We Shouldn't Ignore Voyeurism in Toronto
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We Shouldn’t Ignore Voyeurism in Toronto

It's a common, passive issue in the city—and we need to address it.

Women in Toronto explores the issues that women in the city face.

Most mornings, I’ll look out my blindless window at the city while I get dressed. Anyone staring from the quiet alley three floors down, with just the right amount of morning light, might see me naked, at least partially. But I rarely think of it, and I’ve never acted to rectify that momentary vulnerability—I don’t suspect that anyone would bother trying to look, anyway.

Similarly, when I hop on an escalator in a summer skirt, I often skip over the axiomatic hand-to-butt stance held by those who are more cautious, meant to ensure that a gust of air doesn’t expose anything indecent on the ride up. Even back in my waitressing days, I would confidently change in the private, one-person staff washroom, often basking in a couple seconds of nudity while I examined my pores in the mirror. Never did I question whether someone’s phone was recording a video of the whole ritual.

But the truth is that, at least in Toronto, someone possibly is watching. Voyeurism—the act of (secretly) observing others during “intimate” moments—is not uncommon, nor has it ever been. It comes with the territory: we live in a big city, with a busy downtown core. Statistically, Toronto’s next budding voyeur could be right around the corner.

Though it may not seem like a big deal, there are greater cultural forces and criminal tendencies attached to the act. To ignore the significance of the voyeur is to miss an opportunity for making the city safer for women.

About six million people live in the GTA. There isn’t much scientific literature on voyeurism, but a 2006 Swedish study found that more than 11.5 per cent of men willingly admit to having engaged in voyeuristic behaviour. If we extrapolate from the study, and estimate about three million men in the GTA, that’s maybe 330,000 local men who would fall into this category.

I don’t like to think about this, and I certainly like to avoid the math that leads to hundreds of thousands of constant threats. Conveniently enough, I rarely have to consider these numbers: by definition, voyeurism doesn’t affect the victim directly. If I don’t acknowledge its existence, daily life quickly becomes much easier. But in reading the local news recently my denial has become steadily harder to maintain.

This past month alone, cases have piled up. Last week, Toronto police charged a man with two counts of voyeurism; a woman discovered his phone hanging off of a backpack, recording video while she was changing in a Kensington Market staff washroom. The week before, police took into custody a man who allegedly used a mirror in his shopping basket to look up women’s skirts at a grocery store. Highlights also include photography at a North York mall, spying in a downtown washroom stall, and an uncovered stash of videos depicting GTA women in “various states of undress.”

Especially now that the weather is nice and we’re out in the city more, enjoying public life, the stories are hard to ignore. Almost every reported case of voyeurism ends with some variation of the sentence, “Police believe there may be additional victims.” That’s because voyeurism is by definition secret, so it’s hard to determine the scope of a perpetrator’s actions.

Women are only watched, the action is done upon them. But the voyeur himself is also passive, silently standing and watching the show, barely any action required. (In fact, the single best predictor of voyeuristic behaviour is frequently watching porn, alone.) It’s hard to find the line when that kind of fault is at hand. Perhaps that’s why so many don’t see the point in complaining about it. “What harm can it do?” they ask, a response that feeds a culture that refuses to acknowledge the sexual, predator-like nature of the act.

There used to be a time when voyeurism was even accepted and embraced. A 1960s article in New York magazine calls the act “an implicit life process” in the city, arguing that, for men, “as long as visual stimulation doesn’t replace The Real Thing, voyeurism can be a very important element in heightening sexual experience.” Women are the subject, men the object—and why else would we wear such things as skirts on escalators?

Back then, the voyeur was part of the mainstream. But today, Toronto’s silent observers get sidelined. We think of the men who wait in washroom stalls as part of a minute minority—not one of 330,000. Once arrested, perpetrators are treated as the exception, expected to be social outcasts who resorted to drastic means because they were unable to find sexual gratification elsewhere. Following the same logic as that New York article, we say they did it because they are loners, because the women are easy to watch. But if we continue to give voyeurs excuses, how can we make them understand that women are not entertainers, and they are not an audience?

In fact, indulging in a culture that lets voyeurism slide by can be quite harmful. Statistically, the crime is rarely isolated. One-fifth of voyeurs later commit sexual assault. Nearly all convicted of sexual violence were previously voyeurs. This is not a harmless act. It leads to a mindset and a culture that renders the city inherently more dangerous for women. And the problem won’t be solved until we acknowledge its existence.

Its hard to think of a response that doesn’t put the onus on women to cover themselves up. But that’s not the right answer: it shouldn’t be up to the victim to deter the guilty. So what is the solution? We could simply make it less convenient for those who try. There are rumours of a phone hack in Japan that makes it impossible for the shutter sound on a phone camera to be muted, which is part of an effort to prevent subtle upskirt photography. That kind of initiative is bound to prevent some snapshots.

But, more importantly, we need to stop brushing off instances of voyeurism in Toronto. Yes, it may happen often enough that we’re all used to it—and I’m no exception. But bringing the problem back into legal, political, and cultural conversations will lead to a more informed six million people, less willing to excuse or exclude the voyeur next door.