2012 is shaping up (as it were) to be the year of the female gaze. From Magic Mike to reality-show Himbos to the cult of Ryan Lochte, we've been bombarded with evidence that, contrary to what your college psych profs may have told you, women do love to look every bit as much as men.
Another kind of gaze, however, remains as resolutely all-male as ever. This is, as
Katie Baker discussed last week, the summer of the peeping tom. Across the country (and indeed, around the world), the number of arrests and lawsuits surrounding hidden camera sex crimes are on the rise. In each instance that Baker and her tipster cited, women or girls were secretly filmed without their consent; the culprit was always an adult man. Considerable googling produced not a single incident of a woman arrested for using a hidden camera to spy on men or boys. Women may like to look, but they seem to have zero interest in electronic voyeurism. So much for gender equality.
As Baker notes, "we're not sure why" there's been such an upsurge in hidden camera incidents. Certainly, the technology has improved enormously in recent years; it's easier than ever for a voyeur to secretly film his victims. Given the quality of these ever-tinier cameras, it seems depressingly likely that those men who have been caught represent only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the cases Baker cites involves a peeping Tom who hid his camera (or the subsequent videos) poorly; it's not hard to imagine that there are many other cleverer (or luckier) creeps still out there.
But technological advancements are only part of the answer. After all, at the same time that cameras have gotten smaller and more sophisticated, porn has proliferated across the Internet. While there might once have been a time where peeping through windows really was the only way to see a naked woman, that era is definitively over. (Any man with access to the kind of hidden camera that can be hidden in a ladies' room can of air freshener also has – via laptop, tablet, or phone – an easy portal to graphic images of literally millions of naked people of all shapes and sizes. Unless he's searching for kiddie porn, he can find all the masturbatory material his libido could ever imagine –- all without risking arrest.
One of the most widely accepted hypotheses for the appeal of voyeurism is that it functions as part of "courtship disorder." According to the Czech sexologist Kurt Freund, the normal human courtship process progresses through four phases: looking for a mate; an initial social encounter with a prospective partner (like conversation); "tactile interaction" (making out, etc), and finally sexual intercourse. For Freund, voyeurism is a paraphilia that results from a disturbance early in the first phase. Put simply, the process of looking becomes the source of both arousal and sexual fulfillment. This may be why porn isn't fulfilling to the voyeur – he (and in these cases, it is almost always he) wants to be the one doing the looking. The pornographer's camera isn't good enough; only his own hidden lens is.
The other key aspect of Freund's courtship disorder hypothesis is that it places voyeurism on the rape spectrum. Just as spying on an unsuspecting woman is a paraphilia of the "looking for a mate" stage, so frotteurism (rubbing up against an unwilling person) is a distortion of the healthy "tactile interaction" phase. According to a major 1998 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, rape itself is at least sometimes a perversion of the final phase of normal courtship: intercourse. Researchers discovered that men with courtship paraphilias (like voyeurism) had an increased "behavioral marker for paraphilic rape-proneness."
What unites the courtship paraphilias (voyeurism, exhibitionism, frotteurism and preferential rape) isn't just that they are grave distortions of the healthy meet-and-mate process. It's that the turn-on in each is the absence of consent. As Freund and others showed, peeping isn't just a gateway behavior towards rape. It belongs on the rape continuum with every other fetish that is rooted in violating another person. That doesn't mean that every peeping tom will inevitably turn out to be a rapist too. But it does mean that the voyeur is just as turned on by non-consent as the rapist is. What Freund calls the "preferential rapist" (the man who knows he's raping, and gets off on it) enjoys knowing that he's doing something his victim hates. Similarly, the voyeur is turned on by the thought that the women he's spying on would be humiliated if they knew. Imagining their embarrassment is an inextricable part of the payoff.
Both the research and the police blotters make one thing clear: there are virtually no women who engage in this kind of predatory voyeurism. The foremost living expert on paraphilias, University of Toronto sexologist and psychiatrist James Cantor claims that courtship disorder is almost entirely a male phenomenon. On the Wikipedia talk page for courtship disorders, he writes that calling these paraphilias "male-only disorders" would be as redundant as making a reference to "testicular cancer in males." The ladies may be drooling over Ryan Lochte or getting off to 50 Shades of Gray, but none –- none — are secreting tiny cameras in cans of Axe spray to spy on the boys' swim team.
It's tough to fight back against the hidden camera creeps. In Japan, where the problem is so great that warnings about voyeurs are posted in subway stations, smartphones are required to make a noise whenever a photo is snapped. (Of course, illegal muting software is easily downloadable). The real answer seems to be both increased penalties for voyeurism (which many states are implementing) and awareness of one's surroundings even in presumably private spaces.
But perhaps the most basic thing we can do is end once and for all the indulgent "boys will be boys" attitude towards voyeurism. Whether it's staring up girls' skirts (Putzie in the classic musical Grease) or greedily watching young women shower through peepholes (most of the male cast of Porky's), we've grown up with a pop culture that portrays the urge to spy on unsuspecting women as a normal, healthy, inevitable part of a dude's coming of age. But as the arrest reports make clear, plenty of guys aren't growing out of this behavior –- coaches, pastors, and grandfathers are among those who've been charged with spying on unsuspecting women. The sooner we see even boyish voyeurism as having less to do with healthy sexual curiosity than with predatory, boundary-violating behavior, the better.