Single and Scared

Friday, September 27, 2013


Dear Patrick:

There is a peeping Tom in our neighborhood. Some guy has been looking in bedroom windows. He has been caught doing this a few times, but so far he has gotten away. All of the women in the apartment complex are nervous about it. Some of the guys are talking about setting up a neighborhood patrol. If guns are involved, this makes me afraid that somebody will get hurt.

            I called the police department and reported this concern. They told me they can't do anything about it until the guy commits a crime. (Isn't being a peeping Tom a crime?) They also told me it was not a big deal and “Voyeurism is considered a victimless crime.” But doesn't it lead to violence later on?

            My apartment is only on the second floor. It is easy to get to my bedroom window if you can jump high enough to pull down the fire escape. Like my neighbors, I would feel terrified and violated if somebody intruded on me that way. I want to feel safe in my home. Especially while I am sleeping! Somebody who threatens that safety obviously likes to force his attention onto women. What is to stop him from using other kinds of force? Is voyeurism really a victimless crime? How do I get the police department to do what they are supposed to do and protect us?



The person you talked to wasn't being very professional. I wonder if there is any way to track down their identity and file a complaint about their attitude. It surprises me because in the cop universe, there are only criminals versus law-abiding citizens. There is no such thing as a “victimless crime.” I think you got hold of somebody who was lazy or overworked and had personal prejudices that interfered with him (or her, I guess) taking your problem seriously.

            Most police departments have specialized units that deal with sex crimes. See if you can get someone from that department to consult with your group, perhaps at a meeting. If nothing else, there are community relations officers attached to all police departments, and they would rather avoid seeing a lot of letters to the editor written about how this situation is being ignored. You would be surprised to find out how sensitive politicians and city workers are to neighborhood groups that have names, letterhead, and regular meeting times. These groups are a way to influence voters, and that is what keeps politicians (including a police chief or sheriff) in power and on the budget.

            Neighborhood patrols can help a police force that is spread too thin. The visibility of good people on the street as witnesses to crime can calm things down and make the bad people go elsewhere so it's easier to keep their secrets. But a patrol that tries to be a substitute for the cops is a bad idea. The legal system takes a dim view of civilians who shoot each other, even if it is a clear case of self-defense. The resulting legal problems are expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. If people in your neighborhood want to do some kind of safety patrol, they ought to consult with other groups who are already doing this to get helpful advice about how to be most effective.

            One alternative is to set up a passive surveillance system that can help to identify prowlers and peepers. This can be expensive, but it can also be tax-deductible for a landlord to install. Crappy cameras that don't provide clear images are useless, and so is a network that doesn't cover enough territory. Some people have resorted to hiring private security consultants or detectives to identify troublemakers, gather evidence against them, and hold them for police arrest. This takes expertise the average citizen does not possess. It can also be expensive, but if everyone in your complex is upset, maybe the cost can be shared.

            You can also locate security experts who can evaluate your apartment and tell you what to do to make it safer. Don't ignore fire codes because you are afraid of a prowler! You may need window screens that can be removed for evacuation in case of fire, and a way to keep someone on the ground from pulling down the fire escape. A local hotline for victims of sexual assault may be able to help you to prevent any crime from taking place.

            The psychological profile of forced voyeurism has swung full circle. In the 1950s, these people were viewed as dangerous perverts who were future rapists or sex-murderers. During the 1970s, a more liberal view came into predominance that stated such men were voyeurs because they were afraid of interacting with women. This made them low-risk for violent crimes. Peeping Toms were more to be pitied than feared. Nowadays, law enforcement understands that it is a complex problem with many possible outcomes. While the timid and fearful voyeur or the curious teenager certainly exist, it is also true that bad guys will often scope out the scene of their next crime. They are looking for vulnerable victims and situations that allow them an easy entrance and a safe escape. Seeing a woman who thinks she is safe and fantasizing about scaring and hurting or killing her is part of the fun. Some voyeurs remain at a low level of offense; others progress to more aggressive and violent crime.

            With the growing strength of feminism, we have also come to see that this so-called victimless crime does indeed have a victim—the woman who is an unwilling object of voyeurism. She did not consent to be the target of some random stranger's lust. This is abnormal and unwanted behavior whether committed by an adult or a teenager. It is not a normal phase in adolescent male development. The young man who looks in a woman's window is objectifying her and using her without her permission. It is not a good idea to train yourself to have a sexual response to a situation like this. Young men who behave this way need appropriate intervention to redirect their sexual energies and shape their values and behavior so they don't get into trouble or offend others. Sexual behavior can be difficult to change. Unfortunately, we have a punitive legal system that offers little by way of counseling or rehabilitation. Only a few sex offenders get treatment, and these programs are under-researched with inadequate followup.

            Social-science research shows that prowlers develop territories with multiple hot spots. They may focus for a while on one area, then relocate when too much attention is drawn to their activity. But they will usually come back to an area that rewarded their efforts in the past. This means that neighborhood response can blow hot and cold. People get upset while the problem seems to be a crisis, then organizing efforts die down. But if the prowler returns, that means a protective response to him has to be organized all over again from scratch. If neighborhood quality of life and safety is important to you, there are probably multiple issues that could be addressed. I hope you can find like-minded spirits who will help you to protect vulnerable people in your area.