Voyeurism is defined as an interest in observing unsuspecting people while they undress, are naked, or engage in sexual activities. The interest is usually more in the act of watching, rather than in the person being watched.
The person doing the watching is called a voyeur, but you might hear them casually referred to as a peeping Tom.
A key element of voyeurism is that the person being watched doesn’t know they’re being observed. The person is typically in a place where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as their home or other private areas.
Voyeurism refers to an interest in watching others. It might never progress beyond a fantasy. For example, someone might masturbate while fantasizing about watching someone from afar.
In other cases, voyeurism can become a paraphilic disorder known as a voyeuristic disorder. Paraphilic disorders involve having sexual fantasies or urges that cause distress. They may involve inanimate objects, children, or unconsenting adults.
It’s not clear what causes paraphilia. Some experts believe it’s caused by childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse. Others suggest that objects or situations can become sexually arousing if they’re often linked to a pleasurable sexual activity. In most cases, the person with a paraphilia has a hard time developing personal and sexual relationships with others.
Forms of voyeurism
Voyeurism, by its nature, implies that one party doesn’t consent to the activity. If you have voyeuristic desires, there are ways to fulfill them responsibly without violating anyone’s consent or right to privacy.
Voyeurism is a fairly popular genre of pornography. While some films in this genre might involve violating someone’s privacy, there are plenty of scripted options that involve consenting parties. These scenes typically allow you to watch from the voyeur’s point of view.
If you prefer a more hands-on option, talk about role-playing with consenting partners. You can set up any number of scenarios that interest you, including watching from a distance or even video recording. Make sure everyone’s on the same page about boundaries and what to expect.
Additionally, some sex-positive communities or organizations invite individuals and couples into group or one-on-one settings to engage in sexual exploration. Find a local group by searching online or using an app dedicated to connecting with people with similar sexual interests.
If you’re OK using a bit of imagination, consider downloading some erotic podcasts. While not a visual medium, podcasts allow you to listen to someone engaging in sexual activity or follow along with a story told from the perspective of a voyeur.
When should you be concerned?
They may be a cause for concern if you:
- violate a person’s expectation of privacy in their home, a locker room, or a similar area
- watch a person engage in sexual activity without their consent
- begin filming or photographing another person without their permission
- enter an area illegally in order to watch people
- feel frustrated or stressed when you can’t engage in these behaviors
- experience feelings of guilt after engaging in these behaviors
- can’t get sexually aroused without watching others
- can’t resist voyeuristic activities, even when they’re detrimental to your well-being
How is a voyeuristic disorder diagnosed?
The voyeuristic disorder requires a diagnosis from a mental health professional. They’ll look for certain things before making a diagnosis, such as:
- having recurrent and intense desires to watch people — including those who are naked, disrobing, or engaged in sexual behaviors — without their consent
- experiencing these desires for more than six months
- feeling that these desires get in the way of their social or professional life
Keep in mind that voyeuristic disorder isn’t diagnosed in children or teens. A sense of curiosity and fascination around the bodies and sexual activities of others is a normal part of growing up.
Is voyeuristic disorder treatable?
Like most other mental health conditions, the voyeuristic disorder is treatable. The key is recognizing when you need help, which can be hard for people with paraphilic disorders. A parent, spouse, friend, or legal authority may be the first person to recommend treatment. A therapist can help someone with voyeuristic disorder regain control of their life by:
- developing impulse control
- finding new outlets for arousal and curiosity
- undoing negative thought patterns
- identifying locations or situations that might increase their chances of falling back into problematic behavior
Joining a support group can also help. Connecting with others who are facing similar issues creates a judgment-free space to talk about challenges, coping tools, and potential treatments.