- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In July, a California attorney for ESPN sportscaster Erin Andrews said she had been “surreptitiously videotaped” while dressing in her private hotel room. A video of her was uploaded to the Internet; it has since been removed from most sites. Taking such videos is a crime, and Miss Andrews’ attorney, Marshall B. Grossman, says she plans to bring civil and criminal charges against the videotaper(s) and anyone who published the material.

Voyeurism is also a recognized paraphilia, and staff writer Cheryl Wetzstein recently discussed this mental health topic with John O’Neill, director of addiction services and certified sex-addiction therapist at the Menninger Clinic in Houston.

Question: It seems new personal video technology is having unintended consequences for our culture.

Answer: Without a doubt. I work with a lot of adolescents, and one of the issues we are running into is the “sexting” or text-messaging of sexually explicit materials and pictures. In a lot of ways, it’s raising or heightening the sexualized nature of adolescence.

Q: In another interview on sexual addiction, I spoke with a man who said he got into real-life voyeurism after becoming bored with Internet porn. Does that sound familiar to you?

A: That is very common. It’s very similar to people who drink alcohol or use drugs. You build a tolerance … and, over time, they find that they have to do more or do something else.

For some people, the different voyeuristic types of pornography or the opportunity to spy on people, to look at somebody, is incredibly exciting and very different. It not only takes on a sexual connotation, it also takes on “I’m doing something wrong” [because] it’s against the law.

Q: Are you seeing more voyeurism than before or it is about the same?

A: Well, I think, with the technology, there is more opportunity to participate in voyeurism. I think voyeurism has always been around, but now you have ways of not only doing it easier but ways of actually recording it, keeping it, reflecting on it, going back to that fantasy again and again, because now you have a way of really keeping track of it. When we put cameras on our cell phones, that opened all kinds of new doors.

Q: What kinds of things do you hear about from clients?

A: Well, in some places, [stores] will have all one dressing room, and you go in, and one side’s male and one side’s female. And people will go in there, and they’ll take their cell phones and take pictures underneath, or they’ll put mirrors or do various things to see underneath the stall.

Q: When does looking “cross the line” into criminal or pathological behavior?

A: There is a line, and this is the trickiest aspect of it. People do tend to use that argument, “Oh, I’m just looking, it’s harmless, it’s a victimless crime, so to speak.”

I don’t agree with that at all because I think people do move beyond the looking and into more of the pathological ways of obsessing about it, of violating so many boundaries, taking videotapes, taking pictures. I mean, so many people go from looking to actually documenting and then posting and sharing.

Q: Is voyeurism a sexual orientation?

A: No. It’s just really a paraphilia. It’s not an orientation of any kind.

Q: How does voyeurism develop?

A: There’s a lot of theory.

In my experience, one of the things I’ve noticed is that most people who have very much engaged in voyeurism, they have some early childhood experience or young-adult experience … of seeing something that they shouldn’t have seen, and it was very erotic to them. And so they kind of carry that thought around with them. And that becomes what we call a “sexual template,” and that is they start to develop in their mind [a concept of] “what’s exciting.”

Q: What kind of treatment can you offer to people struggling with voyeurism?

A: The first part of the treatment is to really understand what is going on with them … what is their sexual history, how they first learned about sexuality, how sexuality is talked about in the home. One of the problems we have, and I don’t want to be preachy, is that we don’t talk about sexuality very much in the home.

If I am working with a 20-year-old, [I will be] doing a very good history, understanding where they are coming from before I try to develop any kind of treatment plan with them. And then also, figure out how they cope with other things. You want to understand - do they have good coping skills? Or, is [voyeurism or engaging in sexual behavior] one of the primary ways they cope with society, stress, depression? Like other addictions, this is very, very common.

Then I move into developing a behavioral-cognitive plan … really taking a look at the behaviors and what are some of the ways we can intervene and change those behaviors. … As we start there, we’ll be developing new ways to cope.

Q: So if someone has an obsession about store dressing rooms, you would have some guidance for him about that?

A: Right. One of the first things you do is identify all of those high-risk situations. If you look at an alcoholic, I would say to an alcoholic, “You are not going to avoid all the triggers in your mind, but you shouldn’t be hanging out in a bar.” So if you’re a person who repeatedly has problems with going to a dressing room at [a particular store], you can’t go to [that] dressing room.

You have to have interventions in place. And then we have to talk about how are you going to manage that when you have the urge. Because you’re going to have a craving, and that’s very normal. You’re going to sit there and think, “I’m lonely, I’m tired, I’m frustrated, and I need to go pick up a pair of shorts from [that department store].” How are you going to manage that?

Also, if someone is truly addicted to sex … there are various 12-step groups and other types of treatment as well.

Q: Final thoughts?

A: I think, in general, we’re seeing more and more people struggling with pornography, and more and more people struggling with addictive sexuality.

There are plenty of people who don’t have an issue at all. They can look at pornography and it’s not an issue for them; it’s not a problem. I’m not here to talk about the moral aspects of pornography.

But those for whom it is an issue for them, and who have the addictive tendencies that come with it, voyeurism can be very, very dangerous. Even if it’s just going onto a Web site and looking at pictures, and they’re not out there, actively trying to participate in it … that can set the stage for increasing their behaviors.

We start somewhere [with sexual problems], and the Internet kind of gives us a menu and says, “Hey look.”

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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