Peep Shows

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Peep Shows

Peep shows, or images, scenes, or scenarios viewed through a hole, partition, magnifying glass, or other division of space, have their origin in children's toys, three-dimensional art, and other methods of manipulating space and perspective, such as those used in Japanese rock gardens (Balzer 1998). Contemporary peep shows also rely on voyeuristic appeal but are not as innocent as their juvenile precursors. Peep shows in the past often depicted scenes or scenarios of modern life, whereas contemporary peep shows typically depict pornographic scenes intended for adult audiences.


Although some scholars have cited the emergence of the peep show as occurring as early as 1437 in Leon Battista Alberti's perspective art, in which transparent colored glass was backlit to project or distort images, others note that voyeuristic peep shows emerged in the mid-seventeenth century with traveling exhibitions. In those models intricate miniature scenes and stages were constructed inside a box with a viewing hole, and in those miniature scenes various elements could be manipulated to create a three-dimensional scenario in which figures could move. The boxes varied in size, scope, and detail, and many of them were circulated as exhibitions, often referred to as "raree shows," that were popular as public displays of private entertainment. Smaller peep shows were constructed in the eighteenth century as children's toys that, not unlike kaleidoscopes, were hollow tubes or boxes that contained images that were used to create three-dimensional scenarios that sometimes had moving parts (Balzer 1998).

A precursor to the peep show artist, the Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi, created interactive perspective art in which painted panels with silver backgrounds were viewed through a peep hole and reflected in a mirror. Similarly, in the late seventeenth century Samuel van Hoogstraten created peep show boxes with one open side that allowed light to enter miniature interior views of homes. Around 1730 the artist Martin Engelbrecht created miniature theaters that were small boxes into which could be inserted cards that, viewed together through the aperture, created three-dimensional scenes. Early Chinese and Japanese perspective art also developed as precursors to modern peep shows (Balzer 1998).

Other early inventions, such as the camera obscura, which was popularized by Giovanni Battista della Porta in 1558, were precursors to the modern voyeuristic peep show. In the camera obscura (literally "dark room") observers could watch and, to some degree, participate in live scenes that were "projected" through a hole in the wall of the darkened room and onto the wall opposite the aperture. Such rooms were popular into the mid-nineteenth century, when in some cases the actors involved in the camera obscura were replaced by live actors in private rooms, or "secure chambers," where sexual scenes were acted out. Correspondingly, the old box and cardboard peep show predecessors began showing pornographic scenes in the place of commonplace cultural scenarios. As precursors to moving film, devices with manual cranks that flipped through a series of images on cards were developed to create early pornographic movies. Such shows often appeared at bars and cafés and could be viewed for a minimal charge.


Once film technology advanced enough to allow consumers to buy personal film and video players, crankable peep shows and peep boxes were replaced with viewing rooms in which one could look at short pornographic films in private booths that were reminiscent of secure chambers. Less often used in bars and commercial consumer spaces and more often built into burgeoning sex shops, these modern viewing rooms require a viewer to purchase coins or tokens that are fed into a slot that keeps a movie playing or an aperture open.

In private viewing booths, as in the camera obscura, peep shows also may feature live action in which performers—most commonly women—strip or act out scenarios on command either alone or with others for the pleasure of the user. In such shows a glass partition typically separates the viewer from the performer, and coins or bills are used to keep the curtain between the two open; alternatively, the viewer can pay the performer directly for the show. Traditionally, viewing rooms that display pornographic films or live performers are dark rooms in which viewers can passively watch, masturbate, have sexual encounters with other viewers, or in some cases issue requests that are acted out. Decorated with little more than paper towels or tissue, trash cans, and sometimes sanitizers, private viewing rooms have been relegated to less mainstream venues such as sex shops and strip clubs.

A more recent development in the peep show viewing booth is the "buddy booth." Stemming from the use of "glory holes"—apertures between private booths that allow users to perform more anonymous sex acts on each other—buddy booths typically are made of two adjacent private booths that share a wall with a large window or partition covered by curtains. In those booths the users can watch each other masturbate or strip without necessarily having to pay the higher price of a professional peep show performer.

Publications such as Delacoste and Alexander's Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry have brought peep show performers into a more academic arena for study (Lerum 2004). Studies show conflicting effects of peep show and sex industry establishments on the surrounding area (Linz, Paul, and Yao 2006; McCleary and Meeker 2006), but it is clear that peep shows tap into a pervasive cultural force.


Balzer, Richard. 1998. Peepshows: A Visual History. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Barton, Bernadette. 2001. "Queer Desire in the Sex Industry." Sexuality and Culture 5(4): 3-27.

Delacoste, Frédérique, and Priscilla Alexander, eds. 1998. Sex Work: Writings By Women in the Sex Industry. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Lerum, Kari. 2004. "Defining the Emotional Contours of Exotic Dance." Sexuality and Culture 8(1): 44-52.

Linz, Daniel; Bryant Paul; and Mike Z. Yao. 2006. "Peep Show Establishments, Police Activity, Public Place, and Time: A Study of Secondary Effects in San Diego, California." Journal of Sex Research 43(2): 182-193.

McCleary, Richard, and James W. Meeker. 2006. "Do Peep Shows 'Cause' Crime? A Response to Linz, Paul, and Yao." Journal of Sex Research 43(2): 194-196.

                                           Jeremy C. Justus