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Hidden Cameras And Zoom Lenses: Meet The Voyeur Pornographers

Revenge porn gets all the attention, but other forms of nonconsensual adult content are thriving under the radar

SEX
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
May 08, 2017 at 12:03 PM ET

“Roger” is a security guard. He’s vague on the exact details, but his jobs afford him access to several rooftops in the downtown area of an unnamed city. One of these roofs has a view of a high-rise hotel across the street. The building’s windows are so high up that guests tend to feel safe leaving the curtains open. So, Roger climbs out onto a ledge on the roof, trains his handheld high-zoom camera on the uncovered windows, and hits record.

Then, if he happens to catch an unsuspecting woman, especially a naked one, he posts the video on the internet.

Roger has posted such videos more than two dozen times in a thread on the message board The Voyeur Forum. In one clip, there’s the rushing sound of big city traffic as the camera shakily zooms in on a large window illuminated against the dark of night. A sheer curtain is pulled, but inside a woman is still visible wearing a thick white bathrobe. Her shirtless male companion tosses back the covers and gets into bed. Then she shrugs the robe off to the floor and her naked body is visible for a brief moment before the clip ends.

He’s captured naked women in their hotel rooms talking on the phone, drying off after a shower, and lathering themselves with lotion. (Vocativ has reported his posts to the FBI.) The responses he gets from other forum members are jaw-on-the-floor enthusiastic. One guy writes, “i think you’re a voyeur god!!” Says another, “wowowowowo, so awesome so lucky.” Many simply beg for more — as one commenter writes, “more more more more.”

This is just one of more than 14,000 threads on the website, which bears a header of a cartoon man peeping in a window with both his tongue and his dick hanging out. It hosts clips like Roger’s and all manner of other videos alleged to be taken without the subject’s permission. Some posters share videos of sex — with an unsuspecting wife, girlfriend, ex, or one-night stand — purportedly filmed with a hidden camera. Others post what they claim are secretly captured images of women in changing rooms, bathrooms, or even peeing in the woods. It’s a thriving community of voyeurs who share their “catches,” as some call them, swap technical tips, and enthusiastically egg each other on.

And it’s just one of several such sites catering to what can best be described as nonconsensual porn.

The subject of revenge porn has received plenty of attention in recent years. It’s filled headlines with stories about everyday women and celebrities alike who have had photos and videos, typically initially taken with their consent, shared without their permission. The subject has garnered so much attention, in fact, that several states have passed laws criminalizing revenge porn. But the media frenzy, impactful as it may have been, has largely glossed over the fact that revenge porn is but a subset of the larger phenomenon of nonconsensual pornography, which can include explicit material that is both filmed and shared without a woman’s consent.

“It’s one of the reasons we always try to emphasize that the term ‘revenge porn’ is a misnomer — it creates the false impression that victims and perpetrators are always intimately involved and that the private photos or videos are always originally consensually shared,” said Mary Anne Franks, a professor of law at University of Miami. “In many of the cases we see, either one or both of these is not the case.”

For example, in March, a sex tape began circulating of actress Mischa Barton — she says her ex used a hidden camera to film her without permission. Sportscaster Erin Andrews was secretly filmed in her hotel room and, though the man behind the video served time behind bars, the video is still widely available online. It’s easy to find local news stories of people, mostly men, hiding cameras in toilets, locker rooms, tanning beds, and shoes. There are also the perennial cases of “upskirting” and “downblousing.”

There exists a vast trove of this kind of material online — related search terms bring up thousands of results on tube sites like Pornhub and xHamster. Much of it is clearly staged, but plenty of it is ambiguous. As Vice reported last year, with much of this material “it can be hard to even identify whether someone has been victimized.” On message boards like The Voyeur Forum, videos are frequently presented, pretty believably, as the real deal. One user has posted videos of women in changing rooms — he says he films them secretly under the door. The site even holds a monthly contest for original (meaning, authentic) content, and submissions are rejected if they are found to have ever appeared on another site.

Franks says there is no good data on the prevalence of voyeuristic porn that is truly filmed nonconsensually, although the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, where she is the legislative and tech policy director, has plans to begin tracking such cases.

That’s a difficult task. Most states outlaw photographic or video voyeurism to some degree, but, unlike what we typically think of as revenge porn, nonconsensual voyeur porn is hardly ever linked to the subject’s name. There is no effort to destroy the victim’s reputation or humiliate them in front of family and friends. Quite the contrary — the voyeur wants to share his “catch” without getting caught. In one thread on The Voyeur Forum, a poster is excoriated for including the woman’s first and last name. “What kind of a fucking asshole are you to put her name out there like that? You can ruin someone’s life and career, not to mention putting this site in jeopardy,” writes one user.

Without an identifying link, the victims of nonconsensual voyeur porn are unlikely to ever find out that they have been targeted. News reports on voyeurism typically revolve around a hidden camera that is discovered or a man found creeping by a window, not a video stumbled across online. After all, how many victims happen to also be regulars on voyeur message boards?

The message boards also serve to help keep voyeurism better hidden, as commenters frequently swap tips. In a post on The Voyeur Forum, one man writes, “My local Target store has a single changing room that men and women share. It also has about an 18″ gap at the bottom of the door (no gaps at the bottom of the walls though),” he said. “The Rue21 by me has about a 12″ gap below the door and walls that go to the floor. But the ladies shopping there are pretty hot.” A thread on Amateur Voyeur Forum explores good places to capture women peeing in public. They also share more technical information, like how a camera disguised as a keychain can be used to snoop under dressing room doors, or how miniature cameras can be hidden in shampoo bottles.

“Now that surreptitious photography and video recording is cheap, easy, and often impossible to detect … anyone can engage in intimate surveillance, and anyone can be a victim of it,” said Franks. She points out that there’s an “entire industry devoted to making it easier to take photos and videos secretly,” including everything from pen cameras to iPhone apps for stealthy photo-taking.

And, beyond just helping each other to perfect their voyeurism skills, message board regulars encourage each other to keep going. In a thread on The Voyeur Forum from the alleged dressing room peeper, commenters are generous with their virtual backslaps and fist-pumping. “Fantastic work! Stay safe and stay generous!” enthuses one commenter. They caution each other to stay safe and not get caught, but, of course, to always continue. Prolific posters are told that they’re legendary and, indeed, their videos can be found across the web, including on tube sites, with their message board handles attached.

Eventually, Roger decided to back away from his message board fame. “On a sadder note, I think this will be my last video upload in this thread. I’m retiring from peeping and might move on to up skirts or something else,” he wrote one day. Fellow commenters asked him why — was he caught, was everything OK? — and mourned his departure. “I’m still going to do it, i’m just not going to post anymore videos of it,” he explained. “The problem is my morality is getting in the way. I started feeling bad about spreading these around the net and in turn it lost all of it’s fun for me.”

But, just over a year later, Roger was back in the same thread with another video — and then another, and another.

The new season of Dark Net — an eight-part docuseries developed and produced by Vocativ — airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.