What is voyeurism?

Rabbi Barry Freundel
Rabbi Barry Freundel

When prominent D.C. Rabbi Barry Freundel was charged on Oct. 14 with six counts of voyeurism, many readers were probably asking themselves: What is voyeurism?

While voyeurism is a crime under the District of Columbia Criminal Code, it is also a mental disorder classified under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

When Freundel allegedly videotaped women as they dressed and undressed in the bathroom and shower area of the National Capital Mikvah, he was engaging in abnormal sexual behavior.

According to the DSM, voyeurism, the act of secretly watching another person, is committed “for the purpose of achieving sexual excitement” but seldom includes sexual contact with that person. Onset usually occurs before the age of 15. The act of spying on another must occur for at least six months before the voyeurism diagnosis can be made.


Voyeurism is a chronic condition, meaning that while someone may, through medication and therapy, keep his or her impulses under control, a relapse is always possible.

It is an anxiety disorder, much like obsession compulsion, said Manuel Reich, a Pittsburgh psychiatrist, who is also Jewish. “It’s more controllable or ‘dealable’ than curable,” he said. “There is no cure per se. These [conditions] always need vigilance.

“The treatment is difficult and requires constant reinforcement, hypervigilance,” Reich said. “There is a high risk of regression. It’s not hopeless but it is just very difficult.”

As with other sexual addictions, it is controversial whether the origin of voyeurism is biologically driven or related to experiences in childhood, Reich said, adding that he personally believes voyeurism is “hugely driven by early [childhood] encounters.”

The way to help a person who enjoys viewing others surreptiously as they are undressing or naked is two-fold.

A patient is treated medically, usually with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant, such as Prozac or Zoloft, both prescription drugs.

Simultaneous to taking medication, a sex addict needs to be treated for anxiety and compulsion, Reich said. Treatment also needs to include ways to cope with the problems of having a chronic condition, he said.

Treatment may include exposing people to an extreme amount of their compulsion, for example simulated voyeurism like peep shows or videos on the Internet. The idea is to overexpose the voyeurs.

But herein lies a problem: Pornography or other sexual addictions are considered sins in the Orthodox community, said Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R, president of Nefesh International, a network of Orthodox mental health professionals.

Although what a therapist recommends may be forbidden to an observant Jew, Feuerman tells his patients that while he is a rabbi, in his office, he is a therapist. “Treatment is treatment” regardless of a person’s religious beliefs, he said. “It is made clear to the client that if he has concerns about the permissibility of the treatment, he can choose to consult with his rabbi — and the therapist can also speak to the rabbi about the rationale for the treatment, with the client’s permission,” he added.

Both Feuerman and Reich believe that voyeurs should attend programs similar to the popular 12-step ones offered to alcoholics and drug addicts. These programs are good “for correcting distorted beliefs and attitudes, feedback and support” but are not treatment, Feuerman said, adding that the Orthodox community offers its own programs similar to the well-known 12-step program.

Although not speaking specifically about Rabbi Freundel, Feuerman said that a person in authority who then abuses his authority “may suffer from grandiosity,” which needs to be dealt with during therapy. Such people need to learn they are not above others, he said.

“The incredible shame and humiliation,” that a person like Freundel faces when publicly exposed is a necessary part of treatment. “A person committing the acts that Freundel is accused of needs to face that,” Feuerman said.

Guard Your Eyes, a Pikesville, Md.-based organization with locations throughout the world, offers a 12-step program geared toward the Jewish population.

According to the organization’s founder, who insisted on only being referred to as Yaakov, voyeurism or viewing pornography, releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. The more a person indulges, the more acts of voyeurism are needed to satisfy the addiction. Like a drug addict, “the person is looking for a fix,” he said.

Guard Your Eyes sends out daily readings filled with stories and tips geared toward helping someone overcome a sexual addiction. Clients can continue working alone, join a chat group with another person or work in a larger group to deal with the addiction. In groups or alone, sexual addicts are taught how to avoid the triggers of their illness.

It is not therapy, Yaakov said, but Guard Your Eyes will recommend a sexual addiction specialist if someone asks.

Stressed Yaakov: “We could have helped [Freundel]. It’s a lesson for all of us.”

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