Voyeur websites under scrutiny by police and public

One photo shows a woman in a low-cut top picking up spilled change. Another shows a teenager’s thong rising up her backside.

Colleen Westendorf, a spokesperson for SlutWalk, views such photography on the Internet as harassment of women.

“Voyeurism affects women in the same ways all forms of violence, harassment and sexism affect women,” Westendorf said. “Women are denied ownership and agency of their own bodies.”

Cheap, portable cameras have made it easy to take photos of people without them knowing they’re being watched. But anonymous Internet forums have given voyeurism a means of showcasing thousands of photos of unassuming women exposed to anonymous gazes.

On Oct. 11, a forum called CreepShots on the popular website Reddit was erased after threats that anonymous users would be publicly named. A blogger sparked outcry against the forum of voyeur photos when she revealed a Toronto user had posted unsettling advice on how to act unassuming and not get caught.

Reddit users have notified the Toronto Police Service about the forums, but it’s unclear how much TPS can do. Canadian law defines voyeurism as recording images that violate a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” and that the images are taken for sexual reasons. Const. Tony Vella speaks for the TPS.

“Anyone can take a picture of someone in public,” he said. “But if you do it for a sexual purpose, that’s where it crosses the line.”

Proving sexual intent means that not all voyeurs are charged. Toronto police lay voyeurism charges roughly once a month.

Const. Vella said that voyeurism is not a consistent problem, but it does occur. He cited a number of recent incidents. In October, a man was arrested at Sheppard subway station after following women up an escalator with a camcorder rolled into a newspaper. In September, a Dufferin Grove woman reported catching a man who climbed a ladder to videotape her second-floor window. And in August, a woman caught a young man sliding an iPhone into her washroom stall at U of T.

While outraged bloggers have advocated confronting voyeurs in public, Vella said it’s best to let police investigate.

“If you see someone acting suspicious, we need our officers there as soon as possible,” he said, adding that investigations can find anything from a consensual art project to finding incriminating evidence on a voyeur’s memory card.

For Westendorf, law enforcement can be the best option, but she notes that in some cases, it may be empowering to confront a voyeur if the victim feels safe.

“Not everyone feels safe accessing police services, and in some instances, if they may doubt accounts or treat harassment lightly, they definitely have the power to make the experience worse,” she said.

Meanwhile, other copycat forums have been launched to replace CreepShots since its closure.

Westendorf believes that education and community-based initiatives, such as the recent Take Back The Block rallies, are the best ways to combat voyeurism.

“It is important for us to remain focused on combating the systemic, cultural issues that perpetuate this kind of behaviour, and to look out for one another on our streets and in our communities,” she said.