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Voyeurism is the sexual interest in or practice of spying on people engaged in intimate behaviors, such as undressing, sexual activity, or other actions usually considered to be of a private nature.[1]

The term comes from the French voir which means "to see". A male voyeur is commonly labelled as "Peeping Tom" or a "Jags", a term which originates from the Lady Godiva legend.[2] However, that term is usually applied to a male who observes somebody secretly and, generally, not in a public space.

"Mercury and Herse", scene from The Loves of the Gods by Gian Giacomo Caraglio, showing Mercury, Herse, and Aglaulos

Medical issues


The American Psychiatric Association has classified certain voyeuristic fantasies, urges and behaviour patterns as a paraphilia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) if the person has acted on these urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.[3] It is described as a disorder of sexual preference in the ICD-10.[4] The DSM-IV defines voyeurism as the act of looking at "unsuspecting individuals, usually strangers, who are naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity".[5] The diagnosis would not be given to people who experience typical sexual arousal simply by seeing nudity or sexual activity. In order to be diagnosed with voyeuristic disorder the symptoms must persist for over six months and the person in question must be over the age of 18.[6]

Historical perspectives

There is relatively little academic research regarding voyeurism. When a review was published in 1976 there were only 15 available resources.[7] Voyeurs were well-paying hole-lookers in especially Parisian brothels, a commercial innovation described as far back as 1857 but not gaining much notoriety until the 1880s, and not attracting formal medical-forensic recognition until the early 1890s.[8] Society has accepted the use of the term voyeur as a description of anyone who views the intimate lives of others, even outside of a sexual context.[9] This term is specifically used regarding reality television and other media which allow people to view the personal lives of others. This is a reversal from the historical perspective, moving from a term which describes a specific population in detail, to one which describes the general population vaguely.

One of the few historical theories on the causes of voyeurism comes from psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalytic theory proposes that voyeurism results from a failure to accept castration anxiety and as a result a failure to identify with the father.[5]


Voyeurism has high prevalence rates in most studied populations. Voyeurism was initially believed to only be present in a small portion of the population. This perception changed when Alfred Kinsey discovered that 30% of men prefer coitus with the lights on.[5] This behaviour is not considered voyeurism by today's diagnostic standards, but there was little differentiation between normal and pathological behaviour at the time. Subsequent research showed that 65% of men had engaged in peeping, which suggests that this behaviour is widely spread throughout the population.[5] Congruent with this, research found voyeurism to be the most common sexual law-breaking behaviour in both clinical and general populations.[10] In the same study it was found that 42% of college males who had never been convicted of a crime had watched others in sexual situations. An earlier study indicates that 54% of men have voyeuristic fantasies, and that 42% have tried voyeurism.[11] In a national study of Sweden it was found that 7.7% of the population (both men and women) had engaged in voyeurism at some point.[12] It is also believed that voyeurism occurs up to 150 times more frequently than police reports indicate.[12] This same study also indicates that there are high levels of co-occurrence between voyeurism and exhibitionism, finding that 63% of voyeurs also report exhibitionist behaviour.[12]


Due to the prevalence of voyeurism in society, the people who engage in voyeuristic behaviours are diverse. However, there are some trends regarding who is likely to engage in voyeurism. These statistics apply only to those who qualify as voyeurs under the definition of the DSM, and not the broader modern concept of voyeurism as discussed earlier in this article.

Early research indicated that voyeurs were more mentally healthy than other groups with paraphilias.[7] Compared to the other groups studied, it was found that voyeurs were unlikely to be alcoholics or drug users. More recent research shows that, compared to the general population, voyeurs were moderately more likely to have psychological problems, use alcohol and drugs, and have higher sexual interest generally.[12] This study also shows that voyeurs have a greater number of sexual partners per year, and are more likely to have had a same-sex partner than general populations.[12] Both older and newer research found that voyeurs typically have a later age of first sexual intercourse.[7][12] However, other research found no difference in sexual history between voyeurs and non-voyeurs.[11] Voyeurs who are not also exhibitionists tend to be from a higher socioeconomic status than those who do show exhibitionist behaviour.[12]

Research shows that, like almost all paraphilias, voyeurism is more common in men than in women.[12] However, research has found that men and women both report roughly the same likelihood that they would hypothetically engage in voyeurism.[13] There appears to be a greater gender difference when actually presented with the opportunity to perform voyeurism. There is very little research done on voyeurism in women, so very little is known on the subject. One of the few studies deals with a case study of a woman who also had schizophrenia. This limits the degree to which it can generalise to normal populations.[14]

Current perspectives

Lovemap theory suggests that voyeurism exists because looking at naked others shifts from an ancillary sexual behaviour, to a primary sexual act.[13] This results in a displacement of sexual desire making the act of watching someone the primary means of sexual satisfaction.

Voyeurism has also been linked with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). When treated by the same approach as OCD, voyeuristic behaviours significantly decrease.[15]


Professional treatment

Historically voyeurism has been treated in a variety of ways. Psychoanalytic, group psychotherapy and shock aversion approaches have all been attempted with limited success.[7] There is some evidence that shows that pornography can be used as a form of treatment for voyeurism. This is based on the idea that countries with pornography censorship have high amounts of voyeurism.[16] Additionally shifting voyeurs from voyeuristic behaviour, to looking at graphic pornography, to looking at the nudes in Playboy has been successfully used as a treatment.[17] These studies show that pornography can be used as a means of satisfying voyeuristic desires without breaking the law.

Voyeurism has also been successfully treated with a mix of anti-psychotics and antidepressants. However the patient in this case study had a multitude of other mental health problems. Intense pharmaceutical treatment may not be required for most voyeurs.[18]

There has also been success in treating voyeurism through using treatment methods for obsessive compulsive disorder. There have been multiple instances of successful treatment of voyeurism through putting patients on fluoxetine and treating their voyeuristic behaviour as a compulsion.[9][15]


Although small spy cameras had existed for decades, advances in miniaturisation and electronics since the 1950s have greatly aided the ability to conceal miniature cameras, and the quality and affordability of tiny cameras (often called "spy cameras" or subminiature cameras) has greatly increased. Some consumer digital cameras are now so small that in previous decades they would have qualified as "spy cameras", and digital cameras of twenty megapixels or more are now being embedded in some mobile camera phones. The vast majority of mobile phones in use are camera phones.

Certain image capturing devices are capable of producing images through materials that are opaque to visible light, including clothing. These devices form images by using electromagnetic radiation outside the visible range. Infrared and terahertz-wave cameras are capable of creating images through clothing, though these images differ from what would be created with visible light.[19][20]


Non-consensual voyeurism is considered to be a form of sexual abuse.[21][22][23] When the interest in a particular subject is obsessive, the behaviour may be described as stalking.

The United States FBI assert that some individuals who engage in "nuisance" offences (such as voyeurism) may also have a propensity for violence based on behaviours of serious sex offenders.[24] An FBI researcher has suggested that voyeurs are likely to demonstrate some characteristics that are common, but not universal, among serious sexual offenders who invest considerable time and effort in the capturing of a victim (or image of a victim); careful, methodical planning devoted to the selection and preparation of equipment; and often meticulous attention to detail.[25]

Little to no research has been done into the demographics of voyeurs.

Voyeurism is not a crime at common law. In common law countries it is only a crime if made so by legislation. In Canada, for example, voyeurism was not a crime when the case Frey v. Fedoruk et al. arose in 1947. In that case, in 1950, the Supreme Court of Canada held that courts could not criminalise voyeurism by classifying it as a breach of the peace and that Parliament would have to specifically outlaw it. On November 1, 2005, this was done when section 162 was added to the Canadian Criminal Code, declaring voyeurism to be a sexual offence.[26]

In some countries voyeurism is considered to be a sex crime. In the United Kingdom, for example, non-consensual voyeurism became a criminal offence on May 1, 2004.[27] In the English case of R v Turner (2006),[28] the manager of a sports centre filmed four women taking showers. There was no indication that the footage had been shown to anyone else or distributed in any way. The defendant pleaded guilty. The Court of Appeal confirmed a sentence of nine months' imprisonment to reflect the seriousness of the abuse of trust and the traumatic effect on the victims.

In another English case in 2009, R v Wilkins (2010),[29][30] a man who filmed his intercourse with five of his lovers for his own private viewing was sentenced to eight months in prison and ordered to sign onto the Sex Offender Register for ten years.

In a more recent English case in 2013, 40-year-old Mark Lancaster was found guilty of voyeurism and jailed for 16 months, after he tricked an 18-year-old student into traveling to a rented flat in Milton Keynes, where he filmed her with four secret cameras dressing up as a schoolgirl and posing for photographs before he had sex with her.[31]

In the United States, video voyeurism is an offense in twelve states[32] and may require the convicted person to register as a sex offender.[33] The original case that led to the criminalisation of voyeurism has been made into a television movie called Video Voyeur and documents the criminalisation of secret photography. Criminal voyeurism statutes are related to invasion of privacy laws[34] but are specific to unlawful surreptitious surveillance without consent and unlawful recordings including the broadcast, dissemination, publication, or selling of recordings involving places and times when a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy and a reasonable supposition they are not being photographed or filmed by "any mechanical, digital or electronic viewing device, camera or any other instrument capable of recording, storing or transmitting visual images that can be utilised to observe a person."[35]

Saudi Arabia banned the sale of camera phones nationwide in April 2004, but reversed the ban in December 2004. Some countries, such as South Korea and Japan, require all camera phones sold in their country to make a clearly audible sound whenever a picture is being taken.

In 2013, the Indian Parliament made amendments to the Indian Penal Code, introducing voyeurism as a criminal offence.[36] A man committing the offence of voyeurism would be liable for imprisonment not less than one year and which may extend up to three years for the first offence, and shall also be liable to fine and for any subsequent conviction would be liable for imprisonment for not less than three years and which may extend up to seven years and with fine.

Voyeurism is generally deemed illegal in Singapore. Singapore sentences technologically-enabled voyeurs to a maximum punishment of one year's jail and a fine under the context of insulting a woman's modesty.[37] Recent cases in 2016 include the sentencing of church facility manager Kenneth Yeo Jia Chuan who filmed women in toilets by planting pinhole cameras in a handicapped toilet at the Church of Singapore (Bukit Timah) at Hindhede Road, and in the unisex toilet of the church's office at Bukit Timah Shopping Centre.[38][39]

Secret photography by law enforcement authorities is called surveillance and is not considered to be voyeurism, though it may be unlawful or regulated in some countries.


  • Voyeurism is a main theme in films such as The Secret Cinema (1968), Peepers (2010), and Sliver (1993), based on a book of the same name by Ira Levin.

  • Voyeurism is a common plot device in both: Serious films, e.g., Rear Window (1954), Klute (1971), Blue Velvet (1986), and Disturbia (2007) and Humorous films, e.g., Animal House (1978), Gregory's Girl (1981), Porky's (1981), American Pie (1999), and Semi-Pro (2008)

  • Voyeuristic photography has been a central element of the mis-en-scene of films such as: Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), and Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966)

  • Pedro Almodovar's Kika (1993) deals with both sexual and media voyeurism.

  • The television movie Video Voyeur: The Susan Wilson Story (2002) is based on a true story about a woman who was secretly videotaped and subsequently helped to get laws against voyeurism passed in parts of the United States.[40]

  • Voyeurism is a key plot device in the Japanese movie "Love Exposure (Ai no Mukidashi)". The main Character Yu Honda takes upskirt photos to find his 'Maria' to become a man and get his first taste of sexual stimulation.


  • In the light novel series Baka to Test to Shōkanjū, Kōta Tsuchiya is subject to voyeurism, explaining why he is referred to as "Voyeur".


  • The manga Colourful and Nozoki Ana are both devoted almost entirely to voyeurism.


  • "Voyeur", the second track on blink-182's Dude Ranch album, written by Tom DeLonge, features explicit references to the practice of Voyeurism.

  • "Sirens", also written by DeLonge, from Angels & Airwaves' album I-Empire is also about voyeurism, albeit in a more subtle way.

See also

  • Clothed female, naked male

  • Clothed male, naked female

  • Courtship disorder

  • Exhibitionism

  • Frey v. Fedoruk et al.

  • Invasion of privacy

  • Scopophobia, the fear of being stared at

  • Sexual attraction

  • Upskirt


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