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Internet Draws the Prying Eyes of the Voyeur


Word to women: If you are in the state of Washington, wear pants. Two Washington men who were convicted of violating the state's voyeurism statute for secretly taking pictures up the skirts of women and little girls successfully challenged the law earlier this month. The use of what has been called "upskirt cams" and "upskirt voyeur photography" is "reprehensible" and "disgusting," the state Supreme Court ascertained, but secretly taking photos up women's skirts in public places is not criminal.

The state's "voyeurism statute, as written, does not prohibit upskirt photography in a public place," Justice Bobbe Bridge, one of four women on the state Supreme Court, wrote in a unanimous opinion. The language of the law fails to explicitly protect people from being photographed in public places, the justices noted, where people don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Apparently, an expectation of privacy for the interior of one's skirt--worn explicitly to conceal one's private parts--is not reasonable.

(After police caught a man taking upskirt videotapes at Disneyland and could not charge him with doing anything illegal, California legislators passed a law in 2000 that made it illegal to take surreptitious photographs or videotapes of a "person's private parts" or undergarments.)

Time was when a peeping Tom's only means for peeping was a drilled hole in the wall of a girls' bathroom, but the technology of fish-eye cameras the size of a pea and the wide world of the Internet have greatly expanded a voyeur's opportunities.

Voyeuristic behavior exists on a continuum in our society from a person passing a window and noticing someone undressing, to viewing scantily clad actors parade on television, to the hard-core, compulsive voyeurs for whom surreptitiously looking up someone's skirt, down a blouse or at snapshots of undergarments becomes the primary sexual experience, said Al Cooper, director of San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre, a mental-health treatment facility in Santa Clara.

Voyeuristic Web sites are the fastest-growing areas of Internet sexuality, said Cooper, editor of the newly released "Sex and the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians" (Brunner-Routledge), one of the first professional books of its kind with contributions from leading clinicians, scholars and academics.

The two general categories of Internet voyeurism, said Cooper, are photographic shots of unsuspecting women in compromising positions such as the upskirt, downblouse and bathroom shots, and live streaming videotape of such things as couples having sex and women performing their own activity.

The voyeur who cannot control the impulse to gaze at sexual images of an unsuspecting person for the purpose of sexual gratification has what psychologists and psychiatrists call a paraphilia, "a condition in which a person's sexual arousal and gratification depend on fantasizing about and engaging in sexual behavior that is atypical and extreme," Cooper said.

For a voyeur whose behavior qualifies as a paraphilia, the Internet is the equivalent of a drug to an addict. "The Internet, in part, is creating this problem," said Fred Berlin, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School, who added that some people stumble upon the sexual images when they go online and discover the images are arousing.

No one knows how many people develop cases of pathological voyeurism, but 25% of Internet users engage in online sexual activity, Cooper said. Of that 25%, somewhere between 8% and 15% develop compulsive sexual behavior problems that significantly disrupt their lives, he said. Voyeurism is a learned behavior, almost completely a male penchant, and it sometimes starts innocently enough in adolescence.

"It is a normal adolescent prank to peep in a girl's window or bathroom," observed forensic psychologist Clark Clipson, an evaluator of sex offenders for the state of California based in San Diego. "It is a sexual outlet that is safe when all the other avenues are not available. The repeated association of sexual gratification with peeping can turn it into a sexual fixation. Part of the arousal for the voyeur lies in the power and control over the victim who doesn't know she is being watched."

Though voyeurism bears an element of hostility, said Clipson, rarely do voyeurs go on to commit hands-on sexual offenses. "These guys generally don't want to be caught or seen," he said. "They would be horrified if their victims found out. The idea of actually going on to rape someone is so completely foreign to them." There are some voyeurs who use the images purely for sexual gratification. For others, the sexual behavior is an indirect outlet for repressed aggression.

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