Voyeurism: What It Is

Medically Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo, MD on July 02, 2023
3 min read

At its most basic, sexual voyeurism is the practice of becoming aroused by watching another person or people in a state of undress and/or engaging in sexual activity.

The concept of voyeurism has evolved over the last century. At first it described a sexual disorder in which voyeuristic desire a) required an unknowing and/or unwilling victim and b) interfered with an individual’s ability to form relationships and achieve sexual gratification.

But the definition has changed. Voyeurism now also refers to consensual and potentially fulfilling sexual behavior that either exists within a relationship or doesn’t prevent you from developing healthy relationships. In addition, people now use the word outside of specifically sexual contexts to describe the excitement that comes from viewing any provocative or scandalous sight. 

Talking about voyeurism can be confusing because the original definition of the word has survived alongside newer uses. Unless otherwise noted, this article will use the most basic definition of sexual voyeurism. 

In some forms, voyeurism is widespread, as is its counterpart, exhibitionism. In exhibitionism, a person is aroused by the act of displaying themselves to an audience. Watching and performing —  or viewing and displaying — play roles in a large percentage of sexual activity. This is true of partner sex, solo sex, and other arrangements.

Voyeurism can be an element of usual sex, a healthy fetish, or an occasional fantasy. However, it can also be a disorder or crime, so it’s important to understand the behavior and its potential to become problematic.

Another word for voyeurism is scopophilia. Breaking down the word into its original Greek roots, “scopophilia” translates into the love of watching. You may hear a voyeur called a scopophiliac.

One crucial thing that separates responsible voyeurism from criminal or disordered activity: Responsible voyeurism requires the informed consent of all parties involved. 

Responsible voyeurism versus criminal voyeurism

In United States federal law, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act makes it illegal to knowingly record or broadcast an image of an individual’s “private area” in a situation or location where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The law defines “private area” as the “naked or undergarment clad genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or female breast of an individual.”

Different states have different additional anti-voyeurism laws. For example, Florida prohibits individuals from secretly and with “lewd, lascivious, or indecent intent” observing a person in a space where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy or observing a private area of their body in circumstances where they can reasonably expect the area to be safely concealed. 

Voyeurism versus voyeuristic disorder

The fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) made a large change to the previous edition’s definition of voyeurism. For voyeurism and seven other sexual behaviors, it now distinguishes between the behavior itself and the paraphilic disorder. 

A paraphilic disorder is a dysfunctional interest in a type of sexual behavior other than sex between consenting adults. It also causes distress. To be diagnosed with voyeuristic disorder, or any paraphilic disorder, requires you to do one or both of the following:

  • Feel personal distress about your interest, not merely distress resulting from society’s disapproval 
  • Have a sexual desire or behavior that involves another person’s psychological distress, injury, or death; or a desire for sexual behaviors involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent

If voyeurism appeals to you, there are several safe avenues of exploration. These include:

  • Pornography
  • Role-play
  • Professional or private striptease

One word of caution: Be careful with respect to amateur content available online. Some of this material is either made or posted without the full and informed consent of the participating individuals. 

Unless voyeurism involves the consent of all parties, it’s both a problem and a crime.

However, voyeurism can also become a pathological behavior. Pathological voyeurism may include any of these actions or aspects:

  • An obsessive-compulsive component
  • Uncontrollable
  • Linked to inner conflict or neurosis
  • Unable to get satisfaction or orgasm otherwise
  • Aggressive, gives or imagines harm to others
  • Self-harming
  • Performed secretly on unknowing and unconsenting people
  • Occur with other psychiatric disorders

If you believe you or someone you know has a paraphilic disorder, talk to your doctor. They can help you get treatment.