these photos has been the weekly magazines Nuts and Zoo, recent additions to the market, which sell half a million copies between them, primarily to teenage and twentysomething men. This underlines another crucial change. As porn imagery has broken into the mainstream, any boundaries to its use in entertainment, advertising and marketing - even when the products are aimed specifically at younger teenagers - have gradually become moot. So, for instance, we see full sex and masturbation on Big Brother, a programme that teachers recognise as "must-see" TV for teens. We have competitions in Zoo for the chance to "Win your girlfriend a £4,000 boob job!". We have a sun-protection safety campaign in which a boy apes the "cumshot", squirting cream in a girl's face and urging her to rub it in. These are just the obvious examples. Perhaps more worrying is the subtle way that porn brands have infiltrated the children's market.
Most prominent of these is Playboy, whose bunny logo became particularly fashionable on women's clothing in the late 1990s. Since then, the brand has expanded hugely, the logo appearing on everything from watches to chocolates, and now girls' stationery: pink glittery pencil cases, erasers, notepads. Sold through W H Smith, these branded items have become a bestselling range.
With kids being fed the message that porn is simply a lifestyle and consumer choice like any other, where are the countervailing voices? Back in the 1970s and 1980s, feminists, most notably Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, drew attention (and scorn) for their anti-porn campaigns, but since then the focus of the media has moved firmly to so-called "sex-positive" feminists such as Camille Paglia and Laura Kipnis, women who define pornography as potentially liberating and egalitarian.
Over the past few decades there has been a huge movement in favour of women's right to consume porn, and to oppose this in any way is to be deemed a prude. Indeed, I can see no problem with the rising popularity of sex products marketed at grown women. The problem comes about when our attention turns from the consumer to the consumed. In supporting the right for women to watch porn, it is easy to avoid the rights and reality of the women who appear in porn, and this has helped veil the truth of the industry. Hard-core pornography remains physically very dangerous, with sexual disease among participants running at 50 times the average rate, as well as a high risk of injuries as nasty as perforated bowel and choking.
Perhaps even more importantly, there are still huge social and emotional implications for women who work in the sex industry, whether in the harsh world of hard core or the relatively soft-focus glow of glamour modelling.The truth is that porn stars and glamour models remain as reviled as ever, protected while naked on a pedestal, but otherwise refused any respect or attention. Such difficulties can be seen obliquely in the regular pleas of glamour models, including Abi Titmuss and Jodie Marsh, to be taken seriously, to have a chance to show their "real" selves.
The problem is that, however much they trumpet their glowing exam results (Marsh), or their love of Orwell (Titmuss), their career choice will always undermine these efforts. It is probably possible to have a successful career in glamour or porn, but only if you are the exception of the age - like Jenna Jameson in the US or, in Britain, the tough, saleable glamour model Jordan, who a) protects herself by never asking to be taken seriously and b) is on course to retire at 30.
For other participants, the outlook is bleak, the prevalence and visibility of porn rendering the subsequent chances of a significant career for its "stars" pretty low. The truth is that in career terms, although now a first resort for many young women, porn and glamour modelling are still as pointless as ever. A career in the sex industry remains the deadest of all ends.
Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs: 100 years of the best journalism by women, edited by Kira Cochrane and Eleanor Mills, is published by Constable & Robinson (£12.99)