Why Voyeurism Isn’t Harmless & How The Justice System Fails Victims

Wikipedia describes Voyeurism as 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.” Psychology’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) explains it much the same way, indicating that the syndrome must cause marked “impairment or distress” to the patient due to their own internal struggle with the morality of the situation, or due to external sanctions like being sentenced to prison time.

Unfortunately for society at large (particularly women), the latter rarely happens.

The “typical” sentence according to various legal websites are as follows:

The first-time offender is guilty of misdemeanor and can be fined not more than $500 or imprisoned for not more than three years or both, upon conviction.
• For the second and subsequent offense, he or she is guilty of a felony and can be fined not less than $500 or more than $5,000 or imprisoned for not more than five years, or both.

That said, there are many states that don’t even have anti-voyeurism laws! Only 12 states have legislation on the books specifically outlawing voyeurism as a crime. And, of those, only one of the states (Tennessee) includes a penalty for distributing a voyeur’s photographs. There are other states with “voyeurism-type” statutes including Hawaii, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Utah, where the conduct fits under the “invasion of privacy” clause. In California, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, New York, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, a voyeur may be charged with “eavesdropping.” And he may be considered a “loiterer” in Arkansas. In Connecticut, a voyeur may be charged with “disorderly conduct” if he, with intent to cause inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm, offensively or disorderly interferes with another person.

Only in Washington state and Mississippi is voyeurism a felony.

So, how about the feds?

Well, under federal law, it’s a crime to “knowingly transport or use interstate commerce or an interactive computer service to sell or distribute obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy pictures, films, silhouettes, or other articles capable of producing sound or any other matter of indecent or immoral character.”  Anyone who violates the law is subject to up to five years imprisonment.  So basically, a Voyeur must share his trophies for anyone to be penalized.

On top of the lax (or completely nonexistent) laws, there are plenty of cute names for Voyeurism, such as “peeping tom” or “ogler” or “eavesdropper” – all of which serve to mitigate the serious nature of the crime.

“Serious?,” you ask.  “How serious can spying on an unwitting individual be?”  “Haven’t all young boys done this?”

Until I began my work as a forensic psychologist, I probably would’ve agreed with those sentiments. I, too, would’ve laughed it off – especially if no photos/videos were taken and it was a boy or teen doing the spying.  “Boys will be boys,” after all…

But then I began working with sex offenders, and a striking pattern emerged. Nearly every one of the rapists I worked with began their ‘criminal career’ of violating women (or other men/boys) with the act of Voyeurism.   So I started studying RAP sheets.  And, most of these men had multiple charges of Voyeur-type crimes.

All of them were fined or sentenced to a misdemeanor with no time served, or let off the hook completely.

Every. Single. One.

There were other crimes too, such as breaking and entering and stealing underwear.  These acts weren’t taken seriously either. Again, it was rare if any real sentence was imposed. It was, again, laughed off as more of a nuisance than a real crime.  It was put into the category of “annoying, but not really harmful.”

Yet, what everyone was missing is that this was the next step.  Quite predictably, there is an evolution with many sex offenders (rapists, in particular).  It begins with “peeping” and then moves to more serious breaches, such as breaking into a woman’s home and stealing underwear or other personal items.  The offender is getting bolder – moving from watching without consent, to actually invading a victim’s space and touching her things.  This nearly always progresses to what the offender really wants – – – which is the targeted victim themselves.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of hard statistics out there that bear out this trend (believe me, I’ve looked). Part of it is due to there being no consistent laws on the books regarding Voyeurism, and part of it is likely due to the entrenched belief that peeping doesn’t really do any lasting harm to anyone (after all, not all ‘peeping toms’ escalate). But after over a decade of time in my job, reading the files of literally hundreds of sex offenders, I can say – with confidence – that treating Voyeurism as though it’s “cute” or “funny” is doing a huge disservice both to victims and to the offender himself. After all, there’s quite a bit of research that confirms that offenders who are caught and appropriately sanctioned early are much less likely to re-offend, or escalate.

It makes me wonder what kind of world it would be if we threw away the notion of “boys will be boys” in favor of holding everyone accountable for their actions – particularly those actions that violate the rights/privacy of others.


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