Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Voyeurism motivation

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Voyeurism motivation:
What motivates voyeurism?


Figure 1. Children peeping through a church door in Mexico.

2020 marked the 60th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho", a film that notoriously was shocking to audiences at the time of release for it's[grammar?] sexual and violent content (Rebello, 2010). Amongst the plethora of taboos touched upon by Hitchcock in the film, a character is displayed having curiosities that manifest in voyeuristic behaviours. Now, 60 years later, and with unprecedented novel methods for personal inter-connectivity, society advances into unprecedented curiosity. From the comfort of their homes, hackers can gain remote access to files on personal computers (Schifreen, 1994) including photos and videos (O'Connor, 2014), access banking information (Adham, Azodi, Desmedt, & Karaolis, 2013), control smart electronic devices in a home (Yoshigoe, Dai, Abramson, and Jacobs, 2015), and even gain access to private webcams or home security cameras (Vlajic, Zhou, 2018), peeking in to the private lives of unaware victims. This article assists in the growing conceptualisation of voyeurism, and the motivations that lead voyeurs to engage in privacy-invading practices, whether criminal or not.

Focus questions:

  • What is voyeurism?
  • What motivates voyeuristic behaviour?
  • What are the different types of voyeuristic behaviours?
  • How is voyeurism treated?

What is voyeurism?

Voyeurism is a large group of behaviours that centre around the principle[grammar?] motivation of viewing either private material, or an individual in a private moment without their knowledge (Figure 1.). Whilst voyeuristic behaviour can be non-sexual (Rye, & Meaney, 2007), voyeuristic behaviour is more often associated with paraphilic behaviour (Twohig, and Furnham, 1998) such as; peeping tom (Feigelman, 1974), dogging (Bell, 2006), upskirting (Gillespie, 2008), candaulism (Di Lorenzo, Gorea, Longo, & Ribolsi, 2018), and scopophilia (Metzl, 2004), amongst others.

What motivates voyeuristic behaviour?

A 1965 literature review of voyeurism (Gebhard et al.,) noted that research in the field was severely lacking, with only few theories presented on the motivations of voyeuristic behaviour stemming from psychoanalytic and behaviourist ideals. Over half a century later, Wood (2019) acknowledged the persistence of these gaps in the literature, and posited that current research leads to multiple theories for voyeuristic motivation; a behaviourist view, a psychoanalytic view, and views emerging with novel definitions. Due to the lack of clarity around the definition of voyeurism (Yalom, 1960), it is important to analyse the motivations for voyeurism by first separating it conceptually into non-sexual and sexual voyeurism.

Non-sexual voyeurism

The vast majority of research on voyeurism entails a definition involving seeking sexual pleasure from observing something private (Hall, 2018). Modern forms of entertainment continue to push societies[grammar?] understanding of privacy, and with it, the implied sexual motivations behind voyeuristic acts (Blazer, 2006)

Social media

  • In their thesis on the matter, Su (2012) posits a social needs and surveillance-based motivational facet for voyeuristic "friend peeping" through Facebook. Measured through an online survey of users (N = 156), the author demonstrated moderate positive correlations between voyeuristic tendencies on facebook and both social identity and social comparison factors. Stronger correlations are also demonstrated between voyeuristic tendencies on facebook and the social factors of surveillance (Lyon, 2007), uncertainty reduction (Berger & Calabrese, 1975), and the social interpersonal factor of uses and gratifications (Katz et al., 1973).
  • Mantymaki, & Islam (2014) discuss social networking sites as facilitators of voyeuristic and exhibitionistic behaviours, utilising the uses and gratifications theory as a basis for their argument. The researchers note in analysis of a sample of Facebook users (N = 289) that users of the site both produce and consume content that contributes to "social media", and it's this prosumer behaviour that enables gratification for the users[grammar?] voyeuristic or exhibitionistic tendencies. Whilst voyeuristic users experience greater gratification from the consumption side of social media, exhibitionistic users are gratified by the production aspect of social media.
  • Wang, & Chou (2019) propose a model of motivation for online live-streaming viewership. Whilst this model in itself does not seek to explain the motivation of voyeurism, it notes voyeurism as a motivational factor for those watching online live-streams. Through an online survey (N = 374), researchers ascertained factors that were significant to a viewers motivation to watch a livestream, of which voyeurism was identified as one of four core motivations to engage in the behaviour.

Reality television

  • Baruh (2010) notes a positive relationship between voyeurism and reality television consumption. Borrowing from Lacan and Miller's conceptualisation of voyeurism (1998), this article argues that viewers of reality television do so to "seek out what they cannot otherwise see". This form of voyeurism, titled by the authors as "Trait voyeurism", allows the voyeur to engage in voyeuristic behaviour in a safer, more socially acceptable way, whilst still satisfying a desire to gain a private insight into the lives of others.
  • Bagdasarov and associates (2010) examine the relationships between viewers[grammar?] voyeuristic tendencies and consumption habits of voyeuristic television content, employing the uses and gratifications theory as a framework. Results from a survey (N = 674) that measured participants[grammar?] viewing habits, sensation seeking, and levels of voyeurism are utilised to create a "Voyeurism Television Consumption Index", or "VTCI". The authors demonstrate a moderate positive relationship between the VTCI and type of media chosen, with higher scores on the VTCI corresponding to a preference for more voyeuristic, reality television styled content.

Sexual voyeurism

Figure 2. Barack Obama looking through the Oval Office door peephole

Whilst acknowledged as a vastly under-reported crime due to its perception as nuisance behaviour, sexual (or pathological) voyeurism is estimated to be the most prevalent sexual criminal behaviour (Långström, & Seto, 2006).

Behaviourist approaches

The behaviourist approach posits learned associations between strong, instinct based stimulus (sexual motivation), and reinforcement thats[grammar?] either autoerotic (masturbatory/fantasy), sought out (active voyeur), or accidental (unintentionally being a voyeur) (Laws, & Marshall, 2003)

Laws and Marshall's conditioning theory (1990)

  • Presents a theoretical structure for a behaviourist-style acquisition and self-reinforcement of deviant sexual behaviour[grammar?]. Acquisition may occur accidentally, by a chance initial exposure to a deviant behaviour, and then reinforced through autoerotic stimulation.
  • The voyeur may be exposed to a private moment unintentionally, [grammar?] this moment then causes an initial instinctual sexual arousal in the voyeur. The voyeur then, through masturbation, mentally recalls or seeks out the same instinctual sexual arousal, creating a form of feedback loop for the learned sexual behaviour.

Opportunistic motivation

  • Långström (2010) discusses possible opportunistic motivations behind voyeurism in a review of literature on the topic. Drawing from Rye, & Meaney (2007), the authors[grammar?] assertion seeks to distinguish between a serial voyeur and an incidental one. Analysis of Rye, & Meaney's study (N = 318) found that 74% of women and 84% of men questioned for the study would watch an attractive person getting undressed or two attractive people having sex, if they as viewers were not likely to be caught. When the researchers manipulated the chance of being caught from none, to being caught a quarter of the time, willingness to engage in the voyeuristic activity fell dramatically (36% of women, 61% of men). These findings demonstrate possible opportunistic motivations for voyeuristic behaviour, that is to say, given the opportunity to engage in the voyeuristic activity without being caught, people are more likely to be motivated to engage in the activity (Figure 2.)
  • Långström compares the previous study with Gebhard et al's., 1965 study on voyeuristic behaviour. The study (N = 56) demonstrated similar opportunistic motivations as found with Rye, & Meaney, but in a comparative analysis of voyeurs, also suggests a dichotomic split between opportunistic voyeurs and serial (labelled in the study as "patterned") voyeurs. Serial voyeurs were more likely plan and seek out voyeuristic experiences, whilst opportunistic voyeurs were more likely to engage when the activity was solely incidental.

Psychoanalytic approaches

Figure 3. Sigmund Freud candidly captured in a private moment

The psychoanalytic approach discusses voyeuristic motivation as stemming from dysfunction in sexual drive development, or as a defence mechanism of the psyche against more distressing impulses. Through both postulations, the primary motive for voyeuristic behaviour is coping or compensation, as the psyche of the voyeur treats the behaviour as correct instead of "normal" sexual behaviour (Blechner, 2016).


  • Smith (1976) notes in review of Freud (1938), that voyeurism may emerge from a fragmentation of an infants[grammar?] developing "sexual instinct". Part of the conceptualised sexual instinct may independently develop into a drive competitive to the primary sex drive.
  • Freud posits a model of sexuality that develops from infancy as a conglomerate of separate "partial impulses", [grammar?] these partial impulses may consist of behaviours linked to looking, exposing oneself, or engaging in acts of cruelty. Partial impulses should serve as normal facilitators for foreplay in adult sexuality, but if a fixation occurs on a partial impulse during sexual development, that impulse may "fragment" from the primary sex drive (ultimately to copulate).
  • Fragmentation results in a primary sex drive which aims to copulate, and a secondary drive associated with sexual instinct, which has as its ultimate goal to fulfil the fixated partial impulse. The voyeur for example has a primary sex drive, but the secondary associated drive is a fragmented partial impulse of "looking" behaviour, which has grown alongside sexual development.


  • Smith [year?] then notes in review of Freud (1924), that voyeurism may emerge as a means of defence against other, or worse impulses, entering the conscious mind.
  • Freud (Figure 3.) posits a concession of sorts, in which an instinctual impulse may be so strong that the ego is unable to repress the instinct in its entirety, allowing a small portion of the impulse to be expressed.
  • In combination with the fragmentation framework suggested by Freud, the ego represses the larger portion of the instinct (primary drive to copulate), whilst the smaller portion of the instinct (secondary drive to fulfil the partial impulse) is conceded to conscious expression as a compromise to keep the larger portion repressed.
  • The voyeur in this argument expresses voyeuristic behaviour as a means of maintaining stronger sexual impulses repressed, [grammar?] in this way voyeuristic behaviour is a form of defence for the psyche.
Figure 4. A peeping tom looks through the crack in a door

Courtship disorder theory

  • Freund, & Blanchard(1986) argue that sexual courtship comprises four phases for a human male;
    1. Location [missing something?] an appraisal of potential partner
    2. Pre-tactile interactions (smiling, looking, talking to, posing for a potential partner)
    3. Tutile, or tactile, interaction (touching, foreplay, hugging, kissing)
    4. Genital union (copulation)
  • Disturbances in the formation or execution of the normal courtship may result in dysfunctional courtship.
  • The voyeur in the model is motivated due to dysfunctional courtship, with distorted sexual focus being put on the first phase of normal courtship (Location and appraisal of potential partner).

Motivation-faciliation[spelling?] model of sexual offending

  • Seto (2019) argues for the motivation-facilitation model of sexual offending, which ascribes motivation of voyeuristic behaviour to
    1. The traits of the paraphilia (some paraphilias are more likely to be acted upon than others)
    2. A high sex drive (individuals with higher sex drives are more likely to engage in excessive sexualised behaviours to satiate the drive)
    3. Intense mating effort (a strong sexual focus on acquisition and engagement with novel sexual partners, rather than a current partner)
  • The model notes that individuals who are already sexually interested in voyeurism, and match the criteria for items 2 and 3, are more likely to be motivated to engage in voyeuristic sexual behaviour (Figure 4.)

Digital voyeurism

  • Holmes, Tewksbury, & Holmes (1998) discuss the, then novel, adoption of the home computer as either a motivator for voyeuristic crime, or a form of "safety valve" against it, allowing potential voyeurs to live out fantasies from home.
  • Voyeurs may access voyeuristic material online, utilising the material for autoerotic stimulation, or to facilitate engagement in fantasy.
  • Access and utilisation of voyeuristic material online may motivate the voyeur to seek out the behaviour in "real life", but it also may act as a preventative measure, stopping the individual from engaging with the voyeuristic material beyond the private confines of cyber space.

Case Study

  • A student at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Anuj Parekh was arrested in 2016 after police discovered he had drilled holes into the flooring and walls of an abandoned apartment in order to spy on neighbouring residents.
  • The holes created were large enough that he could slip fingers through in order to manipulate blinds, or fit a camera lens in to film
  • The voyeur's behaviour was only discovered when one of the victims noticed Anuj's fingers move a curtain, and they saw the voyeur's eye looking back at them through a hole he had made (Demmitt, 2016).
  • Although Anuj was found with laptops, cameras, hard drives, and drilling materials, he ultimately only had to serve 25 days in jail for the crime of peeping into an occupied dwelling (Gangloff, 2016)


1 Voyeurism is comprised of only the behaviour of spying on someone undressing


2 Voyeurs are easily profiled, due to distinct identifiable characteristics


3 One theory suggests voyeurism can initially develop by an accidental first experience


4 Trait voyeurism is a type of sexual voyeurism


5 Voyeurism is best explained solely by the psychoanalytic perspective


6 The circumstances around Anuj Parekh's arrest are a good example of incidental or opportunistic voyeurism


Voyeurism treatment

When analysing voyeurism in terms of motivation, it is necessary to acknowledge historical and modern treatments for voyeurism. Historical treatments give more perspective into what was believed to be effective at changing a voyeurs[grammar?] motivational drive, whilst modern treatments demonstrate promise though pharmacological and psychotherapeutic means.

Historical treatments

Historically, voyeurism has been believed to be possibly treated through;

  • Hypnosis (Alexander, 1967), to target conditional associations.
  • Aversion therapy (Stoudenmire, 1973), as a means to extinguish the behaviour.
  • Psychoanalytic therapy (Rosen, 1968), to address underlying sexual malformation, or to guide proper sexual formation of the adolescent.
  • Heterosexual normal sexual education (Kanfer and Phillips, 1970), who believed paraphilia emerged from lack of understanding and confidence for normal heterosexual behaviour.

Modern treatments

[Provide more detail]

Treated as a form of OCD

  • Abouesh & Clayton (1999) discuss paroxetine as an effective treatment for voyeurism, classing it alongside other obsessive compulsive disorders.
  • Researchers note paroxetine as an effective drug in reducing obsessive compulsive behaviour, and argue that voyeuristic behaviours are motivated by the same means as obsessive compulsive disorders.
  • A case study of a voyeur treated with paroxetine is analysed, demonstrating reduction in voyeuristic behaviours.

Biopsychosocial approach

  • Ramsey, Carter, & Walton, (2020) demonstrate in review of multiple programs, the efficacy of a combined approach that addresses psychological motivations through therapy and behaviour modification, alongside pharmacological assistance in "severe" cases, to reduce recidivism for voyeurism in convicted criminal populations.
  • Researchers argue for a unified approach to voyeurism treatment, with motivation to engage in the paraphilic behaviours stemming from both physical and psychological sources in the individual.
  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor's[grammar?] (or SSRI's[grammar?]), including paroxetine, are used to treat aspects of obsession and compulsion towards voyeuristic behaviour.
  • Behavioural Activation Therapy (Proeve, & Chamberlain, 2017) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Duff, 2018) are used to engage the voyeur in different motivational drives, and re-learn associations and appropriate response behaviours accordingly.


Voyeuristic acts evolve along society's propensity towards indulgence of curiosity as entertainment, with modern definitions surpassing the historical viewpoint of the voyeur as solely driven by sexually deviant motivation.

Prototypicality of the voyeur cannot be ascertained within the current literature, [grammar?] further insights are required to better understand those likely to engage in voyeuristic behaviours, insights including;

  • Are there differences in expression of these behaviours between sexes?
  • Are there differences in expression of these behaviours across cultures?
  • Just as novel methods of sexual engagement have emerged with new technology, how have these voyeuristic behaviours changed at different historical times?
  • Can these differences generate better understanding of motivational commonalities for the behaviour, or highlight diversity within its motivational origin?

Literature surrounding the topic, from nascent conceptualisation to contemporary review, highlights a lack of focus beyond simple terms of definition for voyeurism; motivation for voyeuristic acts, treatment targeting voyeuristic motivations, and programs that target recidivism of the criminally voyeuristic are all under novel academic scrutiny, and the result is a semantic transmutation of voyeurism that provides fresh heuristic value to the field of research. Further research is still necessary to improve both scientific and lay understanding of voyeuristic motivation, but through new lenses of definition, novel approaches allow for more comprehensive research in the field.

See also


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