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The Voyeur's Wife

A systemic perspective on a challenging paraphilia

Voyeur is a French term meaning: “one who looks.” Voyeurs are also referred to as Peepers (Gabhard, et al., 1965), and Peeping Toms based on the exploits of Lady Godiva. Legend has it that In 1040 Godiva was urged by her husband, The Earl of Leofric to ride naked on a horse through the town of Coventry in protest of a tax levied on the townspeople. In appreciation, the townspeople closed their shutters with the exception of a tailor named Tom, who peeped, and was said to be struck blind on the spot.

According to Yalom (1960), the definition of voyeurism could use clarification. He contended that it’s difficult to assess the incidence of voyeurism because most voyeurs are charged with other related crimes such as: intrusion of privacy, disturbing the peace, and suspicion of burglary. Apparently, shame compels most voyeurs to prefer to be charged with burglary.

Yalom also claimed that the boundaries of the term voyeurism are vague: Is one who collects porn magazines and then self-pleasures a voyeur? Is the individual who stares at scantily clad women on the street a voyeur? Yalom was interested mainly in the: offensive voyeur. Offensive voyeurs are those that come to us via medical or legal attention. Yalom defines an offensive voyeur as “one who has an exaggerated desire to see, by stealth, a member of the opposite sex in some stage of undress, in the sexual act, or in the act of excretion, which is so intense that it surpasses in importance the normal sexual act.”

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The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) (APA, 2000) defined Voyeurism (302.82) as a paraphilia that focuses on observing “unsuspecting individuals, usually strangers, who are naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity. The act of looking (peeping) for the purpose of achieving sexual excitement, and generally no sexual activity with the observed person is sought.” It is said that the high is in the “risk of looking” not the “seeing.” Orgasm via self-pleasuring may occur during or following the activity.

Voyeurs may differ in their specific preferences: One individual may only look for breasts; some intercourse; others prefer catching someone in the act of self-pleasuring. The majority (90%) of voyeurs are men—many with above average IQs. Women voyeurs do exist but research has indicated that they tend to be severely mentally ill. The onset of voyeurism is usually before age 15 and the course is chronic. For some, voyeuristic behavior is an exclusive form of sexual activity.

Voyeurs are compelled to “go on their hunts,” and usually know which places yield the most productivity. Many spend hours each night searching for a good view. Voyeurism may involve direct viewing or the making of a video of the subject during an intimate activity. For example, consider a male masseuse secretly videoing the women he services; a man who takes a video camera to a crowded city and videos female body parts; a man caught by his wife filming her as she showered.

Given my specialization in couples and sex therapy I have had the opportunity to treat several couples who suffer from voyeurism. The most intriguing pattern I’ve found can be depicted by a metaphor: While the voyeur goes to great pains to “look,” his partner goes to equally great pains “not to look.” Nearly every spouse I’ve treated appeared shocked by the discovery of being married to a voyeur. I realize that the voyeur does his best to keep his tendency a secret—and some are better at it than others—but if a spouse’s vision is impaired, she'll fail to pay attention to the red flags that are staring her in the face. She'll be blind to this task and ironically, give signs that she'll unconsciously enable voyeuristic behavior—it's a match made in heaven. The spouse tends to wake up when it's too late—when the voyeur gets into trouble.

The cause of voyeurism depends on theoretical perspective. Freud initially viewed it as a perversion—a regression to an earlier level of development and as a formation to prevent more threatening impulses from entering consciousness. He later claimed that the object of desire is a substitution for the mother, which in turn reenacts the struggle over separation and castration.

Some psychodynamic clinicians provide a somewhat different slant. For example, Stoller (1991) reported that voyeurism is a hostile act of revenge for being humiliated. 

Social Learning Theorists contend that deviant sexual behavior was learned via observation and modeling. In support of this notion, many voyeurs have experienced childhood sexual abuse.

Sociobiologists believe that staring at women helps to maximize male reproductive opportunities. Biologists are investigating the role of androgens (testosterone); other scientists are looking at neuropsychological deficits.

Money (1984; 1989) claimed that voyeurism was a displacement paraphilia, one that “involves a segment of the preparatory phase of an erotic and sexual activity before genital intercourse begins.” He hypothesized that a displacement paraphilia is a “love map that goes awry…by the displacement of original elements.” According to Money, voyeurism is one of the showing or looking “allurative” paraphilias.

And, systemic therapists look to the couple system for answers. For example, I’ve found that the voyeur is oftentimes matched up with someone who’s somewhat exhibitionistic. She may not be diagnosable as an exhibitionist, but she oftentimes has some mild to moderate tendencies towards exhibitionism (e.g., dressing provocatively)—tendencies which allow her to unconsciously collude with her voyeur. The voyeur’s wife is also usually a product of a family of origin that held secrets—many of a sexual nature. In such a closed family system confrontation tends to be frowned upon thus allowing dysfunction to prevail; in some cases the exposure of a problem is considered by family members as a punishable offense.

Treatment techniques and the mode of treatment for voyeurism also vary depending on the orientation of the clinician. In my psychodynamic couple’s therapy approach, each partner must take responsibility for his/her contribution to “the couple’s” problem. The voyeur must admit he has a disorder which he brought into the relationship—usually from his family of origin. He must then attack it with tenacity and perseverance. Understanding what triggers his voyeuristic behavior is vital in helping him to gain control over his behavior. Treatment may also include attending a Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) group or a structured sex addiction program. In some cases medication has been found useful.

Of utmost importance is the active participation of the voyeur’s wife. She will need to tackle her enabling behavior. If she simply contends that her husband is the “sick” one, the prognosis for a healthy relationship will most likely be poor. She must come to terms with the fact that she picked a voyeur, and for this alone, she merits therapy. My main point: In treating the couple with voyeurism, both partners will need to accept and adjust their collective vision problems; a systemic perspective is too often neglected in treating this and other paraphilias.

Stephen J. Betchen, D.S.W., is the author of the book Magnetic Partners.

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