By Hazel Booth

Earlier this month, an 18-year-old Romanian-born student living in Germany auctioned her virginity online in an effort to raise cash for her studies. Alina Percea confirmed that an unnamed 45-year-old Italian businessman paid her £9 000 (R108 000) to sleep with her.

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Yet, alarmingly, Percea is not the first to sell her body online. In what seems to be the latest pop-culture phenomenon, teenagers have used the internet as a new high-priced "market" for their virginity.

Dr Devi Rajab, the former Dean of Student Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a counselling and social psychologist, says: "The question arises that if you have consciously had your first experience through paid sex does it mean that you are sold into prostitution later?

"How will this affect later relations when you have to tell your spouse that you sold your virginity? The implications are quite profound on relationships, trust, morality, self-esteem and self-respect. Moreover, the sale of sex has very little to do with love and romance and one wonders how these women would be affected in their later relationships… There is a basic degradation in selling one's body for the sake of a satiation in a faceless encounter."

However, in a new turn of events, Germany tax authorities intend to claim 50 percent of Percea's earnings as they say her actions were "tantamount to prostitution". According to a German official, prostitution in Germany is not illegal, yet any act of prostitution carries taxation of 50 percent.

Percea could also foot a 19 percent VAT bill on top of this claim, leaving her with around £3 000 - a third of her original sum, a poor payoff for her first sexual encounter - one which, traditionally, is seen to be one of the most valuable and highly prized moments in a young woman's life.

In recent months, a growing trend among South African teens has seen girls and boys, some as young as 13, selling photographs and videos of themselves via the cellphone chat network MXit. Known as commercial sexting, this practice is driven primarily by materialistic intentions as the images or videos are sold in exchange for cash and drugs.

One of the latest incidents involved a "teaser" - a snippet of a racy video of two Durban girls undressing and fondling each other while in the shower was circulated among pupils at a Chatsworth school in an attempt to sell the full length video for R200 or more.

The mother of a 15-year-old Chatsworth girl has since instigated legal action against a man who began harassing her daughter for suggestive photographs of herself. The daughter began chatting with the man on MXit chat rooms and, after sending her R100 airtime, asked her for pictures of herself in lacy underwear. When the girl failed to supply these, he began threatening her.

In November 2008, South African Jean-Pierre Botes allegedly lured two schoolgirls to his home after he started chatting with them on MXit. He was charged with abduction.

Despite warnings on MXit's security and privacy policy, available at www.mxit.com, against users sharing personal information on chat sites, it is clear that these are not being heeded. Teens and young adults are wilfully sharing not only personal information with strangers in chat rooms and various sites online, but are purposefully marketing material of a sexual nature in an environment that enables them to reach a large, varied client base with minimal interference.

Durban psychologist Dr Anand Ramphal has warned that this behaviour could eventually result in these teenagers being lured into prostitution as a lucrative form of tax-free income.

Rajab has urged that parents and communities take action.

"On a daily basis our collective consciousness is being manipulated and raised to a heightened sense of unacceptable levels of sexuality. Yet we are shocked at the rising numbers of teens who are sexually active. If we are truly concerned about the welfare of babies, children and adolescents, we must move beyond the moral panic and denial and develop effective strategies to address the problem," she says.

According to registered counselling psychologist Leigh de Wet, the concept of teenagers selling themselves is not a new one.

"The technology available today has simply changed the way in which teenagers may sell themselves. Teens have a powerful drive to present themselves as sexual beings and to explore their sexuality. Also, one of the features of adolescent thinking is the 'personal fable' - they believe that 'the bad things won't happen to me'.

For many teens, selling themselves online is motivated by a need for money, or as a rebellion against their parents, or to be the focus of sexual attention from others.

"The biggest danger is that these teens will be sexually abused in some way, and the long-term consequences of such abuse are wide-ranging. Emotional and psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and substance-abuse problems are common. These problems can also develop as a result of the shame and embarrassment of having one's reputation damaged when a photo or video that was supposed to be private gets into the public domain.

"If teenagers don't want to talk to their parents, they should talk to an adult that they trust, such as a school counsellor, or contact the Gender and Domestic Violence Line 0800 150 150, Life Line 031 312 2323 or Childline 08000 55555.