Panopticism and Legalization of Prostitution

In this paper we shall look at the relationship between an article on the printed media in relations to Michel Foucault’s social theory of Panopticism. Specifically, this paper examines the importance of Panopticism in today’s society using the issue of legalization of Prostitution as an example and concludes that Panopticism is a necessity that must be enforced in order for discipline, safety and function.

Michel Foucault’s social theory of Panopticism is an instrument to disciplinary structure that allows the authority to have control and command over its subjects by asserting a manipulative power over the target group through a procedure of individualization and observation
The theory can be visually represented by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon , taking a prison building as an example; the Panopticon would be the tower in the middle of the building that can oversee each and every cell within its surrounding. The inside of the tower itself cannot be seen through; however, guards within the tower can have a panoramic view of the entire inside of the building. This allows the inmates to be observed and surveillance constantly and while inmates cannot be sure whether there’s a guard inside the tower or not they therefore cannot be sure if they’re being watched or not as well – leaving the precedence that they are being watched all the time.
Foucault believes that the principles of the Panopticon; that is, the “ability to penetrate in to men’s behaviour” through the use of individualization and observation can be a “mechanism of power” – a way of making “power relations function in a function, and of making a function function through these power relations.” Foucault insists that by extrapolating this principle and using it as a mechanism of power can allow for better efficiency where a small group can exercise authority over a much larger group. When applying Panopticism in situations that require disciplinary authority, Foucault argues that it can “serve to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct school children, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work.”
By applying Panopticism into practice allows authority to control and protect groups and individuals from harm using often subtle methods but maximizing the disciplinary effect. The author of article to be introduced in this paper is an advocate for the need of Panopticism in the prostitution industry to ensure that the workers are protected from society’s threats.
The printed media article under review is a recent newspaper clipping from the National Post. In it, it discusses the recent constitutional challenge that prostitutes in Canada have launched against Canada’s prostitution laws . The situation is such that currently in Canada prostitution is legal to an extent. There resides provisions in the Criminal Code that prevents prostitution to be exercised indoors. Running a brothel, doing business collectively, communicating-privately and acquiring help from others in the form of protection in the legal sense e.g. security guards are all deemed criminal under the Code. This can cover a wide and often blurred scope that there remains a possibility that even living with a prostitute may be criminal. Not only that, but there lies a more pressing matter that the criminalization of these elements of prostitution actually endangers the lives of these workers. The provisions infringes upon the rights of life and security guaranteed by section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom by forcing prostitutes to remain outdoors to conduct their business the effect being that they are under the scrutiny of preying sociopaths and serial killers. The author of the article argues that the very nature of work for the prostitutes require them to “jump into the cars of the strangers after a few seconds of commercial negotiation” leaving the very realistic possibility of landing themselves in the car of a serial killer such a Robert William Pickton whom the author uses as an example of a sociopath that has been found guilty of murdering 49 prostitutes. Not only are these prostitutes risking their lives due to the law but what may happen to them is often remained unnoticed. The author furthers his argument that “If they [prostitutes] don’t show up at ‘work’ the next morning, they aren’t missed – except perhaps by their pimp… they get noticed only when their remains pile up high enough to attract statistical attention” .
The author screams the need for change, that there needs to be “regulatory oversight or a permanent health and security infrastructure” and satirically claims that “the effect of our laws is to maximize the death rate for prostitutes” . The essence of the author’s argument is thus that there needs to be an authority to monitor the prostitution business, that there must be some sort of power over regulating the business procedures of the practice and finally there needs to be recognition of the risks involved for the workers.
The conclusion of the author is blatantly pointing towards the need of adapting a Panopticism approach to the issue at hand; that there must be some sort of all-seeing authority to recognize the risks of danger for the prostitute workers only if not to prevent sociopaths from treading close to them. It’s being conveyed by the author that there must be some sort of “regulatory oversight” or a “permanent health and security infrastructure” which can mean a numerous of options authorities can adapt in a legal context.
First and foremost by “regulatory oversight” in a strictly legal sense means to set procedures and policies to a function. By asserting power over how the practice should be done legally and settings sanctions upon failure to do so by those exercising the practice, Panopticism is therefore functioning as a mechanism of disciplinary power in a business environment by first allowing the sellers (prostitutes) know that they are being watched by the law and thus must act accordingly, and the buyers know that the very people they are buying from are under the spotlight of a legal framework that controls the consistency of their service and thus protecting them as well from any risks that may involve otherwise in a non-controlled environment. A perfect example of regulatory oversight and the effect of Panopticism working flawlessly would be regulations concerning the payment of service. The sellers would have to report to practice to authority and maintain a license in an appropriate business manner under the surveillance of authority whilst the buyers have the security of knowing that their money would reap a return. Thus the challengers of the Constitution get the security that they ask for as their practice is now under observation from the law. Foucault would agree that by putting Panopticism into practice in this scenario would provide the discipline needed to protect these workers as “it arrests or regulates movements; it clears up confusion; it dissipates compact groupings of individuals wandering about the country in unpredictable ways; it establishes calculated distributions” . Therefore it also addresses the concerns of the author – people will now know if a worker doesn’t show for work.
Secondly, the author suggested the necessity for a “permanent health and security infrastructure” to protect the workers. Once again, by having authorities setting up legal procedures that ensures health and security standards are met is another Panopticism approach in functioning as a mechanism of power towards another function. By setting health standards for both the seller and the buyer and monitoring whether the standards are met it provides security for both parties to know that not only are they protected from possible sexually transmitted diseases but it also provides a the individuals themselves to ensure they meet the health standards. In both cases it’s a win-win situation as the individuals protect their health and are also in knowing that the other party is healthy as both sides know they are being observed at all times – the Panopticon effect that Foucault mentions.
Likewise, by providing a security infrastructure and allowing the hiring of help such as guards or even surveillance by the police, the prostitutes will no longer need to enter strangers cars to conduct business talks in private and sociopaths will no longer prey on wandering prostitutes on the sidewalks as they know but not with certainty whether they are being watched or not and thus inhibiting a fear upon them to not approach these women.
It is clear by now that the author is an advocate for putting Panopticism into practice and rightly so. Something as simple as having regulations formally written on a piece of paper and standards set for health and security can already protect a large group of individuals from risks of dangers – even if these regulations and standards are not constantly monitored, the effect alone is sufficient to provide the security being seek for in the article. Michel Foucault would rightfully agree too as the purpose of Panopticism is to “obtain the exercise of power at the lowest possible cost” while bringing “effects of this social power to their maximum intensity ”. In which case, by setting regulations, health and security infrastructures the authorities have inevitable exercised maximum power at a very low cost over a large group of society.


M. Foucault, Dicipline and Punish (New York: Vintage, 1979)

N.A., “Legalize the sex trade” National Post (7 October 2009), A10