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From scopophilia to Survivor: a brief history of voyeurism

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This article traces the history of the term "voyeurism" from its psychoanalytic origins in the 1950s to contemporary uses in popular culture and post-Freudian, biological psychiatry. It begins with an overview of the psychoanalytic foundations of the term, paying particular attention to the ways Freudian theory helped shape clinical definitions of voyeurism in American psychiatry in the mid-twentieth century. Subsequently, it follows popular and psychiatric concepts of voyeurism through the 1970s and 1980s, leading to current TV programmes and internet sites, and definitions of voyeurism in present-day academic psychiatry. Reading against the assumption, common in social science literature, that there are distinct forms of 'pathological' and 'normal' voyeurism, I argue that medical and popular notions of voyeurism developed in relation to one another in ways that help explain their configuration in the present day. Such overlap is evident in many contemporary uses of 'voyeurism' in popular culture, as well as in the (relatively few) psychiatric research articles still concerned with 'voyeurism' as a mental illness. I conclude by arguing for a rethinking of the boundaries of voyeurism, and a rethinking of voyeurism itself, based on consideration of the ways voyeurism is a relational concept forged between medical and popular sensibilities.

Keywords: perversion; popular culture; psychiatry; psychoanalysis; reality television; voyeurism

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Michigan.

Publication date: November 1, 2004

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