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Scopophilia or scoptophilia (from Greek σκοπέω skopeō, "look to, examine" and φιλία philia, "tendency toward"), 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 looking.[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]
  • In Secret Sexualities, Ian McCormick notes the inter-relationship of public and private, and of the open and the secret, as features that constitute transgressive or forbidden sexualities. In this respect, there is an example from Fanny's observation of two sodomites in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749): 'at length I observed a paper patch of the same colour as the wainscot, which I took to conceal some flaw; but then it was so high, that I was obliged to stand upon a chair to reach it, which I did as soft as possible, and, with a point of a bodkin, soon pierced it, and opened myself espial room sufficient. And now, applying my eye close, I commanded the room perfectly, and could see my two young sparks romping and pulling one another about, entirely, to my imagination, in frolic and innocent play.' [22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1994) p. 194
  2. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (PFL 7) pp. 109–10
  3. ^ Quoted in Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (PFL 9) pp. 41–2
  4. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (PFL 10) pp. 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. 164–5
  21. ^ Petronius, The Satyricon (Penguin 1986) p. 50 and p. 188
  22. ^ McCormick, Ian. Secret Sexualities: A Sourcebook of 17th and 18th Century Writing. Routledge, 1997. pp. 1-11; p. 158. See also George E. Haggerty. "Keyhole testimony: witnessing sodomy in the eighteenth century." The Eighteenth Century 44, no. 2/3 (2003): 167-182.

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