According to Collins English Dictionary, “If you refer to someone as a Peeping Tom, you mean that they secretly watch other people, especially when those people are taking their clothes off.”
Most states have enacted some form of a “Peeping Tom” law, which originated with the Lady Godiva, who supposedly rode down the streets of Coventry, England, naked in protest of high taxes. She asked the townspeople to close their eyes or turn away and not look at her naked body, but one man, a tailor, couldn’t help but look. He became known as “Peeping Tom.”
Setting the legend of Lady Godiva aside, most, if not all states have enacted their own version of a Peeping Tom law, which basically makes it illegal to secretly view, take photographs, or film someone while they are undressing or partially naked without their consent. While the exact language varies from state to state, generally it’s illegal to:
- Secretly view a person as they undress or while they’re naked if they don’t know they are being watched.
- Secretly view someone as they undress or while they are naked and the victim is in a place that he or she should reasonably expect privacy.
If the individual takes their bathing suit off on a beach and people nearby can’t help but notice the nudity, they are not breaking the law because they are in a public place. On the other hand, if a woman is using a restroom in a bathroom at a restaurant and the manager created a small peephole so he could watch her use the bathroom, that would be a whole other story and he would be breaking the law.
What Does California’s Law Say?
California’s Peeping Tom law is covered under Section 647(j)(1) of the California Penal Code. Under Sec. 647(j)(1) it describes what actions are illegal under the state’s Peeping Tom law:
“A person who looks through a hole or opening, into, or otherwise views, by means of any instrumentality, including, but not limited to, a periscope, telescope, binoculars, camera, motion picture camera, camcorder, or mobile phone, the interior of a bedroom, bathroom, changing room, fitting room, dressing room, or tanning booth, or the interior of any other area in which the occupant has a reasonable expectation of privacy, with the intent to invade the privacy of a person or persons inside.”
The above paragraph does not paint the whole picture. California’s Peeping Tom law also makes it illegal to secretly tape people, secretly photograph people, secretly record people electronically, etc. without the person’s knowledge and with the intent to arouse the actor or assist in sexual gratification.