Historical Notes: `How can I become a prostitute?' she asked

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A 17TH-CENTURY carrier used to tell his Cambridge customers that they could choose any horse they wished as long as it was the one nearest the stable door. His name is immortalised in the phrase "Hobson's choice". But Hobson left another, perhaps more significant, legacy. He provided the means for the establishment of a workhouse that evolved into a notorious prison and became a symbol of ill-feeling between the townspeople of Cambridge and the university.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the university was an all-male institution, Cambridge exercised a vigorous demand for the services of prostitutes. Some local women specialised; others bolstered their family's income occasionally by "going with" the young scholars. Acting under the terms of a charter granted by Elizabeth I, the university asserted its duty to maintain order among undergraduates by condemning to Hobson's workhouse, known locally as the Spinning House, girls whom it suspected of prostitution.

This generated one of the most grotesque of university traditions. During Term a Proctor would patrol the streets with two assistants, trailed by a coach and driver. Any woman suspected by the Proctor of "incontinence" would be seized. The eyewitness accounts in newspapers of the time suggest that his suspicions were easily roused. A woman on her own would be suspect; so would any woman in the company of an undergraduate. Women who were arrested faced the ordeal of an intimate medical examination and confinement to the Spinning House.

The townspeople greatly resented the Proctorial system. They insisted that the town police should maintain order. They considered it tyrannical and unjust that sentence was passed by the Vice-Chancellor at secret courts from which the public was barred, and with no provision for legal representation. The exposure in the press of palpable mistakes helped to fuel public outrage.

In researching contemporary prostitution in Cambridge, I was struck by a contrast with the Spinning House era. For there is a view, most often heard in the press but also in student circles, that prostitution can be a temporary career option, a way of stretching meagre funds, for male and female students alike. Student prostitution is presented as the glamorous end of the sex trade, a life-style choice for students on their way to better things, who would in the meantime prefer turning a few tricks to working behind a bar.

So is this truth? Or urban myth? The frustrating part is that no one really knows. Oh, everyone may have heard of the politician's daughter who was soliciting outside the Cafe de Paris; but a wayward girl doesn't make a generation. And the conditions of prostitution - secretive clients, illegality, the danger still to reputations - make it remarkably resistant to systematic scrutiny. The most compelling studies of prostitutes in Britain - the ethnographies that show the texture of their working lives - do not reveal a glamorous world of the bright and beautiful, but a much darker territory: girls who have been in care, with no one to stand up for them. Women with a drug problem. Mothers with debts to service and children to feed.

I had this vividly brought home to me in the course of my research by a 19-year-old living in Cambridge on a temporary visa. She had heard that I was interviewing sex workers. "How can I become a prostitute?" she asked. Is student prostitution really a choice? Which is closer to the typical experience - a girl who can endure it because she has already been raped? Or a sophisticated student who moves between the lecture room and the brothel with a shrug- it-off ease? My research indicates that the former is the more accurate picture, and that the rest is fashionable gloss. Hobson's choice. Not really a choice at all.

Michelle Spring is the author of `Nights in White Satin' (Orion, pounds 9.99)