The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders (2010) defines voyeurism as 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 sight and the observed person is not aware that they are being watched. A variant of voyeurism is listening to erotic conversations, usually in secret.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2000), published by the American Psychiatric Association, voyeurism is classified as a type of paraphilia, meaning sexual arousal that is abnormal and extreme. However, some aspects of voyeurism can be accepted as both typical and normal. For example, feeling sexually aroused by looking at the naked body of your partner is technically voyeurism but cannot be regarded as paraphilia. The term has also been used to refer to acts of observing people without their knowledge, even if the act does not involve any sexual context or interest.

The psychological term voyeurism is restricted to people who observe unsuspecting people while they are naked, in the process of undressing or engaged in a sexual act. Frequently the voyeur and the observed do not know each other and in most cases the observer does no aim at having a sexual contact with the observed. The main goal of the voyeur is to achieve sexual stimulation. Despite the fact that the observer often has a fantasy of a sexual contact with the observed, in general this does not happen in reality. Voyeurism is very rarely an isolated sexual anomaly. In most cases it is combined with other patterns of sexual behavior like fetishism, sadism and masochism.

In legal terms, voyeurism in its most general meaning is not a crime. In the United States, it is explicitly unlawful to photograph or videotape a person without their knowledge or consent when they are at home or another private place. In other countries such as the United Kingdom, any form of non-consensual voyeurism has been classified as a crime since 2004. The situation has been similar in Canada since 2005, when section 162 of the Canadian Criminal Code declared voyeurism as a criminal offense.

The causes of voyeurism are unknown, with the most frequent explanation given that when a person unwittingly becomes involved in a voyeurism act, they derive pleasure from it. He or she seeks to enhance or recreate the experience by repeating the observation. It is more common in men but there are a small number of women voyeurs. There are no official statistics or data available about the numbers of peoples involved in voyeurism.

However, it is considered that with the advance of modern technology and reality television, voyeurism has become increasingly widespread. Experts suspect that voyeurism starts in the teenage years, typically before the age of 15 but there is no reliable information about its persistence into adulthood. Generally researchers believe that voyeurism tends to become a chronic condition and may over time become the preferred means of sexual gratification.

Two criteria must be present for an individual to be diagnosed as a voyeur. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines them as follows: "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 manual adds: "The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning."

Diagnosis takes place only in cases where a person uses voyeurism as a predominant or exclusive method to derive sexual pleasure. Prevention is extremely difficult as there is no way of predicting if or when such an incident might happen. The treatment of voyeurism is possible only when an individual consciously acknowledges the condition and decides to change their pattern of behavior. Many voyeurs deny observing others and reject the idea of being involved in an illegal or immoral act. Others realize what they are doing but refuse to admit it because of shame or embarrassment. There is no drug treatment for voyeurs but behavioral therapy is sometimes beneficial. It can be argued that an important step to dealing with the problem is finding another, more acceptable, source of sexual stimulation or gratification.

Voyeurism: Selected full-text books and articles

The Rise of the Voyeur By Sardar, Ziauddin New Statesman (1996), Vol. 129, No. 4511, November 6, 2000
Sexual Murder: Catathymic and Compulsive Homicides By Louis B. Schlesinger CRC Press, 2004
Librarian's tip: "Voyeurism, Fetishism, and Sexual Burglary" begins on p. 329
Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature By Valeria Finucci; Regina Schwartz Princeton University Press, 1994
Librarian's tip: "Through the Optic Glass: Voyeurism and Paradise Lost" begins on p. 146
They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary By Paula Rabinowitz Verso, 1994
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Voyeurism and Class Consciousness: James Agee and Walker Evans Praise Famous Men"
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