VIDEO VOYEURISM: HOW A MEDIEVAL MYTH HAS BECOME A MODERN-DAY NIGHTMARE

video voyeurism

As I reflect on the many remarkable women throughout history, their achievements and the moral goodness they have inspired in society, one woman, in particular, stands out in my mind. She’s a woman whose story is relatively unknown, yet it highlights one of the biggest ethical dilemmas that women still face today. Nearing the end of Women’s History Month, I decided to reintroduce Lady Godiva—a noblewoman from Coventry whose scandalous good deed is often overshadowed by the antagonist in her story—peeping Tom.

The Legend of Lady Godiva

According to legend, Lady Godiva was so anguished over a tax that her husband had levied upon the citizens of Coventry that she appealed to him to lessen the financial burdens of their people. Her pleas struck a chord with her husband and he agreed to lessen the tax but under one pretext, that she rides through town on her horse completely naked. Perhaps to his amazement, she agreed.

As she ordered her horse to be prepared, a proclamation was also announced throughout the town summoning all townspeople to stay indoors with their windows drawn. As soon as the appropriate hour arrived, she set off wearing nothing but her long hair draped over her naked body. The townspeople paid her respect and stayed indoors, all but one, a man who would be immortalized forever as peeping Tom.

 Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in relationship to modern day video voyeurism
Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

To quote Tennyson’s famous poem he writes: “Boring a little auger-hole in fear, / Peep’d — but his eyes, before they had their will, / Were shrivel’d into darkness in his head, / And dropt before him.” According to the objective of the voyeur, the unsolicited “peeping” was carried out to plan and Lady Godiva, completely unaware of the wrong laid against her, rode on, and the tax was dropped.  

History gave Lady Godiva an “everlasting name”, but it also exposed the looming darkness of voyeurism, which, just as in Lady Godiva’s story, often goes unnoticed and is one of the most neglected forms of sexual harassment in history. Also, while Tennyson sees that peeping Tom is punished in his version of the story, the truth is that the majority of voyeurs either go undetected or are considerably under penalized.

Peeping Tom may have survived nearly ten centuries, but the peeping Tom of the Middle Ages is almost nothing like his modern-day successors. Although voyeurs are inherently the same in terms of motive and psychological complexity, the 21st-century peeping Tom has technology on his side, making him much more dangerous and devastating to his victims.

Definition and Etiology of Voyeurism

Voyeurism is defined as “a sexual interest in, or the practice of, spying on people engaged in intimate behaviors, such as undressing, engaging in sex, or other actions usually considered to be of a private nature” (The American Psychiatric Association). The voyeur derives sexual gratification from the act of watching someone, in most cases, without their knowledge.

peeping tom - video voyeurism laws

What is not well understood is the etiology, or the cause, of voyeurism as well as the psychological injury associated with being a victim of voyeurism. Voyeuristic tendencies have been linked to mental illness, childhood abuse, and other social and behavioral factors. Victims have reported feeling powerless, violated, betrayed, and have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. However, the lack of formal data surrounding the cause and effect of voyeurism has greatly contributed to the confusion surrounding the act. In addition, because voyeurism, unlike other forms of sexual assault, is highly context specific, criminalizing the act has been especially challenging.       


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The History of Voyeurism Laws

Although there have been laws against voyeurism for centuries, Stuart P. Green, Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School, states that “there has been very little discussion of the underlying rationale for such laws or how exactly they should be formulated.”

Central to the modern-day discussion of criminalizing voyeurism is the concept of privacy, but that is not how i has always been understood. Traditionally, voyeurism has been treated as a violation of property rights. Defining voyeurism in terms of private property has contributed, in a large extent, to the gaps in the laws that have made it difficult to successfully prosecute cases where a person has been assaulted in public.

Traditional treatment of voyeurism has essentially not kept up with the modern-day application of voyeurism as technology has made it possible to spy on women in public spaces. Upskirting is the most common example of this scenario where a person takes a photo or video up a woman’s skirt without her consent. So, while traditional applications of the law have treated voyeurism as a wrong against a person’s property rights, it has begun to shift to protecting a person’s right to privacy, even in a public area. Essentially, the laws are slowly extending to anywhere a person should feel a reasonable right to privacy, such as a locker room, public restroom, hotel, Airbnb, or underneath clothing.    

Another obstacle to criminalizing voyeurism has been the traditional application of defining a violation to a person’s privacy. Green states that the courts have “normally been reluctant to criminalize invasions of privacy, but voyeurism constitutes a significant departure from that norm.” What sets voyeurism apart from other forms of privacy violations is the objectification and domination over the victim as well as the visual trespass against the victims will. Through this perspective, criminalizing voyeurism, in cases where wrongful and harmful intent can be proven, is warranted.      

However, cultural factors have made it difficult to distinguish wrongful intent in voyeurism cases. As the concept of privacy lessens throughout society, the concept of wrongful intent gets murkier. Reality television shows such as Big Brother (practically anything on Bravo and E! News), a celebrity culture perpetuated by paparazzi, and social media have made peering into the lives of others less taboo. Culturally, we feel entitled to know about the private lives of others, and it’s become a form of entertainment. The rise of pornography, sex clubs, and festivals that encourage exhibitionist and voyeuristic behavior, while consensual, have contributed to a laxer view of privacy. Perhaps this is partly why it can be difficult for some people to fully grasp the extent of the long-term, psychological damage that unwarranted invasions of sexual privacy cause.         

white marble table lamp with a gold hand grasping it - vengeance table lamp by koket

Current Cases and Laws on Voyeurism

The Rabbi

Adela Renna worked in a mikveh in Washington, D.C. where she helped countless women administer the mikveh bath, a practice, which in Judaism, is a form of ritual purity. Jewish women practice the immersion in the mikveh after childbirth, menstruation, and it’s also a part of the procedure for conversion into the faith.

Barry Freundel was a rabbi at Kesher Israel, a synagogue in Georgetown, where he specialized in aiding converts through the long and extremely tedious task of conversion into the faith. Freundel was a man that many women put years of trust into as the process of conversion often took a very long time.

Mikveh ceremony - rabbi Freundel - video voyeurism laws
Source: Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center, Inc. 

One day, in the changing room of the mikveh, Adela Renna watched Freundel place a digital clock on the counter next to the sink. Because there were already two clocks in the room, Adela Renna confronted Freundel about the need of another clock. He replied that this was a special clock, one that purified the air in the room. She thought it was an odd reply, and when she returned to the mikveh later that evening the clock was gone.

The clock haunted Adela Renna. When it reappeared two weeks later, she confiscated it and took it in for analysis. Sure enough, there was a recording device planted inside the clock with footage of naked women using the mikveh as well as Freundel’s face caught setting up the camera. Authorities acted swiftly and, with a warrant, confiscated more of Freundel’s equipment from his home.

Freundel eventually pleaded guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism and a class action lawsuit against him amounted to over $14 million. He was sentenced to six and a half years in prison, but victims are skeptical of his punishment. Bethany, a woman caught on camera using the sacred mikveh, as reported in the December 2015 issue of the Washingtonian, stated “He will move to Israel. He will be accepted and welcomed there. They will consider what he did a ‘kosher’ crime. He will be fine.”

The Cinematographer

Around the same time, Roy, a 38-year-old cinematographer in Los Angeles, CA, was caught with over 40 videos and 400 photographs of unsuspecting, naked women, including his wife, his sister-in-law, and women he worked with on production sets. The footage was taken in various settings such as bathrooms and locker rooms.

Under California law, voyeurism is considered a misdemeanor, so despite the years of sexual assault against his women victims, Roy received only three years’ probation and 52 weeks of mandatory counseling. The women were astounded to hear that their perpetrator was essentially allowed to walk away from his crimes free without any sense of justice being served.

Upskirting

In 2010, female MTA passengers in Boston, Massachusetts caught a man attempting to take photos up their skirts. Charges were filed against him, however, under Massachusetts statues for voyeurism, because the women were not in a state of undress or in a private setting, the case was dismissed. Again, outrage ensued over the unfairness of the outcome as upskirting was essentially deemed legal.

Conclusion

These are only a few examples of voyeurism cases. These three cases, however, highlight a few discrepancies in state laws concerning voyeurism that are important to note. In some cases, voyeurs and their victims are strangers. Whereas, in many instances, voyeurs choose to pray on women that they have close relationships with. In addition, the extent to which each state views voyeurism as a crime is evident in the very different outcomes of the three cases cited above. What constitutes as a private space is still in contention as well as the harmful intent that voyeurism incites in its victims. What remains similar between the cases is the deception, secrecy, and the violation of privacy where these women had a reasonable expectation of that right.

Although laws still greatly differ from state to state, experts are hopeful that laws will continue to strengthen as more cases are brought forth and more attention is given to the subject matter in the public arena. For instance, Green mentions the Massachusetts State Legislature’s swift action to amend the laws on voyeurism. “Practically the next day, the state legislature responded by enacting a new law that “filled the gap” in the law. Obviously, the new law could be applied only prospectively; it could not be applied to the defendant in the earlier case.”

However, as the concept of privacy continues to blur and the advancement of technology continues to make it easier for voyeurs to carry out their crimes, women need to be increasingly more aware of their surroundings, the situations they put themselves in, and the relationships they decide to foster. Voyeurism can happen to anyone and even the most unsuspecting person can be a voyeur, even someone that you love and trust. And while Lady Godiva had the privilege of riding away in ignorance from the crime made against her, 21st century women victims of voyeurism must live in fear that sacred moments will be captured and reviewed forever, perhaps even being shown to countless others.

The burden for change is falling on the women of today. It is our duty to stand up against this form of sexual assault in solidarity with all women and for the protection of all future women. The time to expose peeping-Tom is now.  

Words by Alexa Jennelle

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