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What is Voyeurism?

By C. Hearn
Updated May 16, 2024
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Voyeurism is a mental disorder in which a person receives sexual gratification by spying on people as they undress or engage in sexual acts or other private activities. Voyeurs are often called peeping toms because they tend to stay hidden from view as they watch their deeply private acts. Voyeurs have been known to spy through secret peep-holes, use hidden cameras, or simply peer in strangers' windows. Voyeurism is a form of paraphilia. Paraphilia is a biomedical term that means a sexual deviation which usually involves non-human or non-consenting partners. A voyeur generally is not seen by those he spies upon; therefore, he is committing a non-consensual act.

In countries governed by common law, voyeuristic spying in itself is not considered a crime unless specifically made so under new legislation. Canada, for example, did not classify it as a crime until 2005, at which point it was placed in the category of sexual offenses. Likewise, England classified non-consensual voyeurism to be a crime in 2004. In some other societies it may be considered deviant behavior, but it's typically tolerated it to a point—many countries are more lenient toward adolescents, for example.

In the United States, voyeurism typically falls under invasion of privacy laws and is considered a misdemeanor. A number of American regions, however, have instituted statutes which specifically call video voyeurism a crime. Video voyeurism refers to illegally videotaping or photographing others without consent and can result in more serious criminal charges with harsher penalties. Additionally, a court order can sometimes be issued on behalf of the person being spied upon, which usually requires the voyeur to stay a specified distance away.

Voyeurism is thought to be much more common among men, but it does sometimes occur in women. There is no scientific basis regarding the cause of this disorder, but some theories suggest childhood traumatic sexual abuse as a possible factor. Other theories suggest that a person’s inability to form bonds or relationships with others may sometimes lead to sexual deviation. According to most mental health professionals, two criteria are needed to make an official diagnosis. The first is that the person must experience voyeuristic fantasies, urges or behaviors over a period of at least six months. The second criterion is that these fantasies, urges or behaviors must cause significant distress or impairment in the daily functioning of the individual.

Treatment for voyeurism normally consists of behavioral therapy, but only after a voyeur is willing to admit that he has a problem. Often the desire to seek help does not come from the voyeur himself but in response to a court order. The therapy aims to help voyeurs control their abnormal urges and find more normal ways in which to seek sexual gratification. Drugs generally are not used as part of the treatment.

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Discussion Comments

By Rundocuri — On Feb 07, 2014

That is a scary story Heavanet. Voyeuristic behavior also has the potential to lead to worse behavior, like exhibitionism and stalking. Fortunately today's laws are stricter on perpetrators of such actions that it use to be in the past.

By Heavanet — On Feb 01, 2014

If you think you are a victim of voyeurism, take it seriously. I have a friend who was being bothered by an ex-boyfriend who was showing signs of disturbing behavior, but she thought he was just having a hard time with the breakup. He continued to spy on her until she called the cops and he was forced to get counseling. It was scary situation and one she should have taken seriously sooner.

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