Not so long ago, friends of mine were looking for an office.

They went to view an address off Leith Walk, with rooms the size of rabbit hutches, mirrors on the ceilings and large walk-in showers. The man renting the place had a disappointed look. Handing the property over to a small literary outfit had not been his original plan. He'd bought the place, he revealed, to operate it as a "sauna".

This was back in Edinburgh's more liberal days. Even so, he was refused a licence, he complained, despite having already interviewed the girls he would hire. And who were they? Almost all students. Their flexible hours, he said, were what made them so employable in this particular line of work.

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The picture he painted was dismal in its banality. Equally so is a recent report in the British Journal of Sociology of Education that suggests a third of strippers in the UK are students, paying their way through university or college. Before you demur, I know that doing a striptease or lap-dance is not the same as working in a brothel. Or at least, it need not be. But as one of the dancers employed at a Glasgow strip-joint told Channel 4's recent documentary, Strippers, in some clubs it's hard maintaining the boundaries between watching and touching, and beyond.

That was no great revelation, and nor was this dancer's assertion that for many women, doing the job for too long "can change your personality". How could it not, when they can earn £10 for a three-minute routine, and lots more for extra-curricular treats? As Strippers showed, some girls were making thousands of pounds a night.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the report was that some of the girls were from well-off families, and weren't just doing it for the cash. Though it's hard to imagine, such young women presumably are drawn to the risk and spurious glamour the job entails: that, and the sense of importance it gives them. Money is clearly a factor, but so too is enjoying using one's body to make men go weak at the knees. In terms of an ego trip, sitting behind the till at Asda simply can't compete.

Of course there are women who have used their naked charms cleverly and emerged unscathed. Labour MP Gloria De Piero, who came from a family on benefits, has said that as a teenager she looked up to page 3 models like Samantha Fox, who "seemed to have a better life" than she did. That envy led to her posing topless at the age of 15. She did it for the money and, as her position today shows, she obviously used it well.

But for every De Piero there are hundreds who find themselves trapped, like ants in honey. Students stripping for their supper may think they call the shots, but they are mistaken. Some strip-joints protect their dancers from unwanted advances, but such clubs are still part of the sex industry, and few businesses are more dodgy or dangerous. Owners, punters, and those who haunt these places for more sinister purposes than sex, see women as nothing more than firm flesh, to be used, and abused, until it loses its allure. A girl might think she's empowered by flaunting her assets. She might think she's the one exploiting customers, and walking away scot-free. But if she does, she's seriously deluded.

The sex trade is about lust, for power as much as sex, though the two go hand in hand. Students who get involved in it are the lucky ones - up to a point. After all, it was their choice. Yet the long-term damage they do to themselves, working in a culture based on degradation and abasement, is incalculable. After a while, being viewed as an object, no matter how covetable, becomes corrosive. As are the sex acts punters will demand, and get: because once in a strip club, wearing only a smile, it is hard to say no and be taken seriously.

It is a double irony that a good education teaches a woman that she is anybody's equal. Those students who take to pole-dancing will learn a harsher lesson: that stripping removes more than a girl's clothes. Dignity and self-respect soon go the way of their nipple tassles.