Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Bawdy House Definition:

A brothel; an establishment of ill repute - within which occur acts of prostitution or lewd sex.

Related Terms: Disorderly House, Prostitute

In both Canada and the United States, the term is hyphenated and implies frequent or habitual use (although not quantified) for the purposes of prostitution.

Canada's Criminal Code refers to a “common bawdy-house” and defines it as follows:

“... a place that is kept or occupied, or resorted to by one or more persons, for the purpose of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency.”

Bawdy-house paintingIn criminal law, the place must be shown to be have a truly or frequently used for the purposes of prostitution. A hotel, spa, steambath, massage parlour or even a parking lot could meet that definition.

In R v Davidson 28 CCC 44 (1917), the accused was convicted as follows:

"Charles Davidson, night clerk of the King George Hotel at Calgary on the 12th day of January A.D. 1917, and for some time previous thereto did unlawfully keep and maintain a disorderly house, to wit, a bawdy-house by keeping and maintaining rooms situate and being at the Hotel aforesaid for the purpose of prostitution contrary to the Criminal Code and I adjudge the said Charles Davidson for his said offence to forfeit and pay the sum of $197.25; and if the said several sums are not paid forthwith, I adjudge the said Charles Davidson to be imprisoned in the provincial jail at the city of Lethbridge in the said province and there to be kept at hard labour for the term of four months."

Alberta's Court of Appeal on the term bawdy-house:

“Something habitual so as to attach a character to the house or room and so that the descriptive adjective bawdy may be used in regard to it.

"If one man and one woman only had been shewn merely to have gone on this one occasion with the permission of the accused to use a room in the hotel for improper purpose and there had been no evidence, as there is none here, as to the reputation of the house or of its being disorderly or a nuisance to neighbours or to the public, I should have found grave difficulty in concluding that a magistrate might infer from the mere fact of a use permitted to one woman even though known to be a prostitute, on one occasion for improper purposes, that there existed a general habit of permitting such a use of the rooms in the hotel.

"It might very well happen that a clerk in a hotel who had become friendly with a man, a guest or inmate or a regular customer of the hotel, might, on receiving a wink,  shut his eyes to his friend's proposed escapade and allow him to take a woman to his room on one occasion without protest, and yet not be guilty at all of habitually allowing any casual guest to do so.”

In the result, the conviction of Mr. Davidson stood.

“The accused ... knowingly allowed two women known to him to be prostitutes to go to a single room for the purpose of sexual intercourse in that room with two men who had casually walked into the hotel without baggage at 2:30 AM. Is there not sufficient in these circumstances to justify the inference ... that the accused was prepared and not only prepared, but accustomed to permit the rooms of the hotel to be used in that way? I think there is.”

Some further distinctions have recently developed with a pair of 2005 Supreme Court of Canada decisions on point.

In R v Labaye [2005] 3 SCR 728:

“The appellant operated a club in Montréal, called L’Orage.  The purpose of the club was to permit couples and single people to meet each other for group sex. Only members and their guests were admitted to the club.  Prospective members were interviewed to ensure that they were aware of the nature of the activities of the club and to exclude applicants who did not share the same views on group sex.  Members paid an annual membership fee.”

The Supreme Court quashed the conviction stating that:

“The evidence provides no basis for concluding that the sexual conduct at issue harmed individuals or society.  .... Criminal indecency or obscenity must rest on actual harm or a significant risk of harm to individuals or society.  The Crown failed to establish this essential element of the offence.  The Crown’s case must therefore fail.”

In another case, intentionally issued by the Supreme Court of Canada on the same date as R. v. Labaye (December 21, 2005), “liberated” couples paid a fee to be admitted to a licensed bar where sex between them occurred (R v Kouri [2005] 3 SCR 789).

“Only one question need be answered in order to establish indecency and determine whether a place is a common bawdy-house:  Do the impugned acts offend the standard of tolerance of the contemporary Canadian community, having regard to the place and context in which they occurred?”

As in R. v Labaye op. cit. the bar operator was acquitted of the charge of keeping a common bawdy-house for the practice of indecent acts.


  • Painting, 1894 by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, In the Salon of the Rue des Moulins
  • See the related definition of prostitute.

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