Last week on the Savage Lovecast, you went over your rule on Secret Perving: It's OK so long as it remains secret. But does the rule apply to voyeurs—that is, to people whose secret perv involves violating other people's privacy, rather than simply perving on them without their knowledge during public interactions?
This question came to mind today while I was reading Gay Talese's New Yorker essay on Gerald Foos, a committed voyeur who purchased a motel in Denver back in the 1960s for the purpose of watching his guests from specially constructed ventilation shafts in the ceiling. It's a fascinating piece for a million reasons, but at the moment I'm interested in it as a limit case for your theory of the Secret Perv. Is it ok for a motel owner to systematically invade the privacy of his guests for some twenty years so long as he takes adequate precautions against their ever finding out?
Interestingly, Talese and Foos violated that last crucial stipulation when they went public with the story last week. Twenty-five years have passed since Foos sold the motel, but it's just possible that someone who stayed at that motel back in the 1970s now knows their privacy was invaded, and there's no question that would be a terrible shame. But what if Foos had been less eager to achieve recognition for his "sociological" observations? Or Talese had been more insistent on publishing the piece with no clear indication of the motel's name and location? Would the victims' lack of knowledge mean that Foos had done nothing wrong? Would his elaborate modifications of the hotel's attic to create viewing platforms count in his favor as a sign of decent consideration, rather than of monstrous perversity?
Really interested in your thoughts on this topic. I always enjoy your principled moral reasoning on difficult questions of sexual expression. Do let me know if you address this in your blog, as I usually follow just the column and the podcast.
When Secret Pervs Go Public
My go-to example of permissible Secret Perving is the foot fetishist who works in a high-end shoe store. He really loves his job, he gets to look at feet all day long, and he moves a lot of shoes. So long as the shoe store salesclerk with a foot fetish is good at his job and so long as his secret perving is undetectable—no spotting, no bulges, no heavy breathing, no creepy compliments—there's no harm. If the foot fetishist/shoe salesclerk goes home at the end of a long day and jacks off about the feet he saw and, yes, handled during his shift—and the people he sold shoes to are none the wiser—he's not hurting anyone. The secret pleasure he takes in his work shouldn't disqualify him from being a shoe salesclerk.
Or a podiatrist.
Important note: it's not just about how the foot fetishist/secret perv/shoe salesclerk/aspiring podiatrist perceives himself, but how he is perceived by others—by his customers and his coworkers. He may think he's playing it cool, he may think his perving is secret, but if his customers are creeped out by his behavior, demeanor, bulges, spots, heavy breathing, etc., or his coworkers are creeped out by him, then his perving isn't a secret and he should be fired and/or go into another line of work. (My other go-to example of permissible Secret Perving: the business guy at a business meeting who's secretly wearing panties and a garter belt and pantyhose under his business suit. Yes, both of my examples of Secret Pervs involve male pervs. Because misandry.)
What Gerald Foos did does not qualify as Permissible Secret Perving.
It's not just the timing of his announcement; it's not just that Foos wanted "credit" during his lifetime (and the lifetimes of the people he spied on) for his "research"; it's not just that some of the people he spied on may still be alive and were possibly mortified and humiliated to learn that they might have been observed by Foos decades ago. (For the record: I can't remember the name of the hotel I stayed in three weeks ago; I'd be hard pressed to name a hotel I stayed in three decades ago.) It's that people in motel rooms have a reasonable expectation of privacy. They're purchasing privacy.
Someone who goes to the kind of high-end shoe store where retail salesclerks wait on them hand and foot—and slip the shoes on and off their feet—knows their feet will be seen and touched by a salesclerk. Their privacy is not being violated. The social/commercial compact in force at the shoe store allows for the customer to expose their feet and for the clerk to observe and touch their feet. The exposure and touch is consensual. The small chance that someone might be sexually aroused by some element of this commercial transaction—the salesclerk could have a foot fetish, the client could have a shoe fetish, the whole transaction could be an act of financial domination—can never be ruled out. (I'm pretty sure someone is secretly perving every time a pair of Wesco boots is sold.)
So buying a pair of shoes in shoe store—and not, say, online or at a garage sale—carries with it a small-but-unavoidable risk of someone involved deriving a secret thrill. And we all kindasorta know it or we would all realize it after a moment's thought.
Checking into a motel room is... different. Because, again, hotel guests have a reasonable expectation of privacy, because they're purchasing privacy, because they haven't consented to being exposed or observed once in they're in their rooms. The people Foos spied on over the years may not have known they were being perved on, just as the customers of a discreet foot fetishist may not know they're being perved on—but that's where the similarities end. Gerald Foos' secret perving required the invasion of his guests' privacy and that fact renders his secret perving impermissible.