Gratification through voyeurism is at the heart of a Peeping Tom's motivation. But this differs from other types of voyeurism, writes Lee Suckling.
Every now and again we hear about a "Peeping Tom" - a person who spies on strangers while they're undressing – getting arrested.
Our digital age has naturally upped anxiety for many people who are afraid of being recorded while they are in changing rooms, public bathrooms, and even their own homes. Everyone has a camera in their pocket and it is very easy to take a video of a person unawares, if you have the desire to.
The phenomenon of Peeping Toms is much older than camera phone technology. People – or rather men, because it almost always is men – have been getting off on watching people without their consent for centuries. When we think of the word "pervert", what comes to mind is somebody spying on you without your knowledge.
Gratification through voyeurism is at the heart of a Peeping Tom's motivation. They are aroused by watching others in private situations. They don't generally want to engage with them physically, but rather, they get off on the thrill of knowing that their action is wrong. The simple concept that they could be caught is all of the excitement.
This differs from other types of voyeurism where all people involved are consenting, e.g. when people go to sex parties.
They key difference here is that one party doesn't know they are being watched, thus peeping tommery is a violation of someone's privacy.
A Peeping Tom might enjoy watching someone on the toilet, trying on pants in a clothing store, or doing something like looking up someone's skirt when sitting across from them on a train. The stimulation gained from one-way peeping alone is the entire reason for doing it; a bona-fide Peeping Tom doesn't want to cross the sexual assault/rape line and actually touch their subject.
I was only 13 the first time it happened, and the situation still creeps me out to this day.
Twice in my life, I've caught Peeping Toms in the act. Both situations were the same: I was using a public restroom and saw somebody's head peering over the stall beside me. Both times my initial reaction was to angrily yell "Hey!", but the perpetrators ran out of the bathroom too fast for me to see their faces. Clearly, they had done this sort of thing before and knew how not to get caught.
I was only 13 the first time it happened, and the situation still creeps me out to this day. The more recent time was a few years ago – at a dark, middle-of-nowhere petrol station toilet near Taupo – which sounds more like the stuff of horror films than real life.
Neither events were great traumas, but I am still unsettled when I think about them. I can't figure out why a person would enjoy secretly watching me urinate, and even though they never touched me, I do feel my body was breached all the same.
The term Peeping Tom dates back before the 1700s, to the legend of Lady Godiva's naked horse ride through the English town of Coventry. As the story goes, Lady Godiva planned to protest the city's aggressive taxation by stripping her clothes and riding a horse down the main street, but requested that all citizens stayed indoors and shuttered their windows to protect her privacy. One person, a tailor named Tom, disregarded her appeal and peeped anyway.
The real difficulty for the victims of Peeping Toms is that the offenders are hard to catch: as per my experiences, they are quick, and it's impossible to prove what they have done if you're on the receiving end. For prosecution, generally the accused needs to have recorded you without your knowledge with a device in order for it to be a considered criminal.
Laws can be vague, however, and there are three other conditions under which peeping tommery can be punishable by law. Those being: the victim did not realise he or she was being viewed; the victim was fully/partially naked, and that the viewing took place somewhere the victim had a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Again, all hard to prove if there's no recording and no witnesses. This is why, in many countries, proof of the use of a camera, video recorder, or other device that captures images is required to prosecute. Just "looking" isn't normally enough to put someone in prison.
But it's not just looking, is it? Peeping Toms are sordid, and they steal from other people. They take away your ability to feel safe. They are like burglars who don't take anything from your home, but instead rummage around your drawers to unsettle you. It feels like a threat. A way to tell you that nowhere is truly yours.
You can go online and find forums of anonymous Peeping Toms that think their crime is victimless. If you're one of these people with such tendencies, I can assure you from first-hand experience, it's not.