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Peeping Toms' Voyeurism Scars Victims' Psyches

The term "Peeping Tom" comes from the story of Lady Godiva, who rode through town naked on horseback and asked residents not to look.
The term "Peeping Tom" comes from the story of Lady Godiva, who rode through town naked on horseback and asked residents not to look.

In 1999, Debra Gwartney's 14-year-old daughter saw a man taking photos outside her window. Police found evidence that someone had climbed on a bucket to peer into that window numerous times. This was just the beginning of a long series of disturbing details that Gwartney and her daughters would learn about the Peeping Tom in their neighborhood.

While the act is reviled, some dismiss it as a relatively harmless, victimless crime. But there are victims, and the experience can have a lasting impact on them, haunting them long after the violation is over.

NPR's Neal Conan talks with Gwartney about the Peeping Tom who preyed on her daughter, which she wrote about for The New York Times. Songwriter Nikki Lynette talks about how being a victim has changed her life, and clinical social worker David Prescott explains what motivates voyeurs.

Interview Highlights

On the Peeping Tom at Debra Gwartney's daughter's window

Gwartney: "She was undressing for bed, and she saw this light in her window and went over to investigate, and saw the man's hand and the video camera. And I, of course, I was terrified. I'm a single mother of four teenage daughters, and I ran outside to see what was going on. I was really scared to do that, but ... he was gone. And when we called the police, you know, they came right over, and they were very assuring, but they kept saying oh, it's just a prank. You know, kids do this. Don't worry about it.

"And that was the story we heard for the next year or so. We saw him several times. One time, my oldest daughter was in the backyard at night, and she saw him climb the fence and just head right toward her, as if he was just going to knock her over. He didn't care she was there. This was a man who was going to look through the window, and he was going to videotape.

"And I should mention here that when he was caught, finally, by the police and they searched his home, they found dozens and dozens of videotapes, and he had taped 120 girls in our town."

On what motivates Peeping Toms

Prescott: "I think we have to break it out into several different components, and the first is some men are very interested in looking at women. And we certainly know that there's lots of pornography available on the Internet and so on. At the same time, there are people, as we've just heard, who are very interested in looking at women or girls, and they're willing to break the law in order to do so.

"And then there are some who are willing to break the law in order to do so, and do this in a very, very flagrant fashion. So just as there are no two people that are exactly alike, likewise there are lots of different kinds of sex offenders in the world. And, in fact, when somebody tells me that another person is a sex offender, in fact, that actually doesn't tell me very much."

On how victims react

Prescott: "I am reluctant to make any presumptions about how anybody could or should respond to a crime like this.

"Just the same, in my experience, it's left people with several years of wondering: Where exactly does safety lie in my life if I can't be safe in my own bedroom, in my own bathroom? And after this, how should I respond when a man looks at me? Because people can be returned to the same kinds of emotions that they experienced with a look or a comment or a gesture or a glance from just about any man."

On how being a Peeping Tom's victim can change the meaning of home

Lynette: "You have to keep the windows closed. ... I live in an area that is pretty much a family area, and in my city, I'm well-known. So I specifically chose this area because it doesn't have a lot of foot traffic, except for people that live there, and it's relatively quiet.

"And I always really loved my apartment until this stuff started happening. ...

"There is private property next to my apartment. So [the Peeping Tom] literally had to go climb onto that property and know which window to look into to be able to find me. Because when I'm home, I pretty much keep all of the lights on, except this one night I had the window open just because I wanted air.

"And it's just unfortunate that that's something that you have to go through in your own community, in your own neighborhood, and you have to worry about that kind of thing."

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