Voyeuristic disorder is a paraphiliac disorder involving fantasies, urges, and non-consenting behaviors. Treatment is available.

A voyeuristic disorder can occur when someone experiences sexual arousal while watching unsuspecting people. The arousal occurs when they witness someone undressing, naked, or engaging in sexual activity.

Someone with voyeuristic traits might record the person they secretly watch to rewatch it later. Sometimes they’ll use binoculars and mirrors for a better view, too. Some people with voyeuristic traits honestly disclose their feelings, while others hide their paraphiliac interests.

The interest in watching other people doesn’t usually have anything to do with who is involved. Someone with voyeurism traits is interested in observing any unsuspecting person. The person or people getting watched are often in an area where they believe they have privacy.

Understanding the disorder can encourage you to get help if you experience symptoms. Likewise, it can help you urge a loved one into treatment if they exhibit any signs.

A voyeuristic disorder is also called voyeurism, but they aren’t entirely the same. Someone with voyeurism might have urges and thoughts of watching an unsuspecting person. However, they don’t usually act on their impulses.

Voyeurism is necessary for a voyeuristic disorder diagnosis, but voyeurism alone isn’t enough. The person must act on their urges to receive a diagnosis.

A voyeuristic disorder is a paraphiliac disorder involving continuous and intense sexual arousal when watching someone without their knowledge. It becomes a disorder when the person acts on their urges or allows fantasies to interfere with their ability to function. The person becomes consumed by their thoughts, and it can cause distress.

Research shows that voyeurism often develops during adolescence or early adulthood. It is also more common in men than women but can occur in both. Little is known about non-binary individuals and voyeuristic tendencies.

Being interested and having thoughts of watching someone without permission means you have voyeurism traits. However, it doesn’t become voyeuristic disorder until you act on your urges and violate privacy and the right to consent.

When you feel like you’re unable to control your urges, it could be that you’ve developed a voyeuristic disorder. It is a criminal offense and can result in a misdemeanor charge.

What voyeuristic disorder is not

For voyeurism to become a disorder, it requires that someone has an interest in watching others without their consent. If a person participates in a sex club where they can consensually watch others have sex, that is voyeurism but it is not a voyeuristic disorder.

Additionally, if someone undresses in front of you and you don’t avert your eyes, it’s not voyeurism. An opportunistic look at someone isn’t behavior to be concerned with. It only becomes voyeuristic behavior if it reoccurs and the urges intensify.

If you enjoy watching porn that involves voyeuristic behavior, that is also not cause for concern. If you can only become sexually aroused by watching voyeuristic scenes in porn, however, you may have a voyeuristic disorder.

How it differs from other sexual disorders

Understanding how voyeurism differ from other sexual disorders can help you understand the situation. It differs from other paraphilia, including:

  • Exhibitionism disorder: This disorder involves exposing genitals to others without consent.
  • Fetishistic disorder: This disorder involves attraction to inanimate objects or body parts not usually viewed sexually. Sexual arousal may not be possible without the fetish object.
  • Frotteuristic disorder: This disorder involves rubbing against someone or touching a person without consent, such as on a public bus. It can also include desiring a private sexual experience while in a public area.
  • Sexual masochism disorder: This disorder occurs when someone engages in or fantasizes about being bound, beaten, or made to suffer for sexual gratification, which then causes significant distress or trouble with daily functioning.
  • Sexual sadism disorder: This disorder involves inflicting pain, fear, or other physical and mental harm to gain sexual satisfaction. To be considered a disorder the act must either be non-consensual and/or cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) explains that voyeurism involves intense and recurrent sexual fantasies and urges. These fantasies and urges include observing someone without consent while the person is naked or engaging in sexual activity.

Voyeurism can cause distress and interfere with your ability to function at your job or perform daily tasks. Although it can disrupt your well-being, you may still feel like you can’t resist.

Someone engaging in voyeuristic urges might enter areas that are off-limits or illegal to view someone without detection. It might involve violating another person’s privacy in their home, a locker room, or in another private area. One example is peeping toms looking through windows without consent.

Other symptoms of a voyeuristic disorder include:

  • giving into voyeuristic urges when the other person doesn’t give consent
  • performing sexual acts on yourself while watching others
  • fantasies and impulses that cause social dysfunction
  • sexual desires interfere with occupational performance
  • photographing or filming someone without their consent
  • getting frustrated when you can’t give into your urges
  • feeling guilty after the behavior
  • lack of sexual arousal when not secretly watching others

Experts indicate that voyeuristic disorder is more common in men, although women can also experience symptoms. People with this disorder also tend to have fewer sisters and be the youngest in their families. Although voyeurs often have a good relationship with their parents, their parents tend to lack a healthy marriage.

Many people who develop voyeuristic traits believe they aren’t likely to engage in sexual activity. It can lead to them fantasizing and sometimes giving into the urge to watch other people without consent. They also experience sexual preoccupation before their symptoms begin.

The DSM-5 shows that risk factors also include:

There isn’t a specific cause of a voyeuristic disorder, but the risk factors discussed above contribute to the situation. Sometimes it can stem from accidentally seeing someone naked or engaging in sexual activity. Once it occurs once, continuing to look reinforces the behavior.

For a diagnosis, the DSM-5 details that the person must have symptoms for at least six months. The person must also be at least 18-years-old because puberty can cause sexual curiosity and activity. After the person turns 18, it indicates a disorder and criminal behavior.

Another requirement for diagnosis is that the person acts on their urges or experiences significant distress or impairment because of them.

A doctor or skilled psychologist can diagnose after examining you (often using tests, such as the Rorschach ink blot test) and discussing your symptoms and sexual health history. A diagnosis usually doesn’t occur until the voyeur gets caught acting on their urges.

Getting help and treating a voyeuristic disorder is essential to preventing further sexual offenses. The sooner treatment begins, the higher the likelihood of avoiding harmful and illegal encounters.

For successful treatment, the person with a voyeuristic disorder must want to change. Once they’re ready and willing, recovery is very possible. Some treatment options include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: learning to control urges, change thinking negative thinking patterns, and find acceptable ways to experience gratification.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: using therapy to understand the cause of voyeuristic behavior, allowing the opportunity to overcome past trauma.

Other ways to treat or ease the disorder include:

Voyeurs might not admit they have a problem, but loved ones can help encourage someone with voyeuristic traits to seek help. They can learn socially appropriate behaviors, including respecting privacy. Another option is to avoid areas that trigger an urge to engage in voyeurism.

A voyeuristic disorder can interfere with life and lead to legal issues if left untreated. Treatment can help overcome urges and prevent worsening symptoms.

Having voyeuristic thoughts and urges isn’t harmful unless you act on them or if it causes distress. It isn’t okay to watch others while they are naked, undressing, or engaging in sexual activity without their consent.

If you think someone is watching you without your consent, don’t hesitate to call the police. Approaching the person could be dangerous.

If you’re experiencing voyeuristic urges, consider contacting a mental health professional for help. It’s never too late to seek treatment and learn how to engage in consensual sexual activity.