The troubles and origins of our societal scopophilia

Though the term ‘Scopophilia’ may carry dubious connotations (even if we do not know what it means), this day and age has created a civilization of scopophiliacs. Scopophilia literally means “a love of watching.” The term entered our lexicon through a translation of the Freudian psychoanalytic word Schaulust. That word does not necessarily signify a peeping Tom caricature that portrays a face pressed against a window holding up binoculars to get a good gander at their neighbors. Scopophilia comes in many forms: Movie-making and movie-viewing is one avenue of scopophilia. Social networking websites that have allowed one to publicize the private is another cultural arena. Importantly, when he was describing this Schaulust, Sigmund Freud distinguished between two forms that scopophiliacs enjoy: the active form of watching known as “voyeurism” and the more passive form of “exhibitionism.” Though our voyeuristic endeavors can transcend sex, Freudian interpretation asserts that our scopophilia is rooted in an expression of sexuality.



In Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, he argues that scopophilia drives our libido from childhood. In his outlined process of healthy psychosexual development, Freud suggests between the ages of two and four, healthy reconciliation of the anal stage requires a combination of self-mastery and our impulse of scopophilia. This psychosexual theory concludes that our voyeurism contributes to the formation and development of our ego. Consequently, it is impossible to discern the sexual aspects of scopophilia from its non-sexual aspects.

Freud even went on to describe four stages of the drives involved in scopophilia: First is the passive form known as “exhibitionism” which entails your sexual organ being looked at. The second stage is the active side that involves looking at another’s sexual organs. The third and fourth stages are similar but they move beyond sexual organs to voyeurism and exhibitionism of “extraneous objects.” If individuals derive any form of gratification from voyeurism or exhibitionism, there has to be something deep-rooted, something visceral to explain its origin and causes.

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Whether discussing pornography or advertising, the chief concerns regarding the effects scopophilia has on an individual or societal-level centre on fetishism and objectification. Psychologists argue that scopophilia involves the subject or person being watched being reduced to an object whose key purpose is for the viewing pleasure of the watcher. The ethical implications of this are not unfounded either: Take pornography, for example. Pornographic actors are rarely embraced by the mainstream and often have their humanity devalued because the films they are featured requires such passiveness from watchers. The criticisms of objectification of peoples in pornography are not misguided. Indeed, this lack of humanity accredited to pornographic stars may in fact partially explain the reckless drug and self-abuse rampant in the industry.

Another concern surrounding scopophiliacs involves fetishism which can escalate to unhealthy and dangerous levels if left unchecked and improperly channeled. Before his execution, serial killer Ted Bundy warned of the dangers of the increasingly sexualized culture of voyeurism: “You are going to kill me,” he warned, “and that will protect society from me. But out there are many, many more people who are addicted to pornography, and you are doing nothing about that.” Indeed, sufferers of psychosexual disorders originating from childhood trauma – such as sexual abuse – have a history of being more vulnerable to scopophilia cases that have led to a harmful escalation of their habit. Perversions and fetishism have long existed, but the increasing accessibility and understanding beg many disturbing questions.

[ad#downcont]Scopophilia is something we all partake in some form. And it is not all damning against our society either. Sympathy from a distance demonstrates our capacity for empathy, for example. But, scopophilia has shown to take a dangerous form too. Ironically, dealing with scopophilia that may become psychologically damaging in others is almost like the great chicken-or-the-egg riddle: Is it their scopophilia that alarms us, or is our scopophilia that allows us to condemn them?

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