In the tale of Lady Godiva, the townspeople agree not to look at her while she rides through the town naked. One version of the tale, written several hundred years after the event, implies that a man named Tom violates that agreement and watches Lady Godiva intently. From this incident, which may or may not be historically accurate, we get the modern term to describe a voyeur or illicit observer, Peeping Tom. A Peeping Tom deliberately and secretly observes others while they undress or engage in private sexual acts. The traditional Peeping Tom scenario generally involves a man staring through an exterior window into a private residence, but more sophisticated observation methods such as peepholes, spy cameras, telescopes and hidden recording equipment may also be used to observe victims remotely.
A voyeur often has a defined mental illness or personality disorder which creates a compulsion to watch other people during intimate moments. There is also a sexual gratification element in which the voyeur or Peeping Tom experiences sexual arousal because his or her victim has little to no idea of his or her presence. Some Peeping Toms suffer from a condition called scopophobia, an abnormal fear of being seen or otherwise noticed by others. Because normal social or sexual interaction is so difficult for a scopophobic, he or she will often find sexual release by observing others from a distance or by hiding in the shadows. A Peeping Tom with such a compulsion does not necessarily want to participate in the activity he or she observes, but rather gain a vicarious thrill from a safe distance.
The difficulty with a Peeping Tom from a legal standpoint lies in the recognition of voyeurism as a mental disease or defect. It is not strictly illegal for a person to observe other people during intimate moments and become sexually aroused. If a person in his or her private residence can observe a neighbor undressing in front of an open window, then no crime has been committed. At best, a report of a voyeuristic neighbor peeping into a window would be considered a nuisance complaint, much like a barking dog or a loud party. The responding police officers could ask the offender to stop watching his or her neighbors, but could also ask the neighbor to be more discreet or pull down a window shade for privacy.
Many states do not even have laws which specifically make the act of voyeurism illegal. Instead, an offender would most likely be charged with other criminal violations, such as trespassing on private property, indecent exposure or invasion of privacy. If the Peeping Tom actually recorded the encounter and made those recordings public, then the victim could also file civil charges against him or her. A female television personality named Erin Andrews did pursue such legal action against a Peeping Tom and prevailed. The man used a special video camera to observe Andrews through a keyhole in her hotel room door. The footage of Andrews in the nude was later uploaded to the Internet.
In the jurisdictions where voyeurism is considered to be a crime, a convicted Peeping Tom can be considered a sex offender and be compelled to register as such. Many sex crime experts consider voyeurism to be one of the first steps towards sexually violent behavior. If a Peeping Tom becomes confident in his or her ability to remain undetected, he or she might be tempted to escalate to actual physical contact or more invasive observation techniques. This in turn could escalate into sexual assault or criminal stalking. It is important for Peeping Toms to seek professional help for their sexual compulsions and personality disorders before their behavior takes a turn for the worse.