Are You a Digital Voyeur?

Has technology whetted our secret appetite for spying on other people?

Posted May 21, 2012

“Maddie,” now 22, saw it happen to a girl in her high school and, yes, she was one of the recipients of the sext.  I ask her how she felt about it: “I felt sorry for the girl,” she says.  Did she send the image on?  No, but she did show it to a few of her girlfriends.  I ask if she thought that was creepy.  No, because she didn’t send it.  Didn’t that make her feel as if she were a voyeur or something?  “No,” she says. “ I didn’t ask to look at it.  It was sent to me.  And, besides, stuff like that happens.”

 Does the word “voyeur” still have meaning in the digital age when we’ve all become “watchers” in one way or another?  When the line between public and private has become increasingly permeable?

 Let me confess.  Over forty years ago, I dated a  rich and seriously hot guy —Christian Grey without the kinks —who  dumped me rather unceremoniously.  Twenty years after this dumping — and over twenty years ago— we ran into each other and exchanged the well-worn pleasantries that make for boring reading.  That was then.

 Now, I know a lot about “X” as I’ll call him, thanks to Google and both his uncommon first and last names.  (I would have been out of luck with “Jack Smith” or  “Jim Brown”— there’s no Google payout there.)  But Googling “X” was another matter which I have done in an idle moment.

 I know about his residences ( lavishly plural), the taxes he pays on them (expensive) and the selling price of one. (Well done, X or your real estate agent!)  His very messy divorce and lots of ancillary litigation.  (Well done, X’s lawyers!)  The clubs he belongs to (fancy), his children (beautiful and  accomplished), and his DUIs.  (That mug shot wasn’t flattering, X.  And a second DUI?  But at least you’re recognizable, even with bloodshot eyes, and, at our age, that’s not nothing.) And, Google devotees,  X isn’t even famous.

 So what does knowing all of this about a stranger I knew in another century say about me?  I’m not a stalker since I don’t wish to renew our acquaintance.  Am I just a woman who should head to the gym when she’s bored, instead of Googling the past?  Probably.  Or am I, in my own way, just another garden variety voyeur in a culture and a nation full of them?

 The word “voyeur” has an old-fashioned sound, that brings to mind the decorum of Victorian porn (Love the stockings! The  giant panties!), and Jimmy Stewart as L.B. Jeffries in Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Rear Window, itself a  primer in voyeurism.  Stuck in his wheelchair, his camera to his eye, Jeffries spies on his neighbors unseen — the women he dubs “Miss Lonelyheart” or “The Torso” and the  possibly murderous Thorwald —as we, the audience, become voyeurs as well, watching him watch them.  Hitchcock understands how the voyeur gets his kicks; Jeffries is bored and the kind of guy who’s not keen on commitment.  Being a voyeur — watching, not doing — suits him fine.

  There are still old-fashioned voyeurs around — like the guy with his binoculars on the terrace in the high rise across from mine, which I suspect aren’t trained on red-tailed hawks — but they’re few and far between, and harder to spot because  voyeurism is the new normal.       

The celebrity culture turns us all, willing or not, into Peeping Toms or Thomasinas, as does the 24/7 cycle of news.  Monica’s blue dress, Tiger Wood’s texts, Rielle Hunter whispering “You’re hot,” Anthony Weiner’s skivvies —the list goes on and on — made voyeurs of us all.  Reality television and, of course, pornography are the plats du jour on the voyeuristic menu.  Of course, watching reality television isn’t strictly speaking voyeuristic since it’s scripted and the “stars” know you’re watching.  Still, it’s a guilty pleasure nonetheless that’s close to the heart of voyeurism — of peeking into private territory where you shouldn’t be.  The leaked sex tape —one variety of porn which, oddly enough, turns women into reality stars more often than not —is the ultimate voyeuristic dessert.  Porn, in its ubiquity, testifies to how voyeuristic the culture has become, and is an object lesson in the true cost of voyeurism when you consider how it affects the ability of young men to respond emotionally and sexually to women in real life.  Watching too much can affect the ability to act.  (The movie Shame is the primer on that.)           

But being a voyeur nowadays isn’t just about sex or watching in the literal sense  Former lovers become voyeurs when they check out each other’s Facebook pages, or — if they’ve been “defriended” — have someone else do it for them.  Sometimes, the peeping yields the wished-for result (“His new girlfriend isn’t nearly as pretty as I am,” one twenty-four-year-old says with satisfaction) while another twenty-eight-year-old is devastated to see that her ex’s status is “engaged.”  The ease with which the drama — whether it’s a text message thread or something else — can be forwarded and shared sometimes turns a Millennial into an unwitting voyeur as well, in the middle of private drama he or she shouldn’t be privy to. 

Voyeurism has the ability to desensitize, making people content to watch, instead of act.  Dramas played out in public — witness the relationship between Yeardley Love and George Huguely which ended in her murder —turn even friends into voyeurs who, alas, were content to watch.  

The usually sunny posts on Facebook —particularly by people we hardly know — don’t make us feel as though we’re peeping, though that too can change in an instant, as it did for one woman not too long ago.  “ I couldn’t help myself,” she tells me, “ but here’s someone I hardly know, confiding all of these incredibly intimate details about her marriage in her posts.  I kept going back online to read.  She was clearly in the middle of a meltdown but it’s Facebook.  I’ve never even spoken to her in person.  What was I supposed to do?  Call her?”  She didn’t, of course, and then things got even stranger.  The person disappeared from Facebook and deleted her page. “I had no idea what happened to her, and I felt incredibly uncomfortable.  Then, weeks later, she re-friended me and she was back.  Her posts were the kind of things people post all the time — chat about gardens and the day and so forth. She never mentioned what happened —whatever did happen — ever again.” 

Is it all that different, in the end, from training your binoculars on the neighbors across the street?  Is the new voyeurism making it harder to connect and easier to just stand there, watching?  You tell me.