What is Voyeuristic Disorder?
Voyeuristic disorder is a mental health-related issue in which a person has a strong urge to watch unsuspecting people who are unclothed, getting undressed, or engaging in sexual acts. The person then acts on the urge with non-consenting people. The behavior may also cause distress in the person watching others themselves. It is much more common in men than in women.
Although the symptoms of voyeuristic disorder may begin to appear in adolescence, the disorder can’t be diagnosed until the person is at least 18 years old. Before that time, the symptoms could be indistinguishable from normal adolescent curiosity about sexuality.
Voyeuristic disorder should be distinguished from voyeurism, which is a desire to watch people who are engaged in sexual acts. When the behavior is acted on only with other consenting adults and does not cause distress, voyeurism does not meet the criteria for voyeuristic disorder.
Behavior meeting the criteria for the disorder is often criminal, and voyeuristic behavior often results in legal problems.
Symptoms of Voyeuristic Disorder
Common symptoms of voyeuristic disorder include:
- Sexual arousal, fantasies, or urges involving watching an unsuspecting, non-consenting person who is unclothed, getting undressed, or engaged in sexual acts
- Acting on the urges
- The behavior, urges, or fantasies cause distress or impair a person’s ability to function at home, school, or work
What Causes Voyeuristic Disorder?
The cause of voyeuristic disorder is unknown, but different factors likely trigger it in different cases. Scientists believe that physical, medical, and psychological factors may all play a role in producing the disorder’s behavior. Possible risk factors include:
Is Voyeuristic Disorder Hereditary?
Some studies have attempted to explain why sexual disorders such as voyeuristic disorder appear to cluster in individual families. While these studies suggest that a genetic component could play a role in developing the disorders, no specific link between genetics and voyeuristic disorder has been found.
How Is Voyeuristic Disorder Detected?
Voyeuristic disorder usually emerges in late adolescence or early adulthood. Warning signs can include:
- Unusual preoccupation with sex during childhood
- Sexual fantasies that cause distress or impairment
- Only being aroused by voyeuristic fantasies or acts
How Is Voyeuristic Disorder Diagnosed?
Diagnosis of voyeuristic disorder begins by ruling out medical problems that may be causing symptoms. After these exams, if the doctor suspects that voyeuristic disorder is the cause of the symptoms, they may recommend a psychological or psychiatric assessment.
Diagnostic steps may include:
- A physical exam. This exam aims to rule out physical conditions that could be causing the symptoms.
- Psychological assessments. These assessments may take the form of questionnaires or talk sessions with a mental health professional to assess the patient’s mood, mental state, and mental health history. Family members or caregivers may also be asked to participate in these assessments.
After medical causes are ruled out, medical professionals can consider whether the patient meets the diagnostic criteria for voyeuristic disorder. These criteria include:
- The patient is consistently aroused by fantasies, urges, or acts that involve watching an unsuspecting person who is unclothed, getting undressed, or engaged in sexual acts.
- The patient has acted on the urges, or the symptoms cause significant impairment in social situations, at work, or elsewhere.
- The symptoms have been present for at least six months.
It is important to note that being aroused by voyeuristic acts with other consenting adults is not a sign of the disorder. Doctors will consider the diagnosis only if the urges or acts involve non-consenting people (either adults or children) or the symptoms cause distress.
PLEASE CONSULT A PHYSICIAN FOR MORE INFORMATION.
How Is Voyeuristic Disorder Treated?
People with voyeuristic disorder typically will not seek out treatment on their own. Often, treatment does not begin until after a person has illegally acted on their urges and has been arrested.
Treatment of voyeuristic behavior may include both psychotherapy and medications. Common treatment options include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches a person to recognize the situations that trigger their voyeuristic urges and develop new, healthy ways to cope with those situations.
- Antidepressant medications, typically serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Antiandrogen drugs such as gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists and depot medroxyprogesterone acetate work to lower testosterone levels. However, these drugs will likely not be used unless the behavior is severe and other treatments have not been effective.
How Does Voyeuristic Disorder Progress?
People with voyeuristic disorder typically do not want to have sexual contact with the people they’re watching, and they are rarely violent toward the target of their behavior. However, targeting non-consenting people with voyeuristic behavior is a crime and can have serious consequences for the unsuspecting person being watched.
In addition to the impact of the disorder on others, it can also result in long-term complications for the person with the disorder, including:
- Arrest and incarceration
- Depression or other mental health-related issues
- Loss of healthy interpersonal relationships
- Low self-esteem
How Is Voyeuristic Disorder Prevented?
There is no known way to prevent voyeuristic disorder. However, treatment may relieve the effects of the disorder and make it less likely that the sufferer will experience severe complications over time.
Voyeuristic Disorder Caregiver Tips
Some people with voyeuristic disorder also suffer from other brain and mental health-related issues, a condition called co-morbidity. Here are a few of the issues commonly associated with the disorder:
Voyeuristic Disorder Brain Science
Voyeuristic disorder is classified as a paraphilic disorder. These disorders involve sexual arousal induced by unusual situations, objects, or targets of arousal. Common paraphilias include:
- Fetishes (e.g., sexual arousal triggered by specific objects or situations)
- Sexual sadism/masochism
Paraphilias are not inherently considered to be disorders. Some people have sexual interests or urges that others may regard as unusual but don’t cause distress or harm. Factors that make a paraphilic interest cross the line to a disorder include:
- The urges or acts are illegal (e.g., pedophilia).
- The urges or actions involve non-consenting targets (either children or non-consenting adults).
- The urges or acts have the potential to cause harm.
- The urges or actions cause significant distress or impairment to the person experiencing them.
Voyeuristic Disorder Research
Title: Lupron Sex Offender Therapy
Principal Investigator: Justine M. Schober, MD
Hamot Medical Center
This study compared cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy with leuprolide acetate (LA) to cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy with saline injections for 12 months. Five white male pedophiles (M age, 50 years; range, 36-58) volunteered for a two-year study. LA was administered by Depo injection (7 mg initially, then 22.5 mg every three mos) for 12 months, followed by a saline placebo. Effects of LA on testosterone levels, sexual interest preference by visual reaction time (Abel Assessment), penile tumescence (Monarch PPG), as well as strong urges, and masturbatory frequency to children (polygraph), were measured every three months. Subjects were treated with weekly cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy. On LA, testosterone decreased to castrate levels. Because of the suppression of testosterone, physiologic arousal response as measured by penile plethysmography (penile tumescence) was significantly suppressed compared with baseline. However, sufficient response remained to detect pedophilic interest. This pedophilic interest was also detected by visual reaction times. All subjects self-reported a decrease in strong pedophilic urges and masturbation. When asked about having pedophilic urges and masturbating to thoughts of children, polygraph responses indicated subjects were not deceptive when they reported decreases. On placebo, testosterone and physiologic arousal eventually rose to baseline levels. At baseline and on placebo, subjects were consistently deceptive regarding increased pedophilic urges and masturbatory frequency, as noted by the polygraph. Interest preference, as measured by Abel Assessment and Monarch PPG, was generally unchanged throughout the study. Cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy augmented with LA significantly reduced pedophilic fantasies, urges, and masturbation but did not change pedophilic interest during one year of therapy. Deceptive responses by polygraph suggested that self-report was unreliable. Follow-up utilizing objective measures is essential for monitoring treatment efficacy in pedophilia. Our study supports the supposition that modification of pedophilic behavior is possible. LA may augment cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy and help break the sequence leading to a reoffense.
Title: Descriptive Epidemiology Study for Patients With Paraphilia Sex Offenders and Receiving Androgen Antagonists (EPIPARA)
Principal investigator: Florence Thibaut, MD/PhD
The study’s main objective is to describe the French population of individuals with paraphilia who have committed a sexual offense in whom androgen antagonists were prescribed. The secondary objectives are the description of social demographic profiles, personal and family histories, psychiatric co-morbidities, and the side effects of androgen antagonists treatment. This study, the first of its kind in France, may allow researchers to understand better the social demographic and clinical profile of sexual offenders with paraphilias treated with androgen antagonists.
To be included, the subject must have committed a sexual offense and must present a diagnosis of paraphilia with an indication of treatment with androgen antagonists. Paraphilia is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a sexual behavior disorder characterized by “sexually arousing fantasies, needs or recurrent and intense sexual behaviors generally involving (1) of non-human objects, (2) the suffering or humiliation of oneself or partner, (3) children or other persons without their consent, occurring during a period of at least six months “(Criterion A). This disorder is responsible for sexual behavior which is “clinically significant disturbances in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning” (Criterion B).
The inclusion of approximately 200 subjects is expected in this study. The inclusion period will last for 12 months.
Data will be codified, and only a few investigators will have access to these data. The statistical analysis will use the usual descriptive parameters: mean, standard deviation, median, interquartile range, the range for quantitative variables, frequencies, and cumulative frequencies (if applicable) for qualitative variables.
Title: Study of Maintenance of the Efficiency and Adverse Effects of Pharmacological Treatments in Sex Offenders With Paraphilia (ESPARA)
Stage: Not Yet Recruiting
Study Chair: Florence Thibaut, MD/PhD
This research concerns evaluating the maintenance of the efficiency and incidence of adverse effects of pharmacological treatments in sex offenders with paraphilia.
Despite the increasing use of pharmacological treatments in these indications, few data indicate which sex offender populations benefit from specific pharmacological treatments and which adverse events are observed, particularly with anti-androgens or antidepressant treatments widely used in these subjects. A recent Cochrane study showed that psychodynamic treatment is less effective in terms of sexual delinquency compared to probation alone and has not demonstrated significant efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) compared to the lack of treatment, except for a study in which anti-androgen therapy was associated with CBT. Another recent study concluded that the tolerance, even of anti-androgenic drugs, was uncertain, as all studies were small and of limited duration, and new research is needed in the future. Further research demonstrating the efficacy of SSRIs in treating paraphilic disorders is still required, and long-term studies are lacking. Their use for this indication is still off-label.
As far as we know, this cohort should be the largest population of paraphilic sex offenders studied for the longest time to date in a field where research is insufficient. This large sample receiving routine care and followed for three years should allow for analyzing the maintenance of the effectiveness of the pharmacological treatments received (SSRIs or anti-androgens) and their tolerance. In addition, this analysis of clinical practices should be crucial to improve the knowledge of the indications for these treatments, which could be reviewed concerning their effectiveness and tolerance, especially in the most serious cases of paraphilic sex offenders.