Peeping Toms aren’t a new phenomenon, but the Internet provides an unprecedented platform for voyeuristic impulses, fueling some disturbing websites and online communities.
Today’s mobile technology makes it easier than ever to snap a clear picture or take a video of someone in a compromising position — say, taking a picture up a woman’s skirt as she climbs the stairs, or down her shirt from above — and immediately post it to a public website or share it with a group of like-minded voyeurs.
Governments and activists are working hard to prevent pictures of unsuspecting people in compromising positions from appearing on the Internet, but several recent news stories suggest this behavior isn’t abating.
For example, a man in England posted pictures of women in Hooters uniforms, while in New York, a man is taking up-skirt photos on the subway and blogging about it. ESPN newscaster Erin Andrews dealt with a well-publicized incident where a male fan stalked her and videotaped her without her knowledge, which led to leaked nude footage.
Hiding Behind Anonymity
Prurient interests and the urge to peek are nothing new, but today’s technology offers unprecedented opportunity both to indulge baser impulses and share them with others.
The Internet is revolutionary, and it shapes and colors human interactions. The flip side to its powerful potential for increasing communication and progress lies in its potential to exacerbate and fuel darker impulses by giving people semi-anonymous platforms to share harmful information.
Before the Internet, rings of people sharing illicit images were limited by geography and the much-slower pace of traditional mail. Now, finding sexually explicit images of people who did not know they appeared in front of a camera lens is as easy as typing a few words into a search bar, even if the images come from thousands of miles away. This unprecedented access encourages dissemination of X-rated content while stoking desires for more.
On top of that, both the rise of reality television and the ascent of social media are altering public conceptions of the public and the private, broadening the base of images to draw upon and blurring boundaries in a way that may make voyeurism more culturally acceptable on a wider scale.
Creating Underground Communities
Voyeurism was once a solitary pursuit for those in its thrall, but with the Internet, the sharing of storehouses of images is much easier, allowing groups and communities to form around problematic urges.
Popular social news site Reddit made waves when it disbanded its subgroup “Jailbait” devoted to sharing pictures of underage teens shared on sites like Facebook wearing revealing clothing, illustrating how the site wanted to prune its unsavory components to go mainstream.
Most sites explicitly ban child pornography, since it is illegal and could land them in major trouble, but Reddit clung to its principles of extreme free speech until recently, when it decided to draw the line at sexualizing children. Although the “jailbait” group doesn’t exist on Reddit anymore, similar circles still do, but they are receding into deeper pockets of the Web as they garner negative attention from the press.
Even though child pornography is getting brushed to the corners, Reddit just opened up a new forum called “Creep Shots” consisting of upskirt shots and photos snapped of women without their consent, and this kind of forum abounds — there’s an accompanying website as well. Though this genre of voyeuristic porn is disturbing and illegal, it doesn’t draw the same level of ferocious ire that child porn does, so it isn’t attacked as harshly.
Sex Tapes and Phone Pics: The New Reality Stardom
Any uproar is also likely muted because Internet culture has blurred the lines between private and public, often taking what was meant for a limited audience out into the open. The wide dissemination has perhaps inured audiences to the violation of privacy, especially as many seem to profit from it.
The slew of high-profile celebrity sex tapes, including the one that launched Kim Kardashian’s sprawling reality television empire, hinged on a powerful element of voyeurism — even cynics who insist women like Kardashian and Paris Hilton had a hand in distributing their explicit clips must acknowledge that the way the material was filmed suggests its subjects meant it for private enjoyment. And the market for pornography labeled as amateur is expanding, so explicit images of women that look like they’re meant for private and not commercial exchange are gaining popularity.
The case of Angie Varona encapsulates several of the problems spurred by this culture. Varona put up provocative pictures of herself at age 14 on a password-protected photo sharing account meant for her boyfriend, but hackers found their way into the site and spread the photos all over the Internet, turning the underage Varona into an accidental sex symbol.
Though her parents contacted the FBI and tried to get the images taken down, since they do not contain nudity, Varona has no legal recourse. Now, however, she’s started a public Facebook and Twitter page and started a business, possibly hoping to profit off her erstwhile image if she can’t scrub it from the public eye.
Can the Bedroom Door Ever Fully Close Again?
Despite sites like Reddit warding off their communities devoted to underage ogling, the fact that Kardashian and people like Angie Varona are climbing to fame based on salacious, independently shot videos and images shows the cultural climate is receptive and encouraging of young women gaining fame through appealing to the voyeuristic sector of the Internet.
And with sites focused on up-skirt shots and surreptitiously filmed sexual encounters continuing to gain traffic, it seems society is moving towards the type of Internet climate portrayed by Margaret Atwood in her 2003 dystopic novel “Oryx and Crake,” where the characters obsess over a young girl they see on one of numerous child pornography websites.
So, are there any ways to quell this disturbing slide into voyeurism? Rep. Peter King (R., NY) introduced the Camera Phone Predator Alert Act, trying to make it more difficult to snap scandalous shots. The act would require all camera phone makers to keep the click sound so people will know when photographers aim their way.
The bill is stalled and will probably not pass — it has no co-sponsors — but even if it did, it would be a drop in the bucket, especially since so many of the racy shots circulating originated when their subjects snapped self-portraits meant for a private audience. After all, a law like this already exists in Japan and it has done little to change the images coming from sites featuring women from Tokyo to Fukuoka.
Now, the police could go after the people posting these pictures with more intensity, but it is costly and time-consuming to track down suspects, and impossible to fully eradicate the behavior.
The only way to truly curb this kind of behavior is by limiting Internet freedom, which may happen if the U.N. takes the reins. And although ogling pictures of unwilling subjects is morally objectionable, it is not worth compromising the power of a free and open Internet to stop. This is one of the dark downsides to modern technology, but it is something that people might just have to learn to live with if they want to keep up open communication online.