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Peeping Toms and Voyeurism Calls

Scenario One:  Janet, a 25-year-old dental hygienist, was trying on a swimsuit at a large department store when she noticed what appeared to be a small camera poking through a hole in the wall of the adjoining room. She immediately dressed, burst out of her dressing room, blocked the suspect from leaving the adjacent room, and called until 911.  Police officers arrested the subject and charged him with video voyeurism, a felony offense in Florida.  The perpetrator admitted recording at least 50 other women in the fitting room over a period of six months.

Scenario Two: It is a dispatched prowler in progress call.  Emily, a 31-year-old single mother, just saw a white male adult looking into her window as she was changing into her nightgown after a shower.  The man was masturbating.  It's a slow night, so everyone shows up to look for the perp. The area is canvassed.  K-9 even tries to track, but the trail goes dead. No physical contact was made between victim and the suspect; no words were exchanged. Emily is sobbing, panicked, and terrified. You do a thorough investigation, like you did last night for an almost identical case two blocks away.


Voyeurism is the act of experiencing sexual excitement/arousal by observing people who are naked, disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity. Voyeurism may be accomplished with the naked eye, by use of an instrument (periscope, telescope, binoculars), or cameras (film camera, video camera, or mobile phone). If these practices are done with a consulting adult it is not considered abnormal or illegal. However, when the person(s) being viewed are unaware and/or non-consenting, voyeurism becomes more sinister.  It also becomes a crime.  

Modern technology has allowed voyeurism to evolve exponentially over the last few decades. Not only can a person be watched unknowingly in private moments, but also filmed. You may have been in your bedroom, riding up an escalator, trying on clothes in a dressing room, using a public bathroom, working out at the gym or in a hotel room on vacation when you were photographed. Your images could potentially be broadcast in countless websites.

Peeping Toms and Tonyas

Ever wonder where the term “Peeping Tom” came from?  It is from the legend of Lady Godiva. As you no doubt recall, Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry, England to protest high taxes. She asked the townspeople not to look at her in the nude but one man, a tailor named Tom, just couldn’t keep his eyes shut. The tailor, who became known as Peeping Tom, was struck blind (or dead depending on the version) the moment he saw her.

Voyeurism is substantially more common in men, but can occur in women.  It usually begins during adolescence or early adulthood. Voyeurism frequently becomes pathologic, and the individual spends a considerable amount of time, and sometimes money on surveillance equipment, to seek out viewing opportunities. When severe, the act of peeping constitutes the exclusive form of sexual activity. The disorder tends to be chronic.

Orgasm is usually achieved by masturbating during or after the voyeuristic activity. Voyeurs are not seeking out sexual contact with the people being observed; they want to watch, they want to remember, they want to climax on their own.

Statistics and demographics are not readily available related to voyeurism.  While only a small percentage of voyeurs will go on to commit worse crimes; voyeurs can become increasingly aggressive.  Voyeurism can be a prelude to breaking and entering, harassment, stalking, rape, etc.  95% of rapists and sexual murderers have displayed voyeuristic tendencies.

Voyeurism and Mental Illness

In our society, voyeurs have ample legal opportunities to look at the naked bodies or watch the sexual activity of consenting adults. There are an infinite number of pornographic magazines, videos, and computer links. So why can some creeps only find sexual arousal from watching unsuspecting individuals’ nude, in a state of undress, or engaged in a sexual encounter with someone else?  Voyeurism is considered a psychosexual mental disorder.  It is one of many paraphilias.

Paraphilias:  A paraphilia is a medical or behavioral science term for what is also referred to as: sexual deviation, sexual anomaly, sexual perversion or a disorder of sexual preference. It is the repeated, intense sexual arousal to unconventional (socially deviant) stimuli. The most common paraphilias are: voyeurism, fetishism, frotteurism, pedophilia, sexual masochism, sexual sadism and exhibitionism.  There are many other disturbing paraphilias as well: necrophilia (corpses), coprophilia (feces), apotemnophilia (self-amputee), autogynephilia (diapers) mysophilia (filth)…you get the idea.

The Diagnostic Criteria for the Diagnosis of Voyeurism

  1. Over a period of at least 6 months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the act of observing an unsuspecting person who is naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity.
  2. The person has acted on these urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.


Without treatment, individuals with paraphilias have a recidivism rate of about 100%.  Few individuals seek out treatment on their own; they simply do not want to change.  Additionally, chances are pretty good that prisoners will not receive treatment when they are incarcerated. Eventually these perverts will be released and will reenter mainstream society. They will have to register as sex offenders. They may move in next door to you. They most probably will not have changed; it is very difficult, if not impossible, to change a person's sexual activity preferences.

Treatment options for paraphilias include; behavioral therapy, aversive conditioning, confrontation, victim empathy, assertiveness training, desensitization, social skills training, orgasmic reconditioning, relapse prevention, surveillance systems, and/or medications. Antiandrogens such as Provera are used to lower the sex drive. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Zoloft may be prescribed to treat associated compulsive sexual disorders and/or to gain benefit from libido-lowering sexual side effects. Chemical castration may be achieved by shots of Leuprolide which dramatically decrease testosterone levels; this may completely abolish deviant sexual tendencies.

Voyeurism and the Law

By definition voyeurism is not a hands-on crime, and is sometimes taken as less serious as other more invasive sex crimes.  However, voyeurism is certainly not a victimless crime.   Victims’ lives are changed, and the emotional circumstances are frequently identical to those of rape victims. All the states today have statutes against voyeurism without consent.  Peeping Tom laws generally make it a crime to view and/or photograph or film a person without his or her consent. Peeping Tom statutes differ from state to state, but they usually have 3 requirements:

 1.  the victim did not realize he or she was being viewed;

2.  the victim was fully or partially naked; and

3.  the viewing took place at a place where the victim had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The charges for voyeurism range from misdemeanors to felonies.  If the victim is a child, or an elderly or disabled adult, additional abuse statutes may apply.

What a Law Enforcement Officer Can Do Related to Voyeurism

  • Alert neighbors, schools, etc. if peeping tom activity has been reported.
  • Extra patrol is indicated if there is a peeper around, if nothing more than to show presence. A COPPS project might be indicated for serial voyeurism accounts.
  • Attend a homeowners association or neighborhood watch meeting to educate and answer questions.
  • If you find a suspect, search for photos on his phone or computer, possession of binoculars, etc.
  • Teach a class on protection from predators to the community.
  • Perform a security check with the victim or a potential victim outlining areas of personal or structural vulnerability.
  • Work with stores on your beat to assure dressing rooms are routinely checked for breaches in privacy.
  • Check windows and doors from the inside for cracks and holes and, mirrors that provide reflections to private areas of the living space. Make sure blinds and draperies are tightly closed. Remember, a person's eye, binoculars or a camera lens can peer through a very tiny opening.
  • Look for places a voyeur can hide. Cut down tall brushes. Consider plants like hawthorns, juniper, rose bushes, cactus.
  • Things to consider buying: thick curtains, motion detector systems, window alarms.
  • Protect yourself and your family. Be mindful that bathrooms, locker rooms, changing rooms, and tanning booths are good places to hide cameras. Often busy places like the mall, fairs, outdoor concerts, festivals, competitions, and other events draw voyeurs because they know it will be easy to get video.
  • Be aware of who is around you, your spouse and children.
  • Advocate for stricter sentences and penalties related to voyeurism.

Most individuals have some degree of voyeurism urges, it is human nature. People are sexually attracted to others, and the thought of seeing them naked is intriguing. Voyeurism is harmless if it is consensual. However, the consequences of secretive voyeurism to the perpetrator, victim, and society are great.


About The Author:

Pamela Kulbarsh, RN, BSW has been a psychiatric nurse for over 25 years. She has worked with law enforcement in crisis intervention for the past ten years. She has worked in patrol with officers and deputies as a member of San Diego's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) and at the Pima County Detention Center in Tucson. Pam has been a frequent guest speaker related to psychiatric emergencies and has published articles in both law enforcement and nursing magazines.