Beyond Looking: When Voyeurism Leads to Criminal Behavior

Sexually motivated spying may satisfy curiosity, or spark criminal behavior.

Posted Jan 02, 2018

You probably know someone who does not miss a chance to catch an eyeful.  From looking into the windows of neighbors, to openly ogling women at the gym, to indulging in a steady diet of adult entertainment, some people are natural born voyeurs. You avoid these people when you can, and keep your shades drawn at night if you have one on your block. 

Some neighborhood Peeping Toms might also, if psychologically examined, meet the clinical diagnosis of Voyeuristic Disorder.

The Psychology of Prowling and Peeking

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM V) provides diagnostic criteria for Voyeuristic Disorder (302.82). The first one requires “recurrent and intense sexual arousal from observing an unsuspecting person who is naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity, as manifested by fantasies, urges, or behaviors” over a period of at least 6 months. 

The second criterion requires acting on such urges with a nonconsenting person or experiencing “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” as a result of the sexual urges.

The third criteria requires that the person experiencing the requisite arousal and/ or acting on the experienced urges to be at least 18 years old, recognizing that sexual curiosity is common during adolescence and puberty.  In terms of gender-related diagnostic issues, voyeuristic disorder is described as more common in men than women.

Yet individuals who do not meet the clinical definition may nonetheless act upon voyeuristic urges, engaging in intrusive, harmful, even criminal behavior. 

Voyeurism as Gateway Behavior: Invasion of Privacy From Visual to Digital

For some privacy violators, strategizing a peep show is not good enough.  Capitalizing on the fact that every modern device now has a camera, and drones are increasingly available as well, many voyeurs seek to memorialize the unauthorized view.  

Spying on unsuspecting individuals in private areas ranging from dressing rooms, to locker rooms, to bedrooms is easier than ever before.  Upskirting, for example, the act of snapping a photo up a woman´s skirt without her consent, has received much attention over the last several years as states struggle to identify (and amend) laws that address such behavior, demonstrating how technology can outpace the law in the digital age. 

Beyond invading the privacy of unsuspecting victims, some voyeurs also engage in sexual assault.

From Observation to Assault

Hopkins et al. in “Varieties of Intrusion: Exhibitionism and Voyeurism” (2016) recognize that voyeurism requires objectification, and is predatory in nature because it involves watching someone without the person´s knowledge or consent.[i] They also discuss research demonstrating a link between voyeurism and crime

They explain that a significant percentage of criminals who commit sexual assaults report a history of voyeurism or exhibitionism. They note that overlapping sexual deviations coupled with an escalation in behavior lends support to a model of sexual addiction, recognizing that such addiction usually involves multiple compulsive behaviors, as opposed to only one type.  

Hopkins et al. explain that are more convictions and clinical diagnoses for exhibitionism then voyeurism, likely due to the overt nature of exhibitionistic behavior. Convictions yield useful data for researchers, who have been working for years to identify risk factors and warning behavior that could help predict how sexual proclivities might lead to sexual crime.

Personality Predictors of Sexual Assault

Decades ago, researchers sought to compare the personality profiles of voyeurs and exhibitionists who also commit sexual assault, with those who don´t. In a study entitled “Comparison of MMPI profiles of assaultive and non-assaultive exhibitionists and voyeurs,” Moncrieff and Pearson compared a subset sex offenders in a clinical unit who had also engaged in voyeuristic/ exhibitionistic behavior to a group who had not committed sexual assault. [ii]  

They discovered that the two groups had different MMPI profiles. They concluded their study by suggesting that examining the MMPI profile of apprehended voyeurs and exhibitionists might help predict the likelihood of future sexually assaultive behavior.

Proceed With Caution

Not all voyeurs engage in physical sexual assault, and many sexual assaulters are not voyeuristic. Yet the concern that prurient invasion of privacy may lead to criminality is a developing body of research, as the issue continues to be enormously relevant today.


[i] Tiffany A. Hopkins, Bradley A. Green, Patrick J. Carnes, and Susan Campling, “Varieties of Intrusion: Exhibitionism and Voyeurism,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 23 (2016):4–33.

[ii] Manus Moncrieff and Dennis Pearson, “Comparison of MMPI profiles of assaultive

and non-assaultive exhibitionists and voyeurs,” Corrective & Social Psychiatry &

Journal of Behavior Technology, Methods & Therapy  25 (1979): 91–93.