Humanism and prostitution

The Ontario Court of Appeal today upheld an earlier ruling that the federal laws banning “bawdy houses” (brothels) is unconstitutional. They further ruled that the law against “living on the avails” of prostitution could only apply to exploitative relationships. Finally, they overturned an earlier ruling and upheld the ban on solicitation.

The court has given the federal government 12 months to rewrite Canada’s current prostitution laws to better balance the rights of sex workers and their communities. Nevertheless, this decision would put any government in an awkward position, having to deal with a sensitive and contentious issue that is likely to divide sharply along partisan lines.

Leaving the political and partisan implications, we are still left with the question of what the humanist take on this ruling should be.


While prostitution has been called the world’s oldest profession, its existence often depends on the subjugation and exploitation of women. One needs only look at the deplorable practice of human trafficking, which often involves girls from overseas being traded as slaves into the sex trade, to see the arguments against legalized prostitution.

Of course such a simplistic view glosses over the nuances that are necessary to make a rational decision on such an emotional issue.

The issue gets complicated when we begin to look at the consequences of our current laws and see that harms are being caused.

With such heavy-handed restrictions on the activities related to prostitution (but not the actual act of paying money for sex itself), sex workers are forced to live outside the law and judicial system. Instead of relying on local police to protect them from predators like Robert Pickton, or being able to establish safe houses where they can defend themselves, sex workers fall victim to pimps and thugs who would exploit them.

Furthermore, humanists often prefer to err on the side of increased civil liberties whenever possible, and therefore we should have fewer laws restricting how one can choose to make a living. What the law should do is protect individuals from exploitive situations.

While this issue is certainly controversial, it is likely to be one of the dividing social issues to be debated over the next few years. As humanists we should seek to develop our positions on the basis of reason, evidence, and compassion, while being wary of emotional and moralistic arguments from wherever they may come.

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