Sex Question Friday: What Exactly Is A Voyeur?

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Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know more about voyeurism.

What can you tell me about voyeurism? When does it become stalking and are men more prone to it than women?

Let’s start first by defining what a voyeur actually is. In clinical terms (i.e., according to the DSM), a voyeur is someone who becomes sexually aroused by watching unsuspecting persons undress or have sex. By definition, there is a victim to any voyeuristic act because the person or persons involved have not consented to being watched. Thus, for voyeurism to occur, the victim must be in a setting where they would have a reasonable expectation of privacy (e.g., in their own home, a dressing room or bathroom stall with the door closed, etc.). This means that an individual who takes in the sights at a nude beach or a strip club isn’t a voyeur in the clinical sense and we wouldn't label such behavior as problematic because people in those settings have provided implicit consent for others to see their naked body. Part of what voyeurs find sexually arousing is the fact that (a) the victim does not realize that they are being watched and (b) there is a risk of being caught. Therefore, strip clubs and nude beaches wouldn’t necessarily be arousing to a true voyeur anyway.

Another defining feature of voyeurism is that it is a repeated pattern of behavior. So, let’s say you just happened to see your neighbors having sex because they forgot to close their blinds and you found this situation to be arousing; however, you’ve never actually gone out and intentionally spied on others. Although you would have committed a voyeuristic act, you wouldn’t necessarily be labeled a true voyeur. Voyeurs usually make active attempts to spy on others, and they do it over and over again. In fact, one study of male voyeurs undergoing treatment found that the average number of persons they had spied on in their lives was nearly 500 [1]!

Voyeurism is much more common among men than it is among women; however, we don’t have great information on exactly how many folks are true voyeurs. The best I can offer you are the results of a national survey of Swedish adults, which revealed that 12% of men and 4% of women had spied on someone else having sex at least once and found it arousing [2]. Again, this doesn’t mean that 12% of men are true voyeurs—it just tells us that voyeuristic acts are not uncommon and they are not restricted to people who meet clinical criteria for voyeurism.

Lastly, you also asked how voyeurism relates to stalking. While it is certainly possible for these two sets of behaviors to overlap, they are not one and the same. Voyeurism is a pattern of behavior that is fundamentally about one thing: satisfying one’s own need for sexual gratification by spying on others who are unaware. It is not necessarily about spying on one specific person—indeed, voyeurs may spy on hundreds and perhaps thousands of different folks in a lifetime.

In contrast, stalking is a behavior that is intensely focused on one person, who is then repeatedly victimized by the stalker. Stalkers may pursue their victims for a number of reasons, which may or may not be sexual. Reasons may range from a desire to get even, to a desire to start a romantic relationship, to a way to plan a sexual assault on another person [3]. Another thing that makes stalking different is that stalkers usually make themselves known to the victim through phone calls, emails, letters, and/or in-person confrontations; in contrast, voyeurs generally try to remain hidden. Some stalkers also commit violent acts and property damage against their victims, which is not common among voyeurs.

That said, it is possible for voyeurism to turn into stalking. Specifically, if a voyeur were to become obsessed with one victim who they repeatedly spied on and perhaps even followed, we might label this as stalking. However, it is important to keep in mind that most voyeurs do not necessarily become stalkers and most stalkers are not necessarily voyeurs.

For previous editions of Sex Question Friday, click here.

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[1] Abel, G.G., & Rouleau, J.L. (1990). The nature and extent of sexual assault. In W. L. Marshall, D. R. Laws, & H. E. Barbaree (Eds.), Handbook of sexual assault: Issues, theories, and treatment of the offender (pp. 9-22). New York: Plenum Press.

[2] Långström, N., & Seto, M.C. (2006). Exhibitionistic and voyeuristic behavior in a Swedish national population survey. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35, 427-435.

[3] Mullen, P.E., Pathçº, M., Purcell, R., & Stuart, G.W. (1999). Study of stalkers. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 1244-1249.

Image Source: iStockphoto.com

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