October 2006
Voyeurs and Exhibitionists

Peeping toms go hi-tech

Technology has unwittingly enhanced the activities of voyeurs in the Philippines and taken their “game” into an entirely new level.

A series of voyeuristic snapshots

AND YOU thought you’d already seen it all. From someone who looks a lot like Piolo Pascual in bed with a man, to the diminutive Mahal giggling away in all her naked glory in a palanggana (washbasin), scandal videos featuring celebrities have been multiplying so fast in the last few years, they have been shocking less and less people. But what if the star of the latest sex clip being passed around through cell phones or in cyberspace was a neighbor, a classmate, or a relative? Or perhaps even you?

With the proliferation of all sorts of video-recording gadgets — from mobile phones and PDAs with video capability, to digital cameras, to handheld camcorders, to webcams — that’s not as farfetched as it seems. In fact, a growing crop of sleazy skinflicks making the rounds these days features ordinary folk. Most of them were apparently willing enough to be recorded. Yet there were also those who had no idea someone else was watching while they were baring skin and engaging in intimate acts.

Worse, modern technology is not only affording the peeping toms among us the sophisticated devices to intrude into places that people once thought were private, especially their bedrooms. It is also allowing voyeurs to distribute their captured materials while maintaining their anonymity with the aid of file-hosting sites like Megaupload, RapidShare, FileCargo, and TurboUpload.

So far, the amount of amateur sex-video clips has been ample enough to burn onto an entire DVD. An enterprising fellow who compiled one such collection containing 90 videos (including nude and nipple-slip photos of local celebrities) even sold it on Ebay for $46, from a starting bid price of only $2.24. The cheap bootleg VCD compilations now being sold on sidewalks could be generations of that copy.

It’s a development that’s upsetting even those who were willing to let a camera in on the action in the first place. After all, it’s one thing to know one can watch a replay of a bedroom frolic with one’s partner, and another for a private moment to be on display among strangers.

Palmer Mallari, executive officer at the Anti-Fraud and Computer Crimes Division of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), isn’t happy either. He knows the problem is worsening, but cases of cybervoyeurism have proved to be difficult to solve. For one thing, victims — usually women — are often reluctant to come forward largely because of sheer embarrassment. And when they finally get the courage to file a complaint, says Mallari, they tend to drop it after a time for one reason or another.

The NBI officer also suspects that cell phones are the most common tools of the trade of the culprits, although he confesses that he has yet to receive a complaint where such gadgets were involved. But he notes, “Most phones now have features capable of sending and receiving files, photographs, and videos. This has made the spread and circulation of materials very easy for owners of cellular phones.”

Indeed, one sex-video scandal last year featured a cell phone and, allegedly, former reality-show host Ethel Booba and her then boyfriend. Both parties denied they were the ones in the short but steamy video, but one of the most popular theories among voyeurs and showbiz gossips was that the clip had been taken by the boyfriend on his phone, which he later had repaired in a shop in Greenhills. From there the video leaped into cyberspace.

Less talked about but perhaps more scandalous is the rising number of similar videos involving students, some of whom are still wearing their uniforms in the clips. At least one had a young woman whose school skirt identified her as still being in high school — a quite disheartening confirmation that teenagers, with their raging hormones, are indeed engaging in sex early in the Internet age.

PEEPING, OF course, is as old as antiquity. As the tale goes, the term “peeping tom” originated from England around 1040, when Lady Godiva went around the streets of Coventry riding naked on a horse, in protest of the tax imposed by her husband, the Earle of Mercia. One man defied the order to stay indoors and peeped through his window, earning for himself the tag of “Peeping Tom,” as well as the punishment of being blinded and branded.

But indications are what is happening here is not the kind of video voyeurism that is common in the United States and which is often associated with stalkers who set up surveillance equipment to surreptitiously watch their victims 24 hours a day.

Apparently, many of the local peep-show clips were shot with the full knowledge of both partners. As if playing out their exhibitionist fantasies, some of the videos even have the girls gamely posing first in the nude, and then taking a shower, masturbating, or giving their partners oral sex. Some also look like they were taped in the presence of their school barkada. The venues vary, with the action happening in boarding houses, motels, hospital rooms, a cybercafé, and even inside a Honda CRV.

Whether because of plain naïvete or carelessness, the women in the videos were probably unmindful of the possibility that the cell phones where the intimate files were being stored could get lost or stolen and land in the sweaty hands of perverts. Or that their boyfriends or lovers were cads capable of doing an audiovisual kiss-and-tell.

Sociologist Sarah Raymundo admits that some female students have confided to her that they allowed themselves to be filmed having sex with their boyfriends. She says she is surprised that they are not bothered at all with their decision.

“‘It’s just a camera,’ they would say. But there’s a problem with treating gadgets with neutrality, when technologies are reified, as if there are no social relations involved,” points out Raymundo. “There’s always somebody behind the camera, there’s always a motive.”

But there have also been several instances where intimate moments were filmed without the knowledge of those concerned — like in the case of university students staying in boarding houses in Cebu and Tagbilaran, where copulating couples were videotaped allegedly by the dormitory owners through a peephole in the wall. Others have been victimized through two-way mirrors installed in some motel and hotel rooms.

The security camera installed inside the elevator of a bank in Ortigas, meanwhile, was witness to a libidinous male employee’s inability to contain his urges. It recorded him voraciously kissing his girlfriend and groping her breasts. Somehow, that recording wound up in the Net.

Then there’s the Valenzuela nursing student who is featured in a sex video now also in cybercirculation. She has since said she was forced to drink liquor and then raped. Yet another disturbing video clip has a coed, visibly intoxicated and barely conscious, being forced to give blowjobs to a group of males who appear to be her classmates.

SEX VIDEOS, however, are not the only new “toys” being enjoyed and passed around by cyberpeeps. In adult mailing lists hosted by Yahoo! Groups and Google Groups, modern-day voyeurs are having a field day posting and exchanging compromising photos of women of all races captured from webcams, secretly taken using mobile phones or digicams, or scanned from girly magazines.

The shared images range from the innocent-looking I.D. or full-body poses to up-skirt and down-blouse shots, to women donning sexy swimsuits or lingerie. There are women either stripped to the waist or butt naked. Some are shown performing lascivious and even fetishistic acts. There are also images of women undressing in fitting rooms and peeing in public toilets, which should be fair warning to everyone that hidden cameras in these places are not just the stuff of urban legends.

But there are some voyeurs who are bolder and quite cheeky. Just recently, a female commuter at the MRT caught a man taking a sneak peek of her breasts using his cell phone. He merely smirked when the woman gave him a stern look. He also nonchalantly showed the down-blouse picture to his male companion.

But the woman loudly recounted the incident to her boyfriend on — surprise, surprise — her cell phone, embarrassing the voyeurs and alerting the other MRT riders. She then filed a complaint with the station manager, who endorsed it, along with the photos she took of the two men, to the central station. The MRT management promised to post a notice with the photos of the two men to serve as a warning to female passengers.

Mallari could only wish there were more like-minded women. He says his team has so far handled only less than 10 cases involving sex videos that were either recorded with full knowledge by both parties (but later ceased to be a “private tape”) or with one party unaware that a camera was on. Only three of the cases are now pending in court; the rest, says Mallari, had the women-complainants eventually “losing interest.”

“When the victims are persistent, we’ve even gone to the extent of confiscating the voyeurs’ computers,” says the visibly frustrated NBI officer.

But he admits that law enforcers face a blank wall when the uploading is done through a cybercafé. They might be able to trace the specific Internet café where offensive video was uploaded, but then identifying the culprit is difficult since the establishments have no record of their users. “That is why we’re pushing for regulation that would require cybercafés to log their users so we can identify them,” says Mallari.

Among those he also eyes to be obliged to keep proper users’ logs are Internet service providers (ISPs), phone companies, and phone dealers to facilitate the identification of suspects and for evidentiary purposes. In the meantime, the NBI has managed to acquire software that Mallari says will be useful in the examination of SIM cards and mobile phones.