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Scopophilia or scoptophilia, from Greek "love of looking", is deriving pleasure from looking. As an expression of sexuality, it refers to sexual pleasure derived from looking at erotic objects: erotic photographs, pornography, naked bodies, etc.


The term was introduced to translate Freud's Schaulust, or pleasure in seeing.[1] Freud considered pleasure in looking to be a regular partial instinct in childhood,[2] which might be sublimated into interest in art, or alternatively become fixated into what the Rat man called "a burning and tormenting curiosity to see the female body".[3]

Freud thought that inhibition of scopophilia might lead to actual disturbances of vision;[4] other analysts have suggested that it might lead to a retreat from concrete objects into a world of abstractions.[5]

Scopophilia was developed in the psychoanalytic theorizing of Otto Fenichel, with special reference to identification.[6] Fenichel maintained that "a child who is looking for libidinous purposes...wants to look at an object in order to 'feel along with him'".[7] He also explored how looking could substitute for acting in those anxious to avoid guilt.[8]

Jacques Lacan subsequently drew on Sartre's theory of the gaze to link scopophilia with the apprehension of the other: "the gaze is this object lost and suddenly refound in the conflagration of shame, by the introduction of the other".[9] Lacan privileged scopophilia in his theory of how desire is captured by the imaginary image of the other;[10] other French analysts have emphasised how the discovery of sexual difference in childhood, and the accompanying sense of not knowing subsequently fuels the scopophilic drive.[11]


Building on Lacan's work,[12] scopophilia was used by cinema psychoanalysts of the 1970s to describe pleasures (often considered pathological) and other unconscious processes occurring in spectators when they watch films.[13] Voyeurism and the male gaze have been seen as central elements in such mainstream cinematic viewing,[14] and are most famously discussed in Laura Mulvey's influential 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema".[15]

Others, however, have objected to the element of scapegoating in such an analysis of the variegated pleasures of movie-viewing.[16]


Critical race theorists, such as bell hooks,[17] David Marriott,[18] and Shannon Winnubst,[19] have also taken up scopophilia and the scopic drive as a mechanism to describe racial "other-ing" (c.f. scopophobia).

In their theories scopophilia is a question of fixing the appearance and identity of the other through the gaze. So cultural scopophilia restricts the visible representations of racial identity that it allows.[20]

Literary examples[edit]

  • The Satyricon of Gaius Petronius Arbiter is pervaded with scopophilia, as when a priestess of Priapus was "the first to put an inquisitive eye to a crack she had naughtily opened, and spy on their play with prurient eagerness".[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1994) p. 194
  2. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (PFL 7) p. 109-10
  3. ^ Quoted in Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (PFL 9) p. 41-2
  4. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (PFL 10) p. 112-3
  5. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 177
  6. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Scoptophilic Instinct and Identification (1953) ISBN 0-393-33741-3
  7. ^ Fenichel, Theory p. 71
  8. ^ Fenichel, Theory p. 348
  9. ^ Lacan, p. 183
  10. ^ Jacques Lacan, Television (1990) p. 86
  11. ^ Schneiderman, Stuart (1980). Returning to Freud: Clinical Psychoanalysis in the School of Lacan. Yale University Press. p. 224. ISBN 9780300039320. 
  12. ^ Jane Mills, "The Money Shot" (2001) ISBN 1-86403-142-5, p. 223
  13. ^ John Thornton Caldwell, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television (1995) ISBN 0-8135-2164-5, p. 343
  14. ^ J. Childers/G. Hentzi, The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (1995) pp. 316-17
  15. ^ Mulvey, Laura (2009). Visual and Other Pleasures. England: Palgrave MacMillan. pp. 14–27. ISBN 978-1-4039-9246-8. 
  16. ^ Miklitsch, Robert (2006). Roll over Adorno: Critical Theory, Popular Culture, Audiovisual Media. State University of New York Press. pp. 93–94. ISBN 978-0791467336. 
  17. ^ Bell Hooks, "Eating the Other", 2006 ISBN 1-4288-1629-1
  18. ^ David Marriott, "Bordering On: The Black Penis", (1996), Textual Practice 10(1), pp. 9-28.
  19. ^ Shannon Winnubst, "Is the Mirror Racist?: Interrogating the Space of Whiteness", (2006) ISBN 0-253-21830-6
  20. ^ Todd W. Reeser, Masculinities in Theory (2011) pp. 164-165
  21. ^ Petronius, The Satyricon (Penguin 1986) p. 50 and p. 188

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]