It's surprising the things you think about when sitting in a downtown bar eating a chicken sandwich and watching the undead sneer on Zombie Brit Hume's face as he narrates Fox News's version of the events of the day.
When most folks use the word voyeur, they're thinking of a particular image; the Peeping Tom sneaking around hoping to find interesting things going on in peoples' bedrooms, or the dirty old man with a telescope spending far more time scanning his neighbors' houses than the sky.
I think there's more to it than that, though. Voyeurism, in a more general sense, is a nearly universal human trait, I think. What's that general trait, you ask? Well, consider this:
There is an attraction in seeing something normally hidden displayed unconsciously, especially when that hidden thing suggests something different from what is naturally displayed.
Sex is one of those things that is generally hidden, especially in modern U.S. culture, so it's probably not surprising that many times, 'something hidden unexpectedly displayed' has a sexual tone. The computer tech helping the executive secretary figure out a glitch, who notices that she's leaned over just far enough so that a hint of the thong she's wearing under her conservative skirt is visible. There's raw emotional power in a revelation like this.
But the situation doesn't necessarily have to be overtly sexual. Consider the following scene described by Eric Burns:
I watched a young guy and girl -- maybe fifteen each -- walking through the Mall, clearly on a date. He wore a letter jacket and jeans. She wore low rider sweats and a white spandex spaghetti top. They were full of attitude, doing an ancient ritual of dating. Putting on airs for each other, and for anyone who might see them. I glanced at them, and then looked away -- but they stayed close. They looked at the portrait booth. And giggling, they went in, the guy saying something sort of macho and dismissive, the girl saying something slightly coy, playing as much to the nonexistent crowd as to her date.
I glanced back at the booth, and did a double-take. There was a video screen outside, showing a live, real time video... of the boy and girl who were getting ready to pose. The kids clearly didn't know they were on television -- they had every reason to think it was private. But it wasn't. I glanced around, and saw a couple of mall workers watching. Clearly, whenever this happens, it becomes an impromptu show for the folks who work the mall.
If I were a better man than I am, I would have looked away. If I were as good a man as I'd like to be, I would have gone over and told the kids we could see them. As it was, I stayed in my chair and I watched. Had they started making out or if the boy had gone for second (or the girl offered second up), I'd have said something. But they didn't. Instead, something wholly more remarkable happened.
They became natural. They became who they are with each other. There was no kissing. There was no groping. There was instead an odd sweetness that descended on them both. We couldn't hear them, of course. But they lost all sense of the crowd they were playing to. The girl remained coy, but it was less a dance and more a sense of privacy. The boy lost almost all his affectation. This is a girl he actually liked, and he felt like he could show that without pretense, when he was in a booth with the curtains drawn.
There are elements of this everywhere, once you know where to look. Reality TV? Less about the spectacle of watching people debase themselves for fleeting celebrity and more about the audience's hope that they'll actually get to peek at something the cameras will find that the performers always intended to remain hidden. Tabloid news? Less about the schadenfreude of gloating over some famous person's misfortunes and more about trying, however possible, to find out what is this person really like? Simple people-watching in a busy public place? Who expects to be under a scrutinizing eye in a place like that? You can watch people, to some degree, be the people they are rather than the people they present themselves as.
A true moment of voyeurism is also a powerful instrument of attraction. When I've had a moment like this with someone I've been mildly interested in, I find myself much more interested, if only to find out more than the tiny snippet I've just seen. There's also a certain vulnerability involved in letting something be voyeuristically observed, and I admit I'm attracted to vulnerability.
The flip side of voyeurism, though, is exhibitionism. And until I started thinking of voyeurism in these broader terms, I couldn't describe why being included in a display of exhibitionism left me feeling so...unsettled. After all, you'd think that a voyeur would naturally seek out exhibitionists, as masochists are said to seek out sadists - someone who displays what's hidden would seem to be a perfect fit for someone who wants to watch hidden things.
Except for this: an exhibitionist chooses what to display; the revelation is deliberate.
Deliberate revelation bugs me specifically because it's deliberate - in my experience, it isn't actually an accurate reflection of hidden traits or desires, but is, at best, another layer of pretense underneath all the existing layers that are already obviously visible.
And at worst, it's a calculated revelation - something revealed because the exhibitionist believes the voyeur will find it attractive - that it will be a hook into his soul. That the powerful attractive qualities of a voyeuristic moment can be harnessed to bind someone to you that much more tightly.
"What does she want from me," I should ask myself, "that she's showing me this so freely?"
Lesson learned for the future, anyway.