Voyeurism (from the French voir – to see) is a term used to describe the act of observing the actions of other people in order to provoke sexual arousal. Although all-encompassing, it is often associated specifically with the behavior of adolescent males, who frequently engage in voyeuristic activities in the period leading up to sexual maturity.
In Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985), the time-traveling teenager Marty McFly watches a teenage incarnation of his own father (George) in the act of spying on his own future mother (Lorraine), herself still a nubile girl. While she is happily undressing in what she believes to be the safe haven of her own bedroom, her future husband is perched on the branch of a tree, peering at her through binoculars. Here George conforms exactly to the popular idea of a “voyeur,” someone whose primary sexual gratification derives from the unseen, hidden act of looking. Although Lorraine is unaware of being watched, the horrified Marty, who can see everything, groans, “Oh my God, he’s a peeping tom.” Marty’s disgust is understandable. Described as a “perversion” by Freud, the act of voyeurism is seen as a violation of the victim’s privacy, something that, conversely, also applies to the voyeur – for whom gratification is often dependent on not being seen to look.
If this kind of voyeuristic activity may appear dangerous (in the United Kingdom it was criminalized under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act), then the visual arts offer considerable respite. The act of looking is essential to the construction of meaning in painting, photography, television, cinema, and online. All present the opportunity to peer into an oft-denied space, regardless of whether it provides intellectual or sexual stimulation.
An example of voyeurism as “intellectual” stimulus is provided by the history of the female nude in western art. Fundamental to the type of voyeuristic pleasure gained through the study of these paintings is the question of whether or not the women represented return the gaze of the, presumably male, spectator. Typically, the gaze of the female protagonist is turned away from the voyeur, possibly toward an unseen lover. However, from the early nineteenth century onward this tradition is undermined. Certain painters deliberately challenge this convention by depicting a traditional reclining nude who stares defiantly out of the canvas to meet the eye of the male spectator; the most controversial example is possibly Manet’s Olympia. Berger (1972) examines the tradition of the nude in western art and suggests that at this ruptural moment the conventional distinction between images on canvas and mass-produced soft-core pornography disappears.
Voyeurism is, of course, often confused with scopophilia (the pleasure derived from gazing at another body). Mulvey (1975) used this latter term in her deconstruction of the voyeuristic gaze of Hollywood cinema, arguing that the pleasure of “looking,” within classic narrative cinema, is constructed, quite specifically, for a male viewer. Yet, interestingly, the male gaze is never directly returned – the film spectator subjectively identifies himself with either the male protagonist or the camera. The cinema offers three potential examples of voyeuristic participation: that of the camera, of the character, and of the spectator. As the very process of watching a film – in the dark, separated spatially from other members of the audience – appears to offer audiences the unseen, individual pleasure of the “peeping tom,” the importance of such “looking” is intensified, particularly in relation to the communal, visible-to-others viewing traditional with, say, television. Certainly, the term “voyeur” often appears to suggest a male viewer. Kaplan (1991) describes how very few reported cases of sexual voyeurism involve a woman as perpetrator. In relation to pornography, the most voyeuristic of all the visual arts and one primarily “consumed” by men, this would certainly appear to be the case. Freud described how such pleasure in looking becomes perverse when it supplants the desire to engage in intercourse. While all the visual arts offer a pleasure of sorts, pornography (which has as its eventual aim the sexual gratification of the voyeur) perfectly exemplifies this idea. It is perhaps for this reason that the Internet, the one great extension to the possibilities offered for voyeurism in the last two decades, contains such a vast array of pornographic material. The widespread use of the webcam allows the voyeur to interact with his or her chosen target while remaining unseen and anonymous.
- Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. London: Penguin.
- Freud, S. (1991). The Penguin Freud library. Vol. 7: On sexuality. London: Penguin.
- Kaplan, L. J. (1991). Female perversions: The temptations of Emma Bovary. New York: Anchor.
- Koch, G. (2004). The body’s shadow realm. In P. Church Gibson (ed.), More dirty looks. London: British Film Institute, pp. 22–45.
- Kryzwinska, T. (2006). Sex and the cinema. London: Wallflower Press.
- Merck, M. (in press). Mulvey’s manifesto. Camera Obscura.
- Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6–18.
- Williams, L. (1990). Hard core: Power, pleasure and the frenzy of the visible. London: Pandora Press.