On Watchers & Watching

Black cat watching fish bowl. Source: Creative Commons / WikiCommons

Black Cat Watching Fish at the Bowl by Theophile Steinlen, (1898). Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A while ago, I wrote a post called On Prowess. As I did, I found myself having to rein in on a number of other tangents, most notably two – my love of dominant partners, (though I myself am dominant) and, far more central to this post, voyeurism, or watching people and how it relates to control and domination and curiosity and sexual interest.

Voyeurism operates differently for everyone, I suspect, but for me, it feeds into why I love to write. You see, I create these characters and then let them work on each other while I record and watch. It’s an immensely satisfying arrangement – one that I’ll admit I enjoy in real life as much as I do on the page.

But then I listened to a podcast that made me realize that my relationship to voyeurism and, conversely, exhibitionism, is a bit more complicated than I’d originally thought. On the (It Girl. Rag Doll) episode titled, “Flashers and Peeping Toms,” Molly Moore and Harper Eliot spent an hour examining exhibitionism and voyeurism from a variety of different angles. After listening to that conversation, I realized that, while I don’t consider myself to be an exhibitionist, I do like knowing that I’m being watched, but only under certain conditions. So what the hell does that mean?

Before I could even begin to try to figure that out, I had to take a closer look at what it is that I love about voyeurism. That wasn’t terribly difficult – I’m a people watcher in all aspects of my life, whether I’m waiting in line for coffee or telling a partner to strip for me. I love fleeting moments and human detail. I love watching an old gentleman put his hand on his obviously adored wife’s back as he guides her through a door just as much as I love watching my partner come…okay, maybe not quite as much. But you know what I mean. The point is that I love those fleeting moments; those moments take you beyond what a person is doing to how they feel about it, even when they aren’t consciously aware of it themselves. Those moments make an experience singular and distinct.

There’s a cause and effect element to voyeurism, as well. My presence has an effect on the people being watched, because my presence, (or the presence of any audience), creates a heightened circumstance for the observed. It turns up the volume on their experience, which, in turn, makes it all the more vibrant, dynamic and sexy to watch. I think it’s that element of cause and effect that ties into my own conditional enjoyment of being watched.

One of my oldest sexual fantasies was of my partner being hidden away, watching, while I fucked someone else. In the fantasy, I knew my partner was there, but he didn’t know that I was aware of his presence. What always, always got me off was the knowledge that watching me get off with someone else was driving my partner mad – that he was desperate to join us but couldn’t do so without giving himself away. It was the fact of his desire, (ie: my effect), that turned me on, rather than the fact of being watched.

Looking back on it now, that fantasy is packed with my psychology and my relationship to power, dominance and sex. In other words, my need to cause an effect. As with that fantasy, being watched has never turned me on in and of itself. It’s the fact that watching me is turning the watcher on that makes me smile like the cat that got the cream. It’s the feedback loop that I want – he, (or she), watches and desires, I know this and want more, and so forth….

Does this make me an exhibitionist as well as a voyeur? I’ve no idea. All I know is that the idea of being watched by strangers does nothing for me, just as watching strangers engage sexually is never as intimate or powerful as watching people that I know. Being watched is, for me, an incredibly contextual thing, dependent entirely on who is watching and why, and always on whether or not I want them to want me. I have to want, very specifically, their desire.

It might be tied to the fact that I’m not generally concerned about being “caught” having sex. Aside from feeling a bit smug and pleased with myself, being caught or watched by someone I don’t know doesn’t ruffle me…but if I were to get caught by someone I do know and find out that they liked it? Well, now that’s fucking hot.

So, what does all that mean? I’m honestly not sure. The bottom line is that I want to be desired and I want to have an impact. As Harper Eliot and Molly Moore pointed out, there is something incredibly powerful about being desired, and my enjoyment of being watched is, to some level, proof of how true that is for me. I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I am with that, but there it is.

In the end, it’s far cleaner to set characters in motion so I can watch and record what they do, just as it’s a much simpler pleasure to watch people I care about sink deep into a sexual experience… Life for me as a voyeur is a fairly peaceful, comfortable, black and white affair. If I claim the title of voyeur and ignore the rest, I don’t have to confront my own massively ambiguous relationship with being watched. And yet it’s still there, teetering on the edge of my sexuality. That’s not the most comfortable thing, but then, the ambiguous, shadowy parts of ourselves rarely are. I’m  just going to have to get used to the fact that I am, apparently, both the goldfish in the bowl and the cat that’s watching it.


  1. Malin, I love how you put this. I’m not quite sure I realized this before you wrote it, but writing about characters does indeed feel a lot like being a voyeur into their private lives! This makes total sense about why it is so much fun. 🙂

    However, the part about knowing someone else is getting off when they watch you, that really resonated. I have never been watched during sex before — that I know of — and I’m not entirely sure how I would feel about it, but knowing it was arousing to the watcher would definitely make a difference. That would be sexy, it would make me feel sexier in the moment.

    Your candor in these posts is so refreshing, and… well, I feel a bit like a voyeur just having had this peek into your mind, one you offered up for us all to see. Thank you for that. Thank you also for your always enlightening and informative delvings into these topics. You always manage to trigger ways of thinking about things that I hadn’t considered before.


    1. Lace, thank you. That is quite possibly the loveliest comment I’ve ever received on this blog, and one of the best compliments too.

      I think we’re all wanting to understand ourselves more clearly – all the better if that understanding can be communicated in a way that creates connections with other people. I *love* that what i wrote resonated with you, and i love that you shared your own thoughts and experience here. It makes me happier than any other response i could have gotten with this post, so thank you for that. You just made my night.

  2. Oops, I didn’t realise I had posted anything. I wasn’t finished! (That’ll teach me to use my phone for commenting on blogs!) Let me continue:

    I enjoyed your post here too – it’s very thought provoking. Like I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about voyeurism & exhibitionism since I heard that episode of IGRD, and while I have much to work out about myself, I have *such* an urge right now to experience the sort of context-dependent desire from others you talk about here.

    Also, this is the first time I’ve read your blog. I like it!

    1. That makes me so happy to hear! That episode of IGRD was insanely enlightening for me. Until I heard it, my thoughts on exhibition as it relates to my experiences were muddled at best. It sort of forced me to consider all those little aspects that never quite fit. Thanks so much for finding your way over, and especially for commenting. I’m always interested in other people’s experiences and I really appreciate your sharing your thoughts.

      Ps – for what it’s worth, that sort of context-dependent desire is wonderful. I hope you get to experience it for yourself soon.

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