What Is Voyeuristic Disorder? Definition and Implications

Difference Between Voyeurism and Voyeuristic Disorder

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Voyeurism is when a person experiences sexual arousal while watching an unsuspecting individual who is naked, undressing, or engaged in sexual activity. However, not everyone who engages in voyeurism has voyeuristic disorder. In order to be diagnosed with the disorder, the individual’s voyeuristic fantasies or behavior must cause distress or harm to themselves or others.

Key Takeaways: Voyeuristic Disorder

  • Voyeuristic disorder occurs when a person who becomes sexually aroused while spying on a non-consenting individual in their private moments experiences distress or dysfunction as a result of their behavior.
  • Voyeurism is fairly common and only a subset of people who are interested in watching others in intimate moments will develop voyeuristic disorder.
  • In order to be diagnosed with voyeuristic disorder, the individual must fantasize about or engage in voyeurism for at least six months, be over 18 years old, and have experienced significant distress or impairment to the social, professional, or other important areas of their lives.

Voyeuristic Disorder Definition, Difference to Voyeurism

Voyeurs, who are often commonly referred to as Peeping Toms, achieve sexual arousal from spying on unknowing others in private and intimate moments, including when they are naked and having sexual encounters. It’s possible this impulse will never develop beyond a fantasy. Also, in many cases, the arousal a voyeur experiences is the result of watching an unsuspecting individual, not the activities of the person being watched in and of themselves.

In fact, an interest in watching others in sexual situations is fairly common and is not considered abnormal. This desire usually starts during adolescence or young adulthood. An interest in voyeurism in childhood or adolescence is rarely considered pathological because curiosity about the human body and sexual situations is a normal aspect of development.

Yet, some voyeurs over 18 can develop voyeuristic disorder. Voyeuristic disorder is considered a paraphilic disorder. Paraphilic disorders are a set of conditions where distress is caused by sexual desires or impulses. People with voyeuristic disorder may be unable to control their urge to spy on non-consenting others, leading to distress or dysfunction in important areas of the voyeurs’ life, such as their personal relationships or professional roles. It is estimated that approximately 12% of men and 4% of women have voyeuristic disorder,?however, it’s impossible to generate completely accurate statistics because most people with the disorder don’t seek treatment.

Diagnosis of Voyeuristic Disorder

A mental health professional will diagnose voyeuristic disorder based on whether an individual meets criteria outlined in the Fifth Edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). These criteria include:

  • The individual experiences repetitive, intense sexual arousal either when fantasizing about or engaging in the activity of watching an individual disrobing, naked, or engaging in sexual activity without their consent in places where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as their home or a restroom.
  • The individual's voyeuristic fantasies or actions have resulted in considerable distress, such as guilt, shame, or loneliness, or have disrupted some important aspect of the person’s life.
  • The individual has experienced these fantasies or engaged in these behaviors for at least six months.

It’s unclear if voyeuristic disorder stays consistent over time. Experts posit that the symptoms that lead to a diagnosis of the condition likely change with or without treatment, with people experiencing varying levels and frequency of distress, sexual impulsivity, impaired functioning in day-to-day life, and spying on non-consenting individuals. As a result, experts believe voyeuristic disorder in the same individual will look different at different ages.

Causes of Voyeuristic Disorder

The specific causes of voyeuristic disorder are unknown, but some risk factors have been identified that accompany the condition. According to the DSM-5, these can include abusing drugs or alcohol, experiencing sexual abuse during childhood, and sexual addiction or preoccupation. The relationship between these risk factors and voyeurism is still unclear. In some cases, an unintended sighting from afar of an individual in a private moment may trigger a voyeuristic disorder if the behavior is continued to the point that it becomes pathological.

Treatment of Voyeuristic Disorder

Voyeuristic disorder is treatable, but people with voyeuristic disorder tend to have difficulty recognizing they need help. So, treatment is often first recommended by a parent, significant other, or legal authority if the individual is caught engaging in voyeurism, which is illegal. Treatment can include talk therapy, support groups, or medication.

Therapists will work with an individual with voyeuristic disorder to develop impulse control so they can prevent themselves from spying on others. Therapists will also help patients find healthier outlets for their sexual urges and identify and avoid places that may trigger their desire to engage in voyeurism.

The individual may also take antidepressants, which can help realign chemicals in the brain and lead to a reduction in impulsive behavior. If these treatment options don’t work and the individual’s condition is severe, anti-androgenic drugs, which suppress one’s sex drive, will sometimes be used to treat voyeuristic disorder.

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