Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sight vs. Shock (Voyeurism and Exhibitionism)

As a voyeur and an exhibitionist, I am surely not ignorant of the kind of negative attitudes passed around regarding voyeurism and exhibitionism, and I must say that they concern me. As with all so-called "paraphilias", there is the difficult question of what sorts of interests are unusual or unhealthy (a question that is confused by inaccurate understanding of human sexuality), and where the line lies that separates an unusual interest from a mental disorder, or criminal activity.

When I read clinical definitions of voyeurism and exhibitionism, I see a focus on the involvement of "unsuspecting persons". I believe this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it accepts that voyeuristic or exhibitionist behavior involving only consenting participants may not be abnormal or criminal. But on the other hand, it promotes the idea that voyeurism and exhibitionism is defined by the presence of unsuspecting participants.

To parrot the popular stereotypes, exhibitionists are flashers who get off on shocking people by unexpectedly exposing themselves, and voyeurs are stalkers who get off on invading other people's privacy during intimate moments. But why define these people by the nature of their disruptive behavior? If you ask me, a flasher may be an exhibitionist, but the problem isn't that he likes being watched, it's that he likes to shock people by showing them something they're not expecting, and quite possibly don't want, to see. The antisocial behavior is not 'wanting to be seen', it's a matter of impaired impulse control, lack of empathy for others, and that sort of thing.

If we define exhibitionism this way, then what happens to the people who want to be seen, but have no desire to shock or surprise others, or in any way disturb nonconsenting participants? I might fantasize about showing up to the dinner table naked, but I don't actually do it, because the thing that gets me off is the idea of being seen, not the idea of shocking people. In reality, when nonconsenting participants are involved, the reaction is likely to be less than positive, and my desire to avoid disturbing people trumps what superficial thrill I might get from being seen. Ultimately, what I want is the pleasure of being watched by people who are clearly interested in watching. It's not about shocking people, it's only about being seen.

And there are people who would like to widen the definition of "voyeurism" to include even indirect voyeurism - like watching porn videos. Is there really something abnormal about wanting to watch other people have sex? Particularly if your sex drive is stimulated largely by sight - and this will vary from person to person, but I know that I personally am highly aroused by visual stimuli. To me, it seems insane to suggest that getting off on watching people having sex indicates some form of mental disorder.

Again, the question of criminal or abnormal behavior comes down not to the voyeurism itself - the desire to watch - but other factors more directly related to antisocial behavior. This would include obsessive attitudes leading to stalking, and criminal invasion of privacy - the difference between watching a woman undress in front of an open window, and breaking into her home and installing a hidden video camera. The problem is not the watching, it's the willingness of the individual to violate others' rights and privacy. And if that woman consented to have a video camera installed in her home, so that perverts could watch her online, then there's nothing wrong with that either. Voyeurism is a fundamental part of human nature - unless, perhaps, if you're blind.

So, to conclude, the point of this discussion, as all of my discussions of this sort, is not to look at sexuality as some kind of deviant impulse that needs to be closely watched and controlled, and constantly put down and insulted. If bad people do bad things with sexual motives, don't punish the sex. Punish the bad person for his willingness to do bad things. Punishing the sex just hurts everyone else, by propagating confusion and unhealthy attitudes toward sexuality, which is a fundamental part of the organic living experience - and what can be an intensely positive and creative (rather than destructive) part of that experience, if approached with the right attitude.

"See and let yourself be seen."

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