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As a single American man over 30 (by nine months), I was a bit startled to learn that 30 percent of us have paid for sex. I haven’t, and I don’t expect to, if only because I’m put off by the stereotypes.

But if I wanted to, should I be able to? Perhaps.

The system is brutal to sex workers, encourages corruption in cops, and wastes tax money on useless enforcement. No matter what you think the goal of prostitution policy ought to be, the US policy fails.

That prostitution is illegal makes those in the profession vulnerable to employers and clients in a way people in legitimate professions can only imagine.

At the same time, people practicing prostitution legally can face their own forms of exploitation. While Nevada’s brothel-based sex trade ensures workers a place to practice their profession safe from legal sanction, the system does permit abuses by brothel owners. In particular, women are attached—one might say indentured—to a particular house, with little opportunity or ability to leave a bad situation. The facilities, situated in the ample Nevada desert far from cities or even large towns, allow rampant mistreatment as a practical matter.

The common justification given for outlawing prostitution is that it’s degrading and exploitative, with Nevada being held up as an example. But prostitution in Nevada is regulated, heavily, in a way that suggests the goal is to hide it from “normal people”—an approach that’s only technically distinct from outright prohibition. Exploitation simply isn’t cut and dried; arguably anyone who has to work for a living is exploited, after all, and few people would openly suggest that women (which most prostitutes are) are incapable of making decisions, either in general or about sex.

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