Voyeurism is a psychosexual disorder in which a person derives sexual pleasure and gratification from looking at the naked bodies and genital organs or observing the sexual acts of others. The voyeur is usually hidden from view of others. Voyeurism is a form of paraphilia.
A variant form of voyeurism involves listening to erotic conversations. This is commonly referred to as telephone sex, although it is usually considered voyeurism primarily in the instance of listening to unsuspecting persons.
The object of voyeurism is to observe unsuspecting individuals who are naked, in the process of undressing or engaging in sexual acts. The person being observed is usually a stranger to the observer. The act of looking or peeping is undertaken for the purpose of achieving sexual excitement. The observer generally does not seek to have sexual contact or activity with the person being observed.
If orgasm is sought, it is usually achieved through masturbation. This may occur during the act of observation or later, relying on the memory of the act that was observed.
Frequently, a voyeur may have a fantasy of engaging in sexual activity with the person being observed. In reality, this fantasy is rarely consummated.
A number of states have statutes that render voyeurism a crime. Such statutes vary widely regarding definitions of voyeurism. Most states specifically prohibit anyone from photographing or videotaping another person, without consent, while observing that person in the privacy of his home or some other private place.
Causes and symptoms
There is no scientific consensus concerning the basis for voyeurism. Most experts attribute the behavior to an initially random or accidental observation of an unsuspecting person who is naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity. Successive repetitions of the act tend to reinforce and perpetuate the voyeuristic behavior.
The act of voyeurism is the observation of an unsuspecting person who is naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity that provides sexual arousal. To be clinically diagnosed, the symptoms must include the following elements:
- recurrent, intense or sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors
- fantasies, urges, or behaviors that cause significant distress to an individual or are disruptive of his or her everyday functioning.
Voyeurism is apparently more common in men, but does occasionally occur in women. However, the prevalence of voyeurism is not known. Contemporary U.S. society is increasingly voyeuristic (as in the example of "real" television); however diagnosis is made only when this is a preferred or exclusive means of sexual gratification.
The onset of voyeuristic activity is usually prior to the age of 15 years. There are no reliable statistics pertaining to the incidence of voyeurism in adulthood.
According to the mental health professional's handbook, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders , two criteria are required to make a diagnosis of voyeurism:
- Over a period of at least six months, an individual must experience recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors that involve the act of observing an unsuspecting person who is naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity.
- The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
In order for a condition to be labeled "voyeurism," the fantasies, urges, or behaviors to watch other persons must cause significant distress in the individual or be disruptive to his or her everyday functioning.
For treatment to be successful, a voyeur must want to modify existing patterns of behavior. This initial step is difficult for most voyeurs to admit and then take. Most must be compelled to accept treatment. This may often be the result of a court order.
Behavioral therapy is commonly used to try to treat voyeurism. The voyeur must learn to control the impulse to watch non-consenting victims, and just as importanly to acquire more acceptable means of sexual gratification. Outcomes of behavioral therapy are not known. There are no direct drug treatments for voyeurism.
Voyeurism is a criminal act in many jurisdictions. It is usually classified as a misdemeanor. As a result, legal penalties are often minor. The possibility of exposure and embarrassment may deter some voyeurs. It is also not easy to prosecute voyeurs as intent to watch is difficult to prove. In their defense statements, they usually claim that the observation was accidental.
Once voyeuristic activity is undertaken, it commonly does not stop. Over time, it may become the main form of sexual gratification for the voyeur. Its course tends to be chronic.
The prognosis for eliminating voyeurism is poor because most voyeurs have no desire to change their pattern of behavior. Since voyeurism involves non-consenting partners and is against the law in many jurisdictions, the possibility of embarrassment may deter some individuals.
Most experts agree that providing guidance regarding behavior that is culturally acceptable will prevent the development of a paraphilia such as voyeurism. The origin of some instances of voyeurism may be accidental observation with subsequent sexual gratification. There is no way to predict when such an event and association will occur.
Members of society at large can reduce the incidence of voyeurism by drawing curtains, dropping blinds or closing window curtains. Reducing opportunities for voyeurism may reduce the practice.
See also ; Exhibitionism
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fourth edition, text revised. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
Gelder, Michael, Richard Mayou, and Philip Cowen. Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Kohut, John J., Roland Sweet. Real Sex: Titillating but True Tales of Bizarre Fetishes, Strange Compulsions, and Just Plain Weird Stuff. New York: Plume, 2000.
Wilson, Josephine F. Biological Foundations of Human Behavior. New York: Harcourt, 2002.
Abouesh, A., and A. Clayton. "Compulsive voyeurism and exhibitionism: a clinical response to paroxetine." Archives of Sexual Behavior 28, no. 1 (1999): 23–30.
Furnham, A., and E. Haraldsen. "Lay theories of etiology and 'cure' for four types of paraphilia: fetishism; pedophilia; sexual sadism; and voyeurism." Journal of Clinical Psychology 54, no. 5 (1998): 689–700.
Rosler, A., and E. Witztum. "Pharmacotherapy of paraphilias in the next millennium." Behavioral Science Law 18, no. 1 (2000): 43–56.
Simon, R. I. "Video voyeurs and the covert videotaping of unsuspecting victims: psychological and legal consequences." Journal of Forensic Science 42, no. 5 (1997): 884-889.
American Medical Association. 515 N. State Street, Chicago, IL 60610. Telephone: (312) 464-5000. Web site: <http://www.ama-assn.org/> .
American Psychiatric Association. 1400 K Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. Telephone: (888) 357-7924. Fax:(202) 682-6850. Web site: <http://www.psych.org/> .
American Psychological Association. 750 First Street NW, Washington, DC, 20002-4242. Telephone: (800) 374-2721 or (202) 336-5500. Web site: <http://www.apa.org/> .
L. Fleming Fallon, Jr., M.D., Dr.P.H.