Being a Witness: On Voyeurism and the Erotic Thrill Of Watching

photo by Audra Wist

My sexuality has never been a mysterious force guiding my life in one way or another. My sexuality has always felt natural yet systematic — a product of an intellectual curiosity. This may sound anti-glamorous, but in my experience, by investigating the systems that are at play during a sexual encounter we are able to better understand our own likes or dislikes and we are empowered to voice those things in a constructive way. In tinkering with our naughtiness, we are figuring it out, its complacency or fervor, impulse or calculated-ness, and so forth. In general, I’m a watcher. I like to observe and get results — figure out what is happening. A form of active voyeurism.

When Autre asked me to write about my own experiences with sex and BDSM, my first thought was “this might be boring” or at the very least come off as overzealous like some three-ring sexual circus diary of a sex fiend — something unsavory. I get in a bind over sex because I care for it and want to do right by it, not exploit it (though, note to self: write about exploitation soon). Of course, sexuality by nature is a generally un-boring topic, but in my experience discussing the often cold ways I see sexuality functioning can be less than sumptuous. What is at stake for me is agency. I’m interested in how we occupy sexualities, why we do things, and how we do things — where we hold power — but also in the unabashed letting-it-rip quality of the encounter. It’s a delicate balance. Despite my need to analyze and pick apart topics, I find that we never make it fully back around to desire, the squirmy thing that can’t be contained. I am never quite able to pin it down or put my finger on it (so to speak) and that is the real beauty of it. 

I wrote to a friend recently, I feel like a scientist at times, with my work and sexuality — I am running tests, recording results. Not literally, of course, but playing with bodies and ideas and desires and seeing what sticks, what I like and what I don’t like — the ultimate overseer of my own sexuality. Over the years, I’ve found that a constructive way for me to examine my own interests is to be the active voyeur.

"Flipping my roles, cuckolding is a favorite. To have someone watch me fuck is an honor and a privilege yet enormously humiliating and/or exciting for them. I am enjoying myself thoroughly while you watch and pine."

Sometimes at night, I hear my roommate next door fucking her guy. I’m lying in bed reading or just falling asleep and I wonder: “Is she pegging him or is he fucking her?” I doze off with a grin on my face. They usually crack the door open just a bit, letting sound leak out without any real visibility of their encounter. It’s a delightful experience of hearing and not seeing and I encourage their semi-public fucking.

When I am able to view an otherwise private show, my natural task-master comes forward and I direct the production, enjoying white-hatting the affair. You suck his cock, you lick her nipples, you fuck her like this, and so forth. I have the figurative clipboard and they are playing by my rules. I’m the coach, intimately engaged in the game by standing on the sidelines watching the blissful win, my players scoring big.

Flipping my roles, cuckolding is a favorite. To have someone watch me fuck is an honor and a privilege yet enormously humiliating and/or exciting for them. I am enjoying myself thoroughly while you watch and pine. I could certainly do the whole hot wife thing, but I favor the role of hot-Domme NSA who will never call you again.

I frequently joke with friends: invite me over, I’ll watch you fuck. They nervously laugh, but they know I am serious and that I will bring extra lube, a towel, and a bottle of Blanc de Blanc for the event.

I like to refer to each player in the voyeuristic scene as such: the victim, the tyrant, and the witness (terms borrowed from Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation). As the witness, we can be the person on display who is being objectified with an arena staked out for us. We have freedom in visual pleasure to soak up what is before us. If we are the tyrant, we get the dual pleasure of watching our doing unfold and watching someone's reactions to us. The victim is well, self-explanatory. The victim has all the fun.

But somehow I’m always fond of the watcher, the witness. The titillating experience of the demonstration — when we hear that we are about to watch something — is that we feel excitement of what’s to come. The thrill of occupying the position of the voyeur and being able to watch others engage. I’ve always had an interest in watching or looking too long. We all have that sort of impulse to watch. When we pass a car crash on the highway, it is difficult not to crane our necks and watch as the medics reach into the crumpled vehicle to pull out a real body — our everyday peep show. While I would argue that there are good things to watch and bad things to watch, the common titillation of watching somebody's sexual something right before you is a powerful experience. Maggie Nelson talks about this in The Art of Cruelty — “when do we look and when do we turn away?” Perhaps it’s that in between uncertainty that is the most palpable feeling derived from being a voyeur, being involved but also not too close. Or perhaps, the question in the context I’m describing is how and why do we look and how and why do we turn away? What are we being confronted with in a particular context that affords voyeurism, and why is it that we are intrigued? Sexuality should be interrogated.

Audra Wist is an artist, writer, social commentator and provocateur - she is also an avid collector of erotica and erotic ephemera. She is also a professional dominatrix based in Los Angeles specializing in all sorts of punishment and humiliation. As Autre's sex editor at-large she will be covering all sorts of naughty content in the realm of sex and sexuality – from masturbatorial musings to photographic editorials. Follow Autre on instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE